The country house hotelier and two Michelin starred restaurateur Raymond Blanc is turning his famous attention to detail to ensuring his guests stay safe when he reopens on July 14, Bastille Day.
After walking along the lavender lined path to the 16th century Belmont Manoir aux Quat-Saisons visitors to one of Britain’s most luxurious hotels will have their temperatures checked before being shown to their rooms.
The hotel just outside Oxford has been on lockdown since March 21, most of its staff have been furloughed and normal life has been on hold. But in the last two weeks the buzz has come back and it is not just the bees in Mr Blanc’s ‘bee village’.
He said: ‘Opening a place like Le Manoir takes two weeks and costs a huge amount of money. Everything has to be sanitised, the equipment has to be brought back to life, the food stock has to be entirely replenished, it’s a mega operation.’
Kitchen staff led by Raymond Blanc will wear visors as they work from Tuesday’s reopening
The country house hotelier is ensuring a two metre distance is maintained between tables
The hotel just outside Oxford has been on lockdown since March 21, most of its staff have been furloughed and normal life has been on hold
Visitors to the luxurious hotel will have their temperatures checked before being shown to their rooms
In reality the hotel was never completely quiet. Head gardener Ann Marie Owen and five staff ensured the famous organic kitchen garden did not become overgrown and there would be plenty of vegetables including 20 varieties of beetroot when the restaurant eventually reopened.
Mr Blanc, who arrived in Britain from France in 1972, said: ‘Six gardeners out of 12 kept working to ensure this place kept its magic and its loveliness and it was being loved. Imagine guests coming into a Manoir which has lost its shine. We had a team here of about 20 who looked after the Manoir.’
Of the 220 staff employed at the hotel around 160 will return for the re-opening. Mr Blanc has decided to stick with the original government guidelines of two metres separation rather than the revised ‘one metre plus’ because he cannot afford to take any chances with the health of his staff or his guests. Kitchen staff led by Mr Blanc will wear visors as they work.
Just 20 of the 32 bedrooms will be re-opened for the time being and they are reducing the maximum number of guests in the restaurant from 80 to 45. He added: ‘We are playing it ultra safe. We need to get our young team reacquainted with the Manoir.
‘There is a degree of apprehension about coming back to work and of course we are asking them to do more not less because the social distancing does not just happen with the guests it happens in the kitchen, house-keeping, every single department.
‘There is a ray of sunlight coming onto our reopening because we are nearly fully booked right up to October. The response from our guests has been extraordinary.’
Mr Blanc describes himself as a ‘micro-idiot’ micro managing every aspect of the activities of the hotel from the only hotel with a gardening school to the variety of potatoes he grows and the installation of a ‘moon beam reflector’ into the circular converted dovecote which houses one of the rooms.
It is this meticulous attention to detail which is the reason his guests pay up to £1,100 for one night’s Bed and Breakfast. With lunch and dinner the bill for a weekend at Le Manoir can easily come to several thousand pounds.
Mr Blanc describes himself as a ‘micro-idiot’ micro managing every aspect of the activities of the hotel
With lunch and dinner the bill for a weekend at Le Manoir can easily come to several thousand pounds
Of the 220 staff employed at the hotel around 160 will return for the re-opening next week
Staff ensured the famous organic kitchen garden did not become overgrown and there would be plenty of vegetables including 20 varieties of beetroot when the restaurant eventually reopened
He says: ‘Our aim is to give our guests and extraordinary time, one that they will never forget.’
The Manoir is not a place for somber dining. Mr Blanc prefers light and laughter to the usual country house gloom.
He is also dedicated to his staff many of whom have been with him for decades. He is immensely proud of having trained 40 Michelin starred chefs including Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White and Michael Caines.
All this is credited to Mama and Papa Blanc from whom he learned to appreciate fresh seasonal produce, good cooking and hard work. He bent down and picked up a handful of black crumbly soil. ‘Go on’, he says ‘Smell it!’. The soil smells good and clean. ‘Now taste it!’
I declined but this is exactly what his father did to him at the age of seven. He says the soil tasted pretty much as one might expect. It was only when he was 15 that he asked Papa why he made him eat earth. His father laughed, it had been a joke and he had not expected him to do it.
His mother who died at the age of 97 last month was his inspiration in the kitchen although he says he is self taught as a chef. He said: ‘The way she would cook, apart of course from the French fries on Saturday, would naturally be healthy and wholesome and delicious.’
He says: ‘There is a vision which I created at the start of this Manoir. There is an element of beauty and space. The Manoir is known for celebration, for joy, for families. Our success is based mostly on local values. At the very beginning I wanted my Papa to come in here. I wanted to create a luxury which is inclusive not exclusive, classless not class led. It was the idea of creating a place of happiness, not a French nosebag.
‘Our success is our ability to connect with a whole nation rather than just part of a nation. A place to come to celebrate to celebrate a special moment in people’s lives. There’s no hautiness. We want to give a total stranger the best time ever.’
What the Manoir’s guests are paying for besides the food and uniquely individual rooms is space not to be eavesdropped in the dining room, or having to share the 27 acres of grounds with a million other visitors.
Mr Blanc said: ‘We are playing it ultra safe. We need to get our young team reacquainted with the Manoir’
Just 20 of the 32 bedrooms will be re-opened for the time being and they are reducing the maximum number of guests in the restaurant from 80 to 45
Mr Blanc’s mother who died at the age of 97 last month was his inspiration in the kitchen although he says he is self taught as a chef
Mr Blanc is an incorrigible optimist who believes that British agriculture will thrive rather than be wiped out by Boris Johnson’s chlorine tinged US trade deal
Mr Blanc said: ‘Space is a luxury that we have always had and that means we don’t have to change too many things to achieve social distancing. The gardens are the lungs and the heart of the Manoir, the canvas on which we build our gastronomy. We don’t have one garden, we have 12 gardens.
‘Provenance and seasonality are at the heart of what we do. If it’s seasonal it is close to home, better taste, better texture, better colours, better nutrients. If it’s close to home you help your local farm keep his farm, your village to keep its post office, it’s all connected, nothing is separated.
‘If you grow your food locally and don’t import it from millions from miles away you don’t create pollution. The best part of being seasonal is that if it’s seasonal and local when you have the summer coming you have a glut and its half the price.’
Mr Blanc is an incorrigible optimist who believes that British agriculture will thrive rather than be wiped out by Boris Johnson’s chlorine tinged US trade deal. He says: ‘Why should we import food that is full of additives and colouring? I think things will get better because we are going to regain some form of national identity and reconnect with values we have lost.
‘I have always been optimistic or we would not have built this place. Everyone thought I was crazy when I came from a tiny little restaurant to this place.
‘When you come to this place you will feel safe. We have taken every single step so you will feel safe. Here you are in the country surrounded by extraordinary gardens. All my work is based on purity, nobility and provenance of the food, if you eat a meal here you don’t suffer a ‘crise de foie’ and fall off your chair at the end of it.’
The staff preparing to reopen on Tuesday are still finding their way in the new post-Covid world, stepping aside to gave strangers as wide a berth as possible. Mr Blanc cannot afford to get this wrong as coronavirus is unforgiving and finds every weakness, which is why he is taking no chances.