Raymond Blanc’s Dîners des Protégés

by Ollie Lloyd31 July 2015

Celebrating 30 years of Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc invited some of his illustrious alumni to cook a unique dinner in an intimate setting. Great British Chefs attended one of these ‘Dîners des Protégés’ featuring Adam Simmonds cooking dishes at the top of his game.

Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs.

Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs. He has been experimenting in the kitchen since he was five years old. Never known for shying away from a challenge, he has taken on some of the most obscure cuts of meat and ingredients that he can lay his hands on. As a marketeer, he's worked in the US, South and Southeast Asia, always taking the scenic route that might involve food trucks, hawkers and elusive soup dumplings.

Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs.

Ollie is the founder of Great British Chefs. He has been experimenting in the kitchen since he was five years old. Never known for shying away from a challenge, he has taken on some of the most obscure cuts of meat and ingredients that he can lay his hands on. As a marketeer, he's worked in the US, South and Southeast Asia, always taking the scenic route that might involve food trucks, hawkers and elusive soup dumplings.

When Raymond Blanc and his then wife Jenny opened their first restaurant, Les Quat’Saisons, in Oxford in 1977 it was a huge success, winning the Egon Ronay Restaurant of the Year award that year. It was in 1984 that Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons as we know it today opened, after Blanc fell in love with what was Great Milton Manor, an historic building set in 30 acres of countryside.

Decades later and the restaurant still carries the same esteem, with many of its former chefs now big names in their own right. To celebrate 30 years of the restaurant (now owned by the Belmond group), Blanc has invited some of his many protégés to cook dinner at Le Manoir for a small group of 40 diners, with Blanc himself presiding over them like a long lost - and verbose - Headmaster. So far the restaurateur has hosted luminaries such as Michael Caines, Ollie Dabbous, Martin Murge and Paul Heathcote. Tonight it is Adam Simmonds’s turn, with more scheduled for the Autumn with Eric Chavot, Bruno Loubet and Alan Murchison. Blanc sees Le Manoir not just as an excellent hotel delivering a unique experience, but in many ways as a training ground for his staff, believing that the most important thing in life is to pass on knowledge. When you look at the roll call of people who have been through his doors it is jaw-dropping; Sat Bains, John Burton-Race and Marco Pierre White to name but a few.

Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is celebrating its 30 year anniversary
Adam Simmonds prepping for his dinner

Blanc’s first job in the kitchen was as a washer upper, and he recounts how he used to clean the mirrors with vinegar so they looked like Versailles. It is this belief in detail, at whatever level one is working at, that singles him out as such a fantastic teacher. In addition, his boundless enthusiasm for food and life is infectious. He is totally passionate about organic produce (the gardens are a testament to this), and he also wants to challenge what it means to be a chef. Gone are the days when chefs were seen as social outcasts or ‘need a frontal lobotomy’ as he says. Television exposure has probably had something to do with that change in perception. But our knowledge of food has also hugely increased; he says that chefs didn’t used to have any idea about seasonality, but the food revolution has changed this and consumers demand more and more. He wants to give people the best possible choice - an example of this is that he has recently simplified the wine list (perhaps to his sommelier’s displeasure) in order to remove wines that he deemed not pure enough.

Raymond Blanc studies Adam Simmonds’s confit of salmon dish
Adam Simmonds introduces his dishes to guests at his Dîner de Protégé

Adam Simmonds started at Le Manoir when he was 28 and worked there for 3 years, starting as a chef de partie and finishing as a junior sous. Having won a Michelin star for Danesfield House, he has now moved on to pursue his own restaurant ambitions in London and is currently raising money and backers for it (Blanc is one of them). He remembers Le Manoir as an overwhelming place to work, so much so that when he arrived for his first day, he got as far as the front gates and then turned around and went home. Gary Jones (Blanc’s Head Chef since 1999) phoned him up and said, “What are you doing, come back!” He took this second chance and has never looked back. Years later Blanc visited him at Danesfield house and remembers it as an outstanding meal, “I arrived at 12pm and left at 8pm!” He visited the kitchen and chatted with the staff and was very impressed by what Simmonds had created. You get the sense that, with all his protégés, Blanc is constantly interested in what they are doing, always there as a mentor figure if needed. Even tonight, he darts in and out of the kitchen looking at Simmonds’ dishes and taking pictures on his mobile phone of the food.

Simmonds is relaxed in the kitchen, working with one of his old colleagues Nick Edgar who is back at Le Manoir and two of his trusted chefs, John Coates and David Squires. Blanc says that Simmonds’ food is quite ‘feminine’ (Simmonds prefers ‘metrosexual’), but either way it’s fundamentally about extracting the best flavours out of seasonal ingredients. There was a lovely moment when the chefs head out to the garden to pick some garnishes - white borage flowers and small violas. Over the 30 years, the gardens have undergone an enormous transformation and surround the historic building with their lushness, bursting with produce on this Summer’s day. They produce over 90 varieties of vegetables and over 70 types of herbs.

On arrival a watercolour map of the house and gardens are given to guests so that they can explore Blanc’s creation at their leisure, taking in all aspects of his prodigious enthusiasm for field to fork, from the National Heritage Garden where Blanc is re-introducing older species of fruit and vegetables, to the polytunnels brimming with micro leaves to the wildflower meadow and the 15th century pond, and the Japanese tea garden. Le Vallée de Champignons Sauvage grows numerous types of fungi, while hundreds of courgettes are grown in cloche tunnels to satisfy demand for their blossoms, and the orchards produce unusual species of British fruit.

For a teacher, there is no greater joy and pride than to see one’s students reach the peak of their chosen career and become one’s equal.

Raymond Blanc, OBE

From L to R: David Squires, John Coates, Adam Simmonds and Nick Edgar
Violas picked from the gardens for garnish

The menus of these Protégé dinners are a combination of courses by the guest chef as well as Manoir classics by Blanc, head chef Gary Jones and pastry chef Benoit Blin. A champagne reception in the conservatory is followed by a candlelit dinner of shared tables with seven courses and matching wines. Simmonds dishes up a fabulous scallop tartare to start mixed with a bright green strawberry jelly, on a bed of tapioca and finished with eucalyptus ‘snow’. This is followed by a staple by Raymond Blanc - Terrine of garden beetroot with horseradish sorbet. This is a dish that’s been on the menu for 30 years but keeps evolving. The earthiness of the beetroot is lifted by the sorbet and garnished beautifully.

Next is Simmonds’s confit of salmon with green tomatoes, a purée of gooseberries and a dollop of smoked lard emulsified with the salmon stock. It is an absolutely beautiful dish inspired by a preparation he learnt during his time at Le Manoir, but here he’s given it his own spin. A dish from Gary Jones’s menu follows this – an organic hen’s egg cooked at 70 degrees holding its shape perfectly with a combination of toasted hazelnuts and Jabugo ham offset with watercress purée. It is like a perfect Sunday brunch dish which leaves you wanting more.

Adam Simmonds’s confit of salmon with gooseberries, green tomatoes and smoked lard
Hen’s egg, watercress purée, Jabugo ham and toasted hazelnuts

The main dish is batted back to Simmonds who produced a beautifully pink roasted veal fillet with sweetbreads rolled in a crunchy onion ash, sitting on a bed of mellow sunflower seed purée. Simmonds’s summery dessert of yellow peaches, almonds and sweet cicely epitomises Blanc’s obsession with seasonal food - light, delicate and refreshing. Pastry chef Benoit Blin is in charge of the last course of Manjari chocolate and raspberry crumble - the name is misleading as this is an upside down crumble with a chocolate mousse on top, served with raspberry sorbet - perfectly refined to round off an extraordinary meal.

Adam Simmonds’s roasted veal fillet with sweetbreads, sunflower seed purée and onion ash
Pastry chef Benoit Blin puts the finishing touches on his Manjari chocolate and raspberry crumble

It is a memorable evening, with Blanc on fine form dolling out anecdotes, introducing courses and speaking fondly of Simmonds’s time here. A passionate bon viveur, Blanc charms the guests with his jokes and reveals plans for the future that clearly his marketing team thought were still top secret! Some people say that life begins at 30 and in some ways all the hard work that Blanc and his team have put in over the years are now really bearing fruit. Like an artist at the top of his game, Blanc is not only innovating constantly but seems to be enjoying it more than ever.

For recipes by Adam Simmonds click here

The next Dîners de Protégés take place on 16th September with Eric Chavot, 21st October with Bruno Loubet and 25th November with Alan Murchison. For more information visit the Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons’ website.

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