The frying pan that changed my life… when a terrifying French chef battered me with it
You know, if it wasn’t for a giant chef with a fierce temper and a heavy frying pan, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He was a huge man and the hairs on his moustache bristled when he was furious, which was often, and I was a curious young waiter. We worked in a restaurant in Besanon, in the beautiful and rugged Franche- Comt region of France.
One day I tasted the giant’s sauce and said, ‘Chef, I wonder if this is a bit too salty.’ The frying pan, which was an extension of his fist, hit me hard in the face – whoosh and then whack! I fell, my jaw badly smashed.
No, he wasn’t particularly pleasant, but I am indebted to that chef because he changed my fortunes.
Shock: Raymond says that he moved to Britain when restaurant food was either frozen or came out of a jar
Soon afterwards the restaurant owner told me I couldn’t come back because I had upset the chef. However, he said he knew a restaurateur in England who would give me a job. So, when I had recovered, I crossed the Channel. My English was so poor it took me three days to drive to Oxford, or ‘Hoxfor’ as I called it. That was in 1972, and it was the turning point in my life.
It was unusual for a Frenchman to come here to work back then, when the food in Britain’s restaurants was so poor. My God, it was bad. This was the era of the prawn cocktail, when restaurant food was either frozen or came out of a jar.
The rivers of Britain were teeming with fresh trout, but at that first restaurant you could smell the fish man a mile down the road. But once I picked up a frying pan – and used it to cook rather than wallop people – I became quite a success.
On location: Raymond visiting Burgundy for the show
While I was never more than a waiter in France, I have made a name for myself as a chef in Britain and feel blessed to live here. At Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, my Michelin-starred restaurant in Oxfordshire, I have cooked for royalty, pop stars and geniuses from the worlds of art and literature. I even cooked for French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he visited England.
I’ve been back to France many times since the frying pan episode, but I had never cooked in a professional kitchen there until BBC2 asked me to become The Very Hungry Frenchman. For this new TV series, I would travel to five regions of France, take over a restaurant and cook the special dishes of that area.
My nerves were jangling though because the French have extremely high expectations. Would I find the best ingredients Would I mess up a dish Would I sully the name of Le Tresor Gastronomique De La France, a 19th-century, 400-page compilation listing all the regional specialities
I started in the enchanting, grapevine- covered landscape of Burgundy where the food – dishes such as beef bourguignon – is steeped in elegant wines. In Lyon I met up with my dear friend chef Paul Bocuse and indulged in the superb chocolate the city is famous for. I made a crumble with it and served it to my guests in a bouchon – a typical rustic Lyonnais restaurant. The French love British crumble.
Heading south, Provence provided Mediterranean sunshine and I was instantly reminded of my first visit, when I was 12 and went to see a friend who had moved there. It was like going to another country: the smell of fennel and lavender, the lazy sound of crickets, the constant blue sky – and the bustling market stalls laid out with lobster, octopus and squid.
RISE AND RISE OF RAYMOND
1949 Raymond is born in Besanon, France
1972 He arrives in England after leaving his hometown, where he was a waiter
1977 Opens Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire
1979 Le Manoir achieves its first Michelin star
1981 Starts Maison Blanc boulangerie & patisserie chain
1983 Le Manoir awarded its second Michelin star
1990 Blanc is named European Chef of the Year
1999 Voted Most Respected Chef in Great Britain by readers of Caterer And Hotelkeeper magazine
2009 Wins the Lifetime Achievement prize at the prestigious Catey Awards
When I returned this time I enjoyed Provenal specialities including brandade (a pure of salt cod) and the best bouillabaisse I’ve ever tasted – a glorious fish stew combines the flavours of the sea with the tastes of the land (tomatoes, olive oil, saffron, star anise, pastis or brandy). I drove to Alsace for hearty, wholesome dishes.
Years ago I came to this region intending to stay for a day and ended up staying a week. It was one long meal. After scouring the shops I found a female butcher with the finest pork, but I found my attention diverted from the pig – she was the most beautiful butcher I’ve ever seen.
Finally, I returned to Franche-Comt, the region where I was once a very hungry French little boy. This was where I discovered a passion for gastronomy as my mother’s helper and where I would roam the forests, foraging for everything – wild asparagus, snails, frogs, eggs, mushrooms and berries. What adventures, what freedom!
Then, after hours of hunting and gathering, I’d run home to devour bread with butter and Maman Blanc’s jams. We kept rabbits, but they were for the table and whenever one was served my mother had tears running down her cheeks and a smile on her lips.
This time around, I ate mountains of magnificent smoked Morteau sausage – and had that gastronomic marriage made in heaven: slices of nutty Comt cheese and a glass of sherry-like vin jaune. Ooh la la! I hope you British gourmets will be inspired to create these superb French dishes at home. I am proud to have been part of the Great British food revolution, but I’ll always find time to raise a glass and toast, ‘Vive La France.’
The Very Hungry Frenchman, BBC2, Thursday, 8pm.