The hospitality industry has suffered from an image problem for years, but Raymond Blanc believes he has the answer on how to attract the next generation of workers and customers. Chris Gamm met him to find out more
How does the hospitality industry attract a generation of millennials put off by a reputation for long hours, macho kitchens and last-ditch career options?
It’s a challenge restaurants and hotels up and down the UK are addressing, following a Brexit-induced slump in job applications from EU nationals.
Raymond Blanc, one of Britain’s most respected chefs, believes he has a solution. It’s rooted in his upbringing in eastern France and gives an insight into the formula that has earned Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in the Oxfordshire village of Great Milton two Michelin stars for 34 consecutive years and the title of the UK’s best hotel in the 2017 Hoteliers’ Hotels awards, run by The Caterer and Sky.
“The industry needs to completely reinvent itself to attract more young people,” says Blanc. “We are an industry that has self-harmed for so many years. At first we were for the lowly servants of society. If you were an economic failure or had a frontal lobotomy, you automatically came into hospitality.
“Once these things happen, you create an industry without proper rules, structure or training, where young people were thrown in at the deep end. It’s where we have failed.”
In response, Blanc has created a blueprint for the way forward, a series of values, from creating a nurturing work environment and embracing sustainable food production to simpler and more transparent menus. All are designed around increasing the appeal of his business to modern workers and guests.
The bad news, he says, is that change requires time, money and willpower. The good news is he has shared his plan – and The Caterer was there to listen.
Value 1 Respect for food
Stroll around the grounds of Le Manoir and you get a sense of everything being connected, an ecosystem that supports itself and an experience for which guests travel far and wide.
“I love the garden,” says Blanc. “Guests spend 50% of their time there; as much as at the table. It connects good food with health, beauty, nutrition, teaching and mentoring.”
We have lost the creative act of cooking as a nation, according to Blanc, fuelled by decades of intensive, mass food production. But things are changing, with a “small revolution” on the horizon.
“We know we need to reconnect with food, have less wastage, be more responsible, knowledgeable and aware,” he says. “The modern consumer understands that. We are on a journey, but it’s not going to be easy to make it up overnight.”
“That’s why I always say, and will say until I’m blue in the face, that to be seasonal is everything. It’s cheaper, it keeps farmers employed, supports local economies, there’s less pollution to clean up and you get a glut of great ingredients. Everyone wins.”
This value isn’t just passed on to the Le Manoir team, but also guests – through the gardening school, which joined the cookery school last summer – as well as his suppliers.
“Twenty-eight years ago, I created specification sheets for suppliers. For example, this lamb, I want to know everything: the proprietor, his office number, is it highland or lowland, breed, summer diet, winter diet, how you killed and hung it.
“Half my suppliers said ‘why bother?’, so I told them to get lost. They didn’t care enough, weren’t in love with what they were doing, were not respectful of it or had something to hide.”
Value 2 Have a conscience
“We have to create responsible luxury. Whether you are a hotelier or a factory owner, that means taking care of your community, workers, waste and energy management, and not being a polluter,” says Blanc.
A pioneer of removing plastic in the 1990s, Le Manoir is stepping up its environmental focus, first by recently cutting the amount of waste going to landfill from 60% to zero and next by introducing biomass technology to convert food waste into grey water and compost.
“We won’t have a choice soon as we will be regulated by government. But the benefits of doing it willingly are employees will respect you for creating a clean business, consumers will trust you and it’s a wonderful marketing tool.”
Value 3 Work fewer hours
The kitchen environment remains the biggest barrier to attracting young people, according to Blanc, and a challenge many leading establishments are yet to address.
“Violence in the kitchen has been heavily publicised and sensationalised on television. Young people being humiliated drew huge numbers of viewers. Burn marks, macho culture – it’s frightening to see that. That’s how people see our industry. It’s harmed us so badly.”
Blanc is reducing the average weekly number of hours worked by staff from 56 to 52 within six months and then to 48 within 18 months in response to millennial workers’ desire for a better work-life balance.
He’s delivering it by closing for half a day on Monday, finding efficiencies, such as reducing the number of high-maintenance flowerbeds, and simplifying the food that is produced.
Value 4 Deliver the gastronomy of tomorrow
“I’ve looked at the food and feel it is a bit overcomplicated,” says Blanc. “I always change my food and it’s about staying relevant in an industry that is so competitive.”
A new, simpler style will reduce not just the production time and kitchen pressure, but also improve stock turn and focus on the best ingredients.
“It’s about modernity and what the guest wants today. Remove five or six inconsequential bits and focus on buying the best prawns, best sea bass, a turbot of 6kg rather than a meagre farmed turbot,” he says.
Similarly, the wine range has been cut from 1,700 lines to 400, with a biodynamic and organic focus.
“The modern guest is stressed; they work bloody hard and when they come here they don’t want to be more stressed when the sommelier puts a huge bible in front of them. And it gives the sommelier a story for each wine: this little wine is made in such a way, it is small, artisan, there are only so many bottles made, with no chemicals whatsoever.”
Value 5 Develop your people
Every new starter at Le Manoir is given a full two-day induction, with time in each department to gain insight into guest expectations “and so they don’t think ‘my headache is worse than your migraine’,” says Blanc.
“You need training, proper inductions to support these young people,” he continues. “They must have goals according to their abilities and a training plan on what they’re going to learn and when, so there’s proper structure.”
It’s an area Blanc says has hugely benefited from the support of Belmond – which, as Orient Express, bought Le Manoir in 2002 – through better training programmes, technology to improve efficiencies and HR knowledge.
Value 6 Inclusive luxury
The final value stems from Blanc’s desire to create an establishment that his working-class father would be proud to visit.
“I saw English people eating their soup in a funny way, bum on the edge of the seat, back up straight, and I thought ‘oh my god, it has to change’. I murdered the protocol of the table in Great Britain. I immediately told young waiters to talk to guests because at the time they were not allowed to. It created an environment that is convivial, and that is part of our success.”
This has never been more important, he says, in a time when billionaire customers wear jeans “with a hole in”.
But underpinning all the values is the most important ingredient for building culture: passion.
“There is passion in this place that is so encompassing, so powerful. It’s why we all embrace the vision and own it. And this helps with young people. We are the custodians of something important. Maybe small, but important.”
Anne Marie Owens, head gardener, on respect for food
“Every year, we run produce tastings with executive chef Gary Jones, development chef Adam Johnson and two or three gardeners. There will be 12 varieties of everything and we’ll taste them blind, quickly ruling things out if the flavour doesn’t carry or the texture is too grainy. You know you’ve found something good when nobody says a word; they just groan.
“Guests really enjoy learning how we work and why we do things. The gardening school deconstructs fine-dining mythology, like showing how to grow microherbs in a yogurt pot on a window sill.”
Arnaud Goubet, director of wine, on caring for your people
“It hit us hard recently with millennials with new values. We have to retrain ourselves to adapt and nurture them. The most important value for me is care. Take care of your people and then it’s easy to take care of the guests after. That’s probably the biggest change: being able to look at ourselves and say ‘how can we adjust?’ If we wait, we’ll find there’s a big gap between what the market wants and what we’re providing.”
Benoit Blin, chef-pâtissier, on Le Manoir values
“When you leave Le Manoir, you don’t just leave with a strong set of skills, but also values. [Former Le Manoir sous chef] Luke Selby moved on to Hide, which has a different set of values, and now he has the responsibility to challenge that for himself.
“Can you create another Le Manoir anywhere else? That would be very difficult. It’s an ethos, a way of life. The machine works because of all the people and values. Staff come here because they know what they’re going to get in terms of development and training and their future will be affected by it. How many places can offer to one of those youngsters a game-changer?”
Gary Jones, executive head chef, on changing the kitchen environment
“It’s highly pressured and we’re full for lunch and dinner. You must control your environment the best you possibly can.
“We’re dealing with millennials and taking people at a base level and evolving their skills, so when things go wrong, you’ve got to be supportive and retrain, reshape and coach along the way, rather than jump all over them.
“For youngsters coming into the kitchen, they’re on an 8am-4pm shift, so they have the evening off to recover. We’ve got to make it more attractive to people in schools.”
Mourad Ben Tekfa, restaurant director, on reducing hours
“It’s a difficult balance. With craftsmanship, you have to put in the hours, repeat until you fail, then start over again.
“We have a beautiful pigeon en croute on the menu, but if you want to learn how to prepare the dough, cook it properly and carve it properly at the table, it takes time.
“You also have to manage your staff in a different way and take every opportunity to listen to them, give feedback, get feedback, and revisit with them how the environment should be for the benefit of everyone.”
Jan-Paul Kroese, general manager, on making your values work for your business
“With our values, you have to be willing to invest time and money. Moving from free-range to organic eggs costs £18,000 a year. It’s all about making choices. We have a certain food cost and within that we make choices.
“If the chefs want to invest in organic eggs because they’re the better option, because of taste and environmental impact, I think that’s a wonderful choice. It will mean they’ll probably have to make a choice somewhere else in the budget. We’re not free-for-all.
“The kitchen garden saves us 2-4% on food cost in the summer, so that means we can spend on things like organic eggs.
“First, you need to make sure you understand the long-term value of something. I’ve been lucky to be from a generation that’s embraced those values easily. It’s always going to be an option to look at the greener alternative, and that also makes our guests and my team feel great about making that choice. Those are the kind of things that for me are very important.
“When I saw Raymond and learned about the opportunity here, I fell in love. What he’s doing is amazing. I learn a lot and am able to help with the things he isn’t able to do. Sometimes it’s good to have an external point of view.”
What’s next for Le Manoir? Raymond Blanc on…
…creating a farm and vineyard
“The farm will be seven times bigger than the current garden, which we’ll convert into an art garden. It will supply more than just this place. We’ll sell our vegetables in a beautiful farm shop. My juices, cider, all the extra vegetables – fantastic. The vineyard has taken two years to prepare and I’ve got top professionals and the world’s best nursery man working with me.”
…three Michelin stars
“I never wanted them. I made that choice a long time ago. I didn’t want to take the risk when growing the place. Previously a restaurant with 10 rooms, servicing them at a high level of service and luxury, there was not enough revenue. We would have got three stars, but I decided not to take the risk.”
“It’s not for me to decide. Belmond is keen to have me here for very obvious reasons. I know the figures I give, and I’ve established the virtues of this place – authenticity, truth, care of young people. Through all my other activities, like Jardin Blanc at Chelsea Flower Show, where there will be 6,500 people – they’re all our guests here. When I do a TV programme, I’m a feeder.”