“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” wrote French gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825.
Today, the shortened proverb ‘You are what you eat’ is still relevant, according to Raymond Blanc OBE, who looks past simple macronutrients for health. Instead, the two-Michelin star chef focuses on ingredients sourcing, seasonality, and the power of plant-based.
COVID-19: Challenges and opportunities
French-born Blanc is best known for his double Michelin-starred restaurant and country house hotel Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, UK. Having opened his first restaurant Les Quat’ Saisons in 1977, self-taught Blanc is still regarded – over 40 years on – as a trailblazer in the industry.
However this year, Blanc observed the hospitality industry come to a grinding halt. The immediate effects of the global coronavirus pandemic on the sector have been ‘horrendous’, he said during a recent webinar organised by Satopia Travel.
Self-isolation and lockdown measures have forced chefs around the world to hang up their aprons and shut their restaurant doors. Blanc fears many businesses in the sector will not survive.
“We are going to see a lot of unemployment,” he told virtual attendees, “and dire consequences.”
However, this chef’s verre is half full: “There are also going to be some very good consequences…in so much as we understand that the environment is number one priority.
“There is going to be a complete reinvention of our society towards being cleaner, and using cleaner energy. It’s really exciting.”
Buying local and nudging retailers to do the same
Blanc is on a mission to drive change. Currently in his ninth year as president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, he is an advocate for the rethinking of our food systems.
“I believe we are going to reinvent our own agriculture,” he told delegates. “I also believe the consumer is going to reconnect with his own sense of responsibility and ask more questions…of retailers.”
Buying local and knowing the providence of food ingredients is key to Blanc. “I see the consumer putting lots more pressure on the government and retailers to reinvent our own agriculture. Why should we import our food from billions of miles away when we could mostly grow [it] here?”
Six out of every seven apples consumed in the UK come from abroad, lamented Blanc. “We import 70% of our food in Great Britain when we could grow at least 60% [of it]. Imagine the new jobs you could create and equally you could [help] stop the greenhouse gas effect.”
The Michelin-starred chef believes shoppers’ actions significantly influence trends in the food system.
“As a consumer, you can do a great deal in order to…nudge your retailer to buy local food. Because if it’s local to home, [you’ll have the best] texture, colour, flavour, and better nutrients.” Buying local also stimulates local economies and reinvigorates village life, he added.
By choosing local food, “you don’t import food from billions of miles away, which creates pollution. And you have to clean up that pollution, so it’s a double whammy.”
However, buying sustainably sourced produce from local suppliers can come with an elevated price tag. Consumers should be prepared to pay that little bit extra for pure, noble, and fresh produce, we were told.
“Of course, we tend to buy the cheaper [items], but if you know how it was produced, I think you pay that extra penny. If we are to reinvent our own agriculture here in England, you may have to pay 20p extra for a kg of apples. But it’s worth it.”
Blanc added: “We can change our habits [and] not go for the cheapest. Because you have some terrible [and unsustainable] stories behind it.”
Eating healthy food in season
Price can also play a role in seasonality – whereby food is eaten when its flavour is at its peak. Some plant-based foods – for example raspberries – can ‘cost half the price’ when eaten in season.
For a chef who named his first restaurant ‘the four seasons’, it is unsurprising to learn that Blanc ‘worships’ seasonality. The majority of the vegetables served at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons comes from its extensive garden, where Blanc’s team grows 150 varieties. The neighbouring orchard houses 2,500 trees.
Eating fresh produce in season is not just about flavour. It is also about nutrition, said Blanc, who has been a supporter of organic, seasonal, vegetarian food – with vegetables at the centre of the plate – for decades.
Blanc first introduced an à la carte vegetarian menu at Le Manoir back in 1980. The chef admits he ‘didn’t sell one for 10 years’. At that time, he said, the consumer trend was still ‘meat, meat meat’.
However vegetarianism, veganism, and efforts to reduce meat intake have taken hold in recent years. According to market insights firm Mintel, an estimated three million people in the UK are vegetarian. The Vegan Society estimates 600,000 follow a purely plant-based diet, and findings from YouGov revealed that 14% of the population considers themselves to be flexitarians – meaning they only occasionally eat meat.
Growing interest in plant-based is ‘exciting’, said Blanc. “It was bound to happen. Veganism is not a fashion. It is already part of our lifestyle.”
Livestock farming is a significant greenhouse gas emitter. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2e is emitted from the global livestock sector per year – which represents 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
But meat consumption is not only damaging to the health of the planet, suggested Blanc. When consumed excessively, it can also compromise human health. “Our diet is crazy. To eat meat 10 times a week is dangerous. Meat has all the wrong fats as well…whereas vegetables are really magical.”
For Blanc, one solution to care for the planet while simultaneously boosting one’s own health, is to ‘eat differently’. “Eating meat maybe once or twice a week is great. There is nothing wrong with that – or even four times, but not 10 times.
“And choose your [meat protein]. For example, to grow one kilogram of beef takes 16,000L of water.”
The chef continued: “Eating a more varied diet with more vegetables in it [is key]. We have 30-40 dishes which are vegetarian or vegan [at Le Manoir] and they are as delicious as any meat.”
Moving forward, Blanc is even contemplating revamping his restaurant’s vegetarian and vegan offerings – at least in name. By removing the words ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’, the chef suggested his entire menu could more easily stand on even footing.
“I’m going to stop calling [these dishes] vegetarian or vegan. I don’t know what I will call them…but I have [this] idea because when you say ‘vegan’, it devalues the beauty, the extraordinary flavours.”