RAYMOND BLANC: Masterchef brings his gallic flair to Hampstead

Tom Hensby caught up with celebrity Gallic chef Raymond Blanc at the opening of his new eatery Maison Blanc in Hampstead THERE are two very important meals looming for Raymond Blanc, chef turned entrepreneur and star of BBC2 s The Restaurant. In early

Tom Hensby caught up with celebrity Gallic chef Raymond Blanc at the opening of his new eatery Maison Blanc in Hampstead

THERE are two very important meals looming for Raymond Blanc, chef turned entrepreneur and star of BBC2's The Restaurant.

In early 2009, he will gather all of the 27 top chefs he has trained in his restaurant Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons in Oxfordshire for its 25th anniversary. There will be 28 chefs sitting down to dinner - Heston Blumenthal, Bruno Loubet, and Marco Pierre White included - who between them have earned an incredible total of 36 Michelin stars.

But first there is Christmas dinner, back at the Blanc family home in Besancon in Eastern France.

Despite her son being one of Britain's top chefs, Raymond's 87-year-old mother has insisted on doing most of the cooking.

"I had to negotiate with her," grumbles the Frenchman. "So I am allowed to cook the wild boar and she will be doing everything else - the starters, the main dish, the escargots, the langoustines. My sons call her 'Mother Theresa on speed'. She's incredible."

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'Maman' Blanc is, Raymond claims, the inspiration behind his life's work and particularly his latest campaign for good cooking at the centre of UK family life. Hence his 2007 OBE, awarded "in recognition of services in promoting culinary excellence and for raising awareness of the importance of healthy food as a central element of family life." The campaign is just part of the 59 year-old's activities, the expansion of his Maison Blanc cafe and patisserie chain being another.

I ask him whether social workers should be telling people what food to eat. "No," he says, "But they should be telling people to take a bit of time to cook with their families and eat together round a table. The family is the cell of society. If the family breaks down, then society breaks down."

Underlying the campaign is a familiar message: that we should eat (and drink) more like our Gallic neighbours.

Out of wounded patriotism, I ask whether the Brits could teach anything to the French. "Humility," states Raymond. "And a sense of humour, the ability to laugh at oneself. The French cannot do that. It has taken me 30 years to be able to laugh at myself this much."

He demonstrates by holding his finger and thumb millimetres apart - "not too much."

"The English are getting better, though. You are getting sexy."

This is charitable, being as Raymond - impervious to the heat, like all good chefs - is the only man not perspiring in the bustle of the party. Unlike the rest of us, he hasn't even taken his jacket off.

I put an imaginary situation to the chef, to test his resolve: he has missed the last bus home, is famished, has only £5, and has a choice between fried chicken, a kebab, or a McDonalds. Which would he choose?

"I would not go into any of them. It's a matter of principle," he said. "I would wait until I got home. I would think of my nice baguette or rye bread, my Camembert cheese, and my glass of wine and I would wait.

"Of course a kebab can taste good, if it has salad and so on. But anything tastes good when you're famished."

I ask him what he thinks of British restaurant critics. Do people like AA Gill have too much power? "They are very powerful," he admits. "Especially in London. They can shut a restaurant down, of course. But the critic can only write about one meal. If you are good, and consistent - being consistent is the key - then they cannot touch you."

If the great man of haute cuisine is clearly driven, he is also warm and likeable. When he says he still gets on with all of his famous pupils, you actually believe him.

"All my proteges, I know them all and I love them all. For example Marco [Pierre White], who can be quite a difficult man, we still have a great love and respect for each other."

When asked what he would have been in another life, he opts for pianist (apt, given his resemblance to the late Dudley Moore) and admits that he always wanted "to finish cooking, then come out of my kitchen, sit down at the piano, and entertain my guests".

However, he adds: "It's out of vanity - the vanity of a Frenchman. I've tried, but I'm a lousy piano player."

With queues of people waiting for Raymond to sign his book for them, the interview draws to a close. On the way out I sample some of the in-house cooked pastries and cakes - they are very light, very French and absolutely gorgeous - and decide that there's far more to life than playing the piano well.

Maison Blanc is on Hampstead High Street next to the King William IV pub, and is open from 8am-7pm to serve a range of food and patisseries, in-house baked bread, and is fully licensed. Raymond's book A Taste of My Life (an autobiography with recipes) is available in hardback from Bantam Press at £20.