CLOSING the gates to his two Michelin-starred restaurant, was one of the hardest moments in Raymond Blanc’s long career.

Le Manoir aux QuatSaisons, which sits gracefully in stunning gardens on the edge of Great Milton, is not only his place of work, it is his heart and soul. After all, the chef – the nation’s best-loved adopted Frenchman – picked it out himself in the mid-80s while it was still a crumbling, and reportedly haunted, wreck and restored it in his image to create the gorgeous establishment it is today.

So, when the call came for lockdown to begin, it was with a heavy heart that Raymond was forced to furlough most of his staff, give away his food to the community, and retreat in isolation to his own home in North Oxford.

“It was terrible!” he says, hanging his head in that expressive Gallic style for which he is loved.

“It was a disaster!” he goes on. “It was true suffering. We were preparing important plans for Le Manoir and, of course, had never closed for any length of time before.”

Lockdown also saw the closure of his 40 Brasserie Blancs, including his own regular hangout in Jericho, and brought a halt to his work with Arsenal Football Club and Eurostar.

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But from the bombshell of the pandemic, the celebrity chef from a humble rural background who learned his craft from his parents, was determined to bounce back even higher. He spent the intervening months on endless Zoom meetings planning a safe return, involving a £40,000 cleaning programme, staff training over Zoom, and new equipment and systems of working.

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Last week, on Bastille Day (bien sûr!), he reopened Le Manoir with state-of-the art safety measures designed to protect guests and staff without – and this is crucial – being too clinical or obtrusive.

The number of guests has been halved and tables spaced out to allow for social distancing, staff in all areas are tested and equipped with clear face visors, visitors have their temperature taken with a high-tech non-contact thermometer, and even the menus have been changed to limit interaction between kitchen staff.

“We have had to prepare the place for the future,” says Raymond. “And all this has been done while ensuring we retain our two Michelin star standard. We’ve always prided ourself on our strong hygiene and safety, but training was important as it only takes one person to get it wrong to cause a problem.

“It was the first time in 36 years that we have closed. You can have beautiful buildings but there was no life – other than the few people we had here just to look after the place.

“People are the heartbeat of any restaurant or hotel, so it is lovely to see everyone back. Reopening was a truly joyful affair.”

And guests have flocked back, with a surge in bookings from all those who have had to postpone celebrations or simply want to enjoy their new freedom.

“We are once again a place of celebration,” he grins.

It is almost 50 years since Raymond packed up his Renault 5 and crossed the Channel to work at the Rose Revived in Newbridge, before setting up his own Les Quat’ Saisons in Summertown, in 1977.

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As one might expect, he inspires true affection and loyalty among his staff. Whether he is chatting to gardeners about new projects, discussing refinements to dishes with kitchen staff, or greeting waiters, he is quick to smile and laugh, and his team clearly adore him. Le Manoir is a happy ship and his team stick with him – 20 per cent of them for more than a decade.

Despite his fame as a top chef and television star, he wears celebrity lightly. He is hands on, and, he admits, is an absolute perfectionist – designing every recipe and choosing each piece of furniture, picture or ornament.

The same approach extends to PPE. “I went to about 20 restaurants in London to see what kind of masks they were wearing in the kitchen and front of house,” he says. “It was a nightmare. Some are very hot and stick to your face after one or two hours. Eventually, I found the ones for us and they seem to be the best – and you can see people’s faces.

“Masks can be a strong reminder of what we are going through, but here is different.”

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Over a perfectly made espresso, he goes on: “I think we are still suffering as a country, in terms of people being laid off, but we are also grabbing the reins and growing more independent and strong. We will all have to evolve, even in the way we grow our food. And luxury will have to reinvent itself too.

“But for now, some normality with food, the table, meeting friends and the joie de vivre – all things we have missed – has returned.”

  • Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons at Great Milton is open for dining and accommodation. Go to or call 01844 278 881 or email