Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be a drinking straw carried inexorably in the flow of a great river? Sit down with Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc for a moment - an hour, more like, as he can spend 10 minutes on carrots alone - and be carried away on a great current of Gallic passion. Le terroir! Les legumes! La belle Maman Blanc, who taught him everything he knows about cooking with the heart!
Bon, okay, as M. Blanc likes to say.
"We think we are in charge of our destiny," he says, although it comes out, "We zinc we air in sharj of our desteeenee."
"We are so stupid! So pretentious!"
After 36 years in England, Mr. Blanc still sounds an awful lot like Peter Sellers' hapless French detective. In fact, fellow celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who could pick a fight with the Buddha, said after seeing Mr. Blanc's reality TV show, The Restaurant: "I was going to call up the BBC and ask them to provide subtitles."
Pfff, to use another of Mr. Blanc's favourite expressions. He will not be drawn into a territorial squabble when he could be talking about the correct temperature of espresso, or the happiness of his customers, or the ratings success of The Restaurant, or, yes it's true, how he was originally offered Hell's Kitchen - the show that made Mr. Ramsay famous - but turned it down.
"The money they offered me," he says. "It was crazeee."
Mr. Blanc, a self-taught chef who turned his Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons into a two-star Michelin destination in the Oxfordshire countryside, was not interested in reality TV, at least not then.
It was vulgar, base. It was not about cooking with the heart and making Maman Blanc's Gruyère pancakes that tasted as if they were baked in heaven's Creuset.
"I thought television had lost its way when it came to food," he says, sitting in his tiny office above the Manoir's bustling kitchen. "If you want me to kill people, disintegrate them, sit on their face, I am the wrong guy. There's plenty will do it.
"But if you want me to be tough, demanding, and set up some serious challenges, and try to guide people, give them the means to achieve their dreams, yes, I will do it."
His television conversion came when he was asked to host a show that he didn't find debasing, one more interested in training than tantrums. On The Restaurant, the dream achievement is preceded by hurdles: The contestants accidentally feed raw chicken to food inspectors, cry themselves to sleep and skid to the precipice of divorce. The premise of the hit BBC show (which begins airing on BBC Canada tomorrow night) is simple: Nine pairs of contestants - some couples, some siblings, a mother and son - are each given a restaurant to run for a couple of months, and the last couple standing is given the keys to the restaurant for good. By the end they're so shell-shocked you wonder if they'd prefer to do something easier, like organize a coup in a small Third World country.
Mr. Blanc presides over the show like a benign Donald Trump, setting challenges and periodically offering support when the glassy-eyed contestants face rooms full of angry, hungry diners. None of the competitors had previous restaurant experience. Presumably none of them knew that in Britain, half of all restaurants fail within the first two years. (In fact, the contestants who won the first series have since quit their restaurant.)
Still, there was no shortage of competitors for the second series, which airs in Britain this fall. "Bon, okay!" says Mr. Blanc, practically hopping from his chair. "It is very demanding. You've got to love it. You've got to be everything - the chef, the HR person, the electrician. You've got to understand farming and the basic components of science. And of course you've got to make money."
Ah, l'argent: There's lots of it in the luxury-getaway business. Le Manoir, which is an inn as well as a restaurant, runs at 98 per cent capacity, Mr. Blanc says. "We are the busiest Michelin-starred restaurant in the country." But what is important, he says, drawing a giant smile in the air, "is this." What, that the Joker eats at Manoir? "That the customers are happy. That they know at Blanc they will always be welcome."
There's a knock at the door and a young cook comes in bearing a tray of soufflés: "Ah, non, non, non," says Mr. Blanc gently, although they look perfect. He offers spoons around, and breaks the crust of each soufflé, taking the smallest taste. "More lemon," he says. Another isn't cheesy enough. "All right, chef," says the junior cook and spirits away the offending soufflés. He returns with a steaming pie that looks as if it came from Henry VIII's table and smells delicious but also receives a moue of disenchantment from the great man. He takes a pinch of the crust and crumbles it between his fingers.
Mr. Blanc was born in 1949 and raised in the countryside of Franche-Comté, the region in eastern France famous for its cheese and charcuterie. By night he would go out hunting with Papa for frogs and snails, and by day he would help the revered Maman Blanc with the pickling, the chopping, the weeding. It was the kind of childhood where there were always 20 for lunch and Papa made his sons eat a bit of soil from the garden so they'd feel connected to the land. The kind of France that may exist only in myth but still drives thousands of Brits across the Channel each year to buy pig farms and vineyards and orchards.
But Mr. Blanc made the opposite journey, and arrived in Oxford in the early 1970s to be a waiter (something to do with cherchez la femme.) He learned on the job, and he and his wife mortgaged their house to open their first restaurant, Les Quat' Saisons, wedged between a ladies' underwear shop - "a lot of wool, not Agent Provocateur" - and an Oxfam store. It was so run down, he claims, there were rats in the refrigerator.
"When I opened my business it was a shock," he says. "It was the hardest time of my life. I have eaten a lot of humble pies in my life - which is good for a Frenchman."
That marriage, which produced his two sons, did not survive. This raises the obvious question: When he meets the contestants on The Restaurant, does he tell them how hard it's going to be on their relationships? He offers a Continental shrug, shoulders hiked to ears, and an emphatic pfffff. What a ridiculous question: How could they not know? "You need a couple who can work together, accept their differences of opinion and talk about it in a business-like way, to leave emotions outside. That's hard to do."
Mr. Blanc gets up to put on his chef's whites; it's time to take a picture. He strides quickly into the courtyard of his beautiful manor, the oldest parts of which date to the 13th century (he opened the restaurant 24 years ago; it got its Michelin stars five years later and has kept them since).
There's an R on one of his cuffs and a B on the other. Do all chefs have monogrammed whites? "Only the vain ones," he whispers. It's time to go, but a wishy-washy handshake won't do - it's got to be a proper French double-cheek kiss. He calls back over his shoulder as he strides off, "There's not enough kissing in the world!"