Benoit Blin, Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, Oxfordshire

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th January 2009

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

The Staff Canteen is delighted to feature one of Europe's leading Pastry Chefs, Benoit Blin, Executive Pastry Chef at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons in Oxfordshire.

Now in his fourteenth year at the iconic 2-Michelin star, 5-AA rosette luxury Oxfordshire hotel, he heads a team of 13-chefs and bakers across this busy and diverse section. Awarded the MOGB in 2005 and having worked in Frances leading operations including the Ritz Paris with a host of MOF recognised Chefs. Benoit kindly shares his career tips experience and guidance with us on The Staff Canteen.

pavo citrus
pavo citrus - Benoit Blin

How did your career begin?

It started very young - very early age. To be honest, it started when I was at school - I must have been 8 or 9 years old - and I had to write an essay about a profession of some kind, and I kind of set my eyes on being a chef. Not a pastry chef, but a chef, I wrote my essay, and that must have been my best ever scoring note for that year and it kind of motivated me. Then the next important stage for me, was when I decided to become a pastry chef, there were two events. I think I must have been about 10 or 11 years old, I knew I wanted to be a chef.

Of course it's a much more recognised profession in France as well isn't it?

Yes. You're a chef, pastry chef and baker, because you have that culture in France that you might not have everywhere else. So you could pick any one of those. By the time I wanted to be a chef, I had a good friend of mine who lived in a hotel, his father was the chef and his mother was looking after the hotel so I was kind of raised around people who knew the industry, and also in my street there were two bakers, which were to be my best friends. My parents though were not at all from that background, they were in the building industry, though my mother was cooking at home, I remember she was doing some pigeons, and she said: "Okay Benoit, you want to be a chef, come here, put your hands into the pigeons, start cleaning it up" and that's when I said: "No meat". It's not something that appealed fiddling around in the pigeons bottoms or chickens and stuff, it was not something I was very keen on. And then the age came where I had to make the choice whether I wanted to carry on studying, or take the opportunity and go to an apprenticeship - at the time in France you could start your apprenticeship around the age of 15 years old - and it was a 2 year contract, where you spent a week at school, and three weeks at work.

Blood Orange Carpaccio
Blood Orange Carpaccio

Your apprenticeship gave you the basics of being a pastry chef?

It's like a driving licence you've got it but now you're really going to learn how to drive.  So my next aim was the master exam, the Brevet de Maitrise Patissier. Which at the time was very difficult, very tough to pass, for two reasons. One, there was not many schools in France who actually taught you both fully, the theory and the practical aspect, the second one was if you did not choose to go to one of those schools, you had to do it solo.  I was doing my military service during the first part of the exam, up until that time it was compulsory to spend a year for your government, and being trained under the flag. We're very fortunate in the UK we don't do that, though some would argue this should be brought back. This has now stopped in France.

I took the opportunity to take a job in a bakery, out of the army because I needed to make a little bit of money, when you live on nothing for a year, you need to make a little bit of money. Yet, I had an agreement with my employer that he would allow me to go during my time off, my holidays, to another pastry chef in Coutances, which was Monsieur Mess, for him to try to show me the directions and how far I am from the master exams level, which I did, after 18 months of working in the bakery. My sole ambition in life was to work with the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France also called MOF. MOF is an award given by the French president himself to the best craftmans of the industry after a tuff selection by there peers, competing amongst them self every 4 years (UK version Master of culinary art MCA or before MO GB), that's what it means, Best chefs in France, I wanted to learn from the best , I was reading, books and magazines about pastry chefs, my ambition in life was to be close to those guys; to be the best.

Le Manoir's twist on the Bounty
Le Manoir's twist on the Bounty

So you really were aiming for the top weren't you?

I wanted the top as much as I could. You know, I didn't want to be a big star. Even now my aim isn't to be a star. But I wanted the knowledge. And I wanted to work with the best the industry had to offer. It was important for you to get the knowledge from them and learn from them.  I would have waited for as long as it would have taken for either Ritz or Ducasse to reply as they were my dream. I didn't want to go anywhere else.

It was as simple as that. I was not going to apply anywhere else, it was my career choice and at 21 years old I'd got the opportunity of being on the waiting list, this is what I wanted to do, and eventually it happened.Eight months later I was Chef de Partie in pastry at Ritz Paris, I was surprised because I was still 21 years old, there were Chef de Partie's who were 28, obviously more mature, stronger than I was, but I had the background and a commitment in life which put me already at the same kind of level almost. I was lucky to get to the Ritz, in September1991 I think it was, with the Head Pastry Chef called Monsieur Forais, who funnily enough married a woman who came from my home town, so it kind of helped us to understand where we came from in our career.  They were working a 12 or 14 hour shift, and after that they were pulling their apron off, putting another one on, and starting blowing sugar, and all this to do sugar craft. And that's where I started to develop my artistic skills, because even though I grew as much as I could through the master exam, artistically I knew I wasn't where I wanted to be.

Benoit, you seem to be hugely motivated, and do you think that's something that comes from within, that's not in everybody is it?

I think it's something you develop. I think that's part of the reason why I'm here, working with Raymond Blanc, mediocrity is not something I stand very much.  Some youngsters may not value this as important but it depends what you want to do in life.

le manoir
Le Manoir

Why did you come to England?

I didn't want to come to England to be honest. I worked about 4 years at the Ritz, my wife was working for the government. But we wanted to get married and move on a little bit in life, I didn't want to settle in a big city, that wasn't for me, so we were thinking about moving abroad. I got to a situation, I was 27 years old, I think I'd worked my career to quite a strong level, I left the Ritz as Senior Sous Chef and I was the number two in the pastry.  I met Laurent DuChene, which is also MOF pastry who also used to be the head pastry chef at Le Manoir in 1987. Raymond Blanc contacted Laurent as he was looking for a pastry chef, and Laurent contacted me, saying that obviously there is an opportunity if you want to go to England. It took me 3 months to say yes .

So you came as Head Pastry Chef?

I came here straight in as a Head Pastry Chef, the 7th of January 1995; I will remember that date always.

So how many were there in the pastry when you joined?

I believe, we were 5 and now we are 13. When I joined Monsieur Blanc here, obviously he had a dream, and he was making his dream work, he had the establishment, and the person I found in Monsieur Blanc, in 1995 was somebody really, really honourable and the potential was massive there. When I arrived I set a three month goal, and perhaps I'd take my suitcase and go again, because we didn't know the future. I said to Monsieur Blanc, if I'm here three months, then I'll be here two years. That was my intention. I've now been here 14 years now. But, the main difference with this establishment and many other establishments is it never stands still.

‘African Savanna’ the Valrhona chocolate dessert

‘African Savanna’ the Valrhona

chocolate dessert

What now do you look for in a young chef?

First, we're going to go through an interview process. Regardless if you come from England, France, Germany, anywhere in the world, we'll not employ you if you don't come for an interview. It shows me commitment. So that's the first thing I see - commitment. Le Manoir is a tough place. If you want to be a successful pastry chef, in any way, shape or form, you will have to have that motivation to carry you until the end of your career. I don't employ anybody for less than two years. There is nothing written on your contract about that, it's all a moral contract (gentlemen agreement).

They would have to have the potential of coaching another young Commis. Full stop. If you don't do that, if you can't manage that, you can't be a First Commis. So that takes me to the foreigners, for instance. Where I say, "if you don't speak a word of English, you can't coach. If you can't coach, you are of no use to me".

When you started, you didn't know if you wanted to be a pastry chef or a chef, what would you advise young chefs now?

I mean, some may be thinking 'I want to be a pastry chef' or 'I want to be a chef', and they are both very different skills. Pastry is very, very precise; incredibly precise whereas the kitchen has its skills but it's not quite as precise. In England, with the market as it stands today, I would say do both. The main reason is, there isn't potentially at the moment, enough career opportunity in the long run. Meaning, if you're a Pastry Chef, of course there is a shortage in the industry, there is no issue there, but let's say one day you want to have a choice. If you have the luxury of being a chef and a pastry chef, you can make a choice. Later on in life you want to open your own business, most pastry chefs would open a pastry shop. Yet in England, pastry shops are not that numerous, because you need to have a supporting market for it, which is not yet in the culture like it is in France. If you are a chef, you can open a pub, you can open a restaurant, you can run a hotel, and you can do both, have a restaurant, and perhaps also have a little savoury counter which allows you to do some pastries.

What drives you, what's your motivation now after 14 years?

I would say you don't look at what you do today, you want to look at what you want to do tomorrow. The motivation today is still the same, which is going beyond what you are capable of, training yourself beyond what you know. Otherwise you stand still, which is not something that I will ever be pleased to do. I've got 12 other chefs, which I have to push with me, so my big challenge everyday is get 12 chefs to achieve what Monsieur Blanc, myself, and the rest of the team have in mind, to pursue that excellence, and meeting guest expectations, which is a challenge everyday. 

>>> see the latest Pastry Chef jobs available on The Staff Canteen 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th January 2009

Benoit Blin, Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, Oxfordshire

IN ASSOCIATION WITH