Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets

I am so glad that this excellent programme is once again on TV. So glad, in fact, that I have decided to share it with the world (and by that, I mean my limited readership) and urge anyone interested in food to have a watch themselves. The format is simple: chef Raymond Blanc invites viewers into his "Oxfordshire Kitchen" (which, I assume, is the kitchen of Le Manoir, his restaurant in Oxfordshire, which lies so tantalisingly close in distance to, and yet so far in affordability from me that it makes me want to weep) and prepares a variety of dishes based around a type of ingredient. What I like about this is that he doesn't choose obvious categories like "meat", "fish", "vegetables". Instead we have a whole episode devoted to apples, or mushrooms, or tomatoes. In the new series he starts off with shellfish.


The Guardian didn't take too kindly to Raymond's offerings, dismissing them as impractical and impossible to recreate at home. I think they have missed the fundamental point of most cookery TV: gastropornography. We don't watch Raymond preparing lobster with caviar and red pepper and cardamom jus because we are actually thinking of tracking down a lobster and preparing it ourselves (I've done it, it's painful). Ditto his creation of pan-fried scallops with spiced cauliflower three ways (pureƩ, crisps, and bhajis). We - or at least, I - watch it for the beauty of his dishes, and for the interest in food that prompts us to seek out such programmes in the first place.

All of this is helped, of course, by the fact that Raymond is an excellent presenter. He doesn't have the in-your-face sexuality of Nigella, the painfully forced nonchalance and casualness of Jamie, the self-conscious masculinity of Gordon. He is, of all the TV chefs, the most at ease on camera. Even the brilliant Lorraine Pascale, whose Baking Made Easy series I am an avid fan of, often seems a bit uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the studio lights. It's a little thing, but the way TV chefs taste their food is very telling about their comfortability as a presenter. Sophie Dahl, whose series was widely slated last year, would timidly poke her finger into the food and then shyly disappear off camera to - probably - throw it in the bin. Lorraine Pascale must have some strange eating disorder whereby every time food passes her lips, she has to giggle coyly at the camera. Yes, Lorraine, we know you're flushed with your amazing success as a former model and now TV chef, but there's no need to rub our faces in it. Nigella gobbles down her culinary concoctions as if they were female viagra, and Nigel Slater simply describes everything he eats as "so good". Really, Nigel? As if you're going to say "Hmm...it's alright, I suppose, needs a bit more salt...might not try this recipe again..."

Not so with Raymond. When it comes to tasting, he gets one of his sous-chefs to do it, and then they have a little chat about the dish. It's an informal discussion of the various elements of the dish, much more relaxed than Masterchef's John Torode, who feels it necessary to list enuemerate single flavour and ingredient in his enormous mouthful in a sort of litany to the camera: "Sweet scallop, salty jus, creamy pea puree, that taste of the sea..." Raymond chats to the viewer as if they were an old friend, cracking jokes, making mistakes (he refers to a bhaji as a bungee at one point), bantering with sous-chef Adam (a frequent feature on the show, and a constant source of amusement as he puts up with Raymond's mad antics - he makes him eat a lobster lung in the first episode), and rhapsodising over his ingredients. Indeed, he claims that a scallop makes him emotional, such is the quality of the produce.

Well, Raymond, me too. I get mildly emotional over beautiful food and the satisfying, wonderful alchemy that comes with cooking with good ingredients. I could not have been happier than I was at the point where Raymond killed a lobster using a special machine that electrocutes it, killing it instantly and humanely. I was genuinely worried that my respect for Raymond would diminish as soon as I saw him plunge the living crustacean into a pot of boiling water, but no. Not Raymond. He genuinely cares about his ingredients, and I find it rather endearing that he can get so excited about something as humble as a cauliflower.

Sure, the dishes aren't really recipes to recreate at home (although his episode on bread was full of fairly manageable ideas for home baking). But for the true food-lover, I don't think that matters. What is enjoyable is taking inspiration from Raymond's recipes, even if it's just ideas for flavour pairings, like scallops and spices, or lobster with ginger (which I know for a fact is a constant feature on the menu of the trendy London Italian, Bocca di Lupo). What is even more enjoyable is Raymond's genuine charm, passion for food, and the way he conducts himself on camera. His wonderful French accent and slightly eccentric mannerisms don't hurt, either. It's rare that food television actually makes one laugh, but Raymond's caperings about the kitchen are certainly a source for amusement, as well as admiration.

Oh, and the food looks divine. My mum said she'd take me to Le Manoir when I graduate. I graduated about nine months ago, so I might start hinting.

But if I do go, I'm going to ring up first and check Raymond will be there. I wonder if he's married...
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4 comments:

  1. Katherine Watson24 February 2011 00:05

    I know I am being an awful snob, but I have this to say about the Guardian article on RB: "Jim Shelley is TV Critic of the Daily Mirror".

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  2. Yes. And most of the commenters on that article have come to the same conclusion as I have.

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  3. I'm attempting to persuade my parents to take me to Le Manoir as a reward for going through with the graduation ceremony in July...

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  4. Wow, great review! I think you've summed up the programme beautifully.

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