‘A special relationship’ – An evening with Raymond Blanc & Michael Caines
– marc Millon & photographs by Kim Millon
28 February 2018 — When two of Britain’s best loved and most iconic chefs got together to prepare a special celebration meal at Lympstone Manor, it was almost as if their careers had come full circle.
Michael Caines was only 19 years old when he first went to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in 1989 to work and learn under the young and dynamic French chef Raymond Blanc. Raymond had opened Le Manoir, the country house hotel in Oxfordshire that he created in his own vision, in 1984 and he was already the holder of two prestigious Michelin stars.
Michael recalls,”I first met Raymond when I was a young chef working at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. He came to give us a demonstration and I was so impressed by his passion and enthusiasm that I applied for a job at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. When I came to visit, it was the first time I had ever stepped foot in a country house hotel or for that matter in a restaurant with two Michelin stars. From that moment, Le Manoir captured my heart and my imagination in terms of what could be achieved.”
Michael spent three years at Le Manoir. That formative period not only taught him life skills and cooking techniques, it imparted strong values and ethics, as well as inspired Michael to one day dream about creating his own country house hotel.
Raymond himself had started from humble beginnings. “I’d never cooked before, I never worked under a chef for one minute. I had found a little place and called it Quat’ Saisons. I put cheap prints of Paris on the walls, red and white checked tablecloths, you couldn’t help but know that it was a French place. We had a 1956 oven and a 1962 Kenwood mixer. In two years we gained two Michelin stars. It was a small place but then you dream and you dream and you think of a beautiful small house in the countryside – small with maybe a few rooms for friends and a huge garden. And then you go and fall in love with somewhere extraordinary and immense — and when you fall in love, you fall in love and that’s it.”
The ‘extraordinary and immense’ place was a 15th century listed manor house in Oxfordshire with both huge potential and huge problems. It turned out that the building needed underpinning, three-quarters of the roof needed replacement, there was extensive wet and dry rot throughout, and it needed a complete rewire, taking much longer and requiring considerable extra works that cost much more than anticipated. Raymond recalls the heartache, worries and sleepless nights that he endured as he strove to realise his dream.
Under Raymond, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons was an immediate success and quickly established itself as a benchmark in country house hospitality, the first time that a renowned chef had opened his own hotel. It was into this special environment that young Michael Caines found himself.
“It was an exciting time,” says Michael. “Raymond was a very creative and individual chef. His cuisine was completely different to the heavy cuisines that were in vogue in London at that time. Raymond was defining himself as a chef with a lighter touch and an imaginative way of looking at French cuisine. Raymond taught me that there are no boundaries in the kitchen – that you should follow your heart. He was totally driven by his passion to create Le Manoir as an oasis of wonderful things, the food and wines of course, but also the rooms and the garden.”
What was Michael like as a 19 year old chef? “What I remember very well,” says Raymond, “is that Michael was a serious young man, totally focussed, intelligent, totally curious, always asking lots of questions; I felt that this young man was someone who would really work hard. When someone asks so many questions you can’t help but feel their interest, their love for what they are doing. I can happily say that of all the many chefs that I have trained, I found Michael to be the most complete. He has a huge creative spirit. He has taken a lot from his time with me, but he has also added a lot, has brought his own huge personality, his own creative power upon the classic bases. These are pure, there is no need to change them, but on these bases he has added his own values, based on the same philosophy and culture, the same ethics. What I mean by that is being true in his cuisine to who he is and where he is from, caring for young people, growing them, training them, inspiring them, working with his community, helping to change Devonshire, playing a huge role in putting this place on the map. Even if we don’t see each other for a year or so, it is always easy to embrace Michael, for we share the same values.”
After spending three important years working with Raymond, his mentor encouraged Michael to go to France to further his education working under some of the world’s greatest chefs. So he went to Burgundy to join the brigade of Bernard Loiseau, a three-star Michelin chef who, at the fabled Côte d’Or, taught Michael, above all, about the importance of provenance and regionality. From there, he went to Paris to work and learn under the stern and uncompromising eye of Joël Robuchon.
However, when Raymond called to Michael to encourage him to apply for the job of head chef at Gidleigh Park when the position fell vacant following the departure of Shaun Hill it was an opportunity too good to miss. With Raymond’s recommendation, he landed this prestigious position. When, after just two months at Gidleigh Park, Michael had a terrible accident and lost his right arm, Raymond was there to encourage, support and believe in him. From such moments, deep and enduring bonds of friendship are forged even deeper
Michael went on to establish his reputation at Gidleigh Park where he stayed for 21 and a half years. He and his team earned a coveted second Michelin star in 1999 which he successfully maintained for the next 18 years. In the meantime, he honed his hotelier skills through partnership with Andrew Brownsword and the creation of the Abode chain of hotels. But always in the back of his mind was the dream to create something unique and special that would be his own, as inspired by Raymond and Le Manoir. Eventually, in 2015, Michael fell in love with his own ‘extraordinary and immense’ listed country house, located on the Exe estuary not far from his home town of Exeter. Yes, it had both huge potential and also huge problems but Michael stayed steadfast to his dreams and oversaw the management of the project. After much work and some sleepless nights, Lympstone Manor opened in April 2017.
It is remarkable that two such talented and acclaimed two-star Michelin chefs should also have the skills and entrepreneurial daring to create their own country house hotels.
Raymond agrees. “Being in charge of a kitchen is hard enough, believe me. Cooking is not so simple and a recipe is so much more than a recipe. It is a philosophy that you are embracing, the provenance of the ingredients, the passing on of knowledge, the creation of a dish with love and passion and belief. Yet the skills needed to achieve this are completely different to those required to run a hotel. In a hotel, you create a huge multi-faceted element of hospitality – and you need to surround yourself with the best people, the best restaurant manager, best receptionist, best waiters, best sommelier, best housekeeper, best gardener. You have to inspire them all to own and be a part of your dream. We are chefs, not bankers or financiers. And yet we have to be able to put all of this together and still make a profit. That is not so easy at all. I am so happy to visit and to see what Michael has achieved. His vision is everywhere here, his passion, his sense of aesthetic, his love of his region, the personality of his cuisine. In Lympstone Manor Michael has truly created somewhere very special, a modern classic.”
The respect and affection that Michael and Raymond have for each other is infectiously evident. Says Michael, “Unfortunately my parents aren’t with me anymore and were not here to see what I have achieved. Today I feel like the proud son showing his father his work. Raymond has been very much my godfather within the industry and he has always been an incredible supporter and believer in me. I feel so proud to be able to have him here today to share this moment, this evening together. It is an honour to be in the kitchen together to share our cuisine, our love of food, wine and hospitality with the Lympstone Manor guests who are here to enjoy and experience this special occasion.”
This is the extraordinary menu that was created by Michael and Raymond and prepared by them and their teams for a celebration dinner in Lympstone Manor on 28 February 2018.
A collaborative menu
Raymond Blanc OBE & Michael Caines MBE
Mille-feuille of tuna and scallops
citrus lime, Oscietra caviar, soused turnip and beetroot,
wasabi cream, honey and soy vinaigrette
Jerusalem artichokes, truffle dressing
John Dory and langoustine boudin
apple and ginger purée, pak choi, sesame seed,
pink grapefruit, vanilla and ginger jus
Risotto of wild mushroom
Saddle of Powderham venison
parsnip purée, kale, roasted winter vegetable,
Jasmin raisins, toasted hazelnuts
Three ages of Comté
apple sorbet, vanilla foam
A frozen Autumn still life