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Is Raymond Blanc Britain's nicest chef?

I love chefs' memoirs, though not in a good way. Just as one can't help peeking at a car crash, generally there's a sick fascination in the musings of the great artists of the kitchen, as you'd expect with any paranoid egomaniac who works mad hours with no daylight and easy access to alcohol. That said, I wouldn't recommend Marco Pierre White's White Slave. There's far too much sex with the customers.

Britain's favourite French cook, Raymond Blanc, has just published his A Taste of my Life (these books usually have cheesy titles - Michel Roux's was called Life is a Menu). Blanc is no White; nor indeed could he be considered an Anthony Bourdain, the American chef whose cocaine, hard rock and knife-fights-at-the-grill-station memoir, Kitchen Confidential, was the first and best book in the Bad Boy Chef genre.

Blanc is not bad at all. In fact he's probably the nicest man in celebrity chefdom, as viewers of BBC Two's The Restaurant know. I doubt that any young commis chef has ever been branded with a hot palette knife in the kitchens of his Oxfordshire flagship, Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons. The very thought.

Too nice, perhaps - at least for others in the fraternity. They like to tease him. Blanc's 19-year quest, still fruitless, for a third Michelin star is one popular way to probe under his skin. Gordon Ramsay (autobiography title: Humble Pie) managed to get the mild-mannered Blanc to lose his temper recently by sending him an invitation to have Le Manoir featured on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, the show in which he takes on dire restaurants and saves them from bankruptcy. According to Ramsay, Blanc rang him up and called him a �putain� - which is pretty rude, but not as rude as Effing Gordon is all the time on TV.

I like Blanc. I've never met him and I've never been to Le Manoir, but he has a different style. He's avuncular and sweet on The Restaurant, while similar shows are cruel and patronising. His provincial chain, Brasserie Blanc, is unpretentious and good value in an area of restauranteering that is cursed by computerised cooking and infuriating rip-offs. His recipes are feasible, which is rare in posh chef books (there's one in the memoir for his mother's essence of tomato that I'm going to try as soon as there's an abundance of over-ripe ones again). And since his arrival in Britain 36 years ago, Blanc, in his quiet way, has done a lot to improve food throughout the country.

Some of his best stories concern the grim culinary landscape that he found when he first got here in 1972. He drove from France via Dover to Oxfordshire to take up a job as a waiter in a pub. The trip took three days, spent listening to Elton John on the car radio, and looking in increasing desperation for a bistro for lunch. Eventually he saw a red and white awning - the usual colours for such a place in France. Blanc went in and asked for the wine list. It was of course a Wimpy. He couldn't work out why there was a big red plastic tomato on the table. He ordered �battered fish�. It arrived and he stared at it. �In France I had seen fish gutted and grilled and fried and chopped up. But in all my life I had never seen a square fish!�

Unlike Marco Pierre White, Blanc does not throw customers out of his restaurant when he doesn't approve of their demands. His motto is: �Never say no.� And so, when an American ordered lobster in chocolate at Le Manoir, Blanc gritted his teeth and cooked the �aberration�. Caramelised, in a jus of Pineau des Charentes, vanilla essence and bitter chocolate with 80 per cent cocoa. I think that's a proper chef thing to do.

The customer, by the way, sent back a message of congratulation: �That was the best lobster in chocolate sauce I've ever eaten.� It never made the menu, though


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Tags: British Chef , Chef Jobs , French Chef , Michelin Chef , Raymond Blanc

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