Chef Raymond Blanc tells Tim Hughes about his star debut at the Wilderness festival

He is one of our favourite television chefs; known to millions as the affable face of one of the country’s best restaurants.

But next weekend, Raymond Blanc is leaving the kitchen heat of his Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in Great Milton, and heading into the countryside – wellies and all.

The star of TV shows Kew on a Plate, How to Cook Well, and The Restaurant, will next weekend bring his Gallic culinary flair to the woodlands of Cornbury Park for the Wilderness festival, where he will prepare a series of long-table banquets for music-lovers.

And while the hedonistic circus of Wilderness is a far cry from the clipped borders and trim flower beds of Le Manoir, he says he can’t wait to serve up a menu specially designed for the three-day celebration of music, food and arts – at which he shares top-billing with Bjork, singer-songwriter Ben Howard and jazz-funk artist George Clinton.

“Yes, it will be a challenge, there is no doubt about that,” he smiles. “But where there’s a will there is a way.”

It’s a sunny evening and we are working our way through a bottle of mineral water in a shady corner of his Brasserie Blanc, in Jericho. The restaurant, close to his North Oxford home, has recently been refurbished to his own design. He proudly shows off the decor – and the new menu – before conversation returns to his foray into the country.

“It will be no problem cooking for all those people,” he says, in an accent as rich and deliciously French as his signature soupe de framboise. “It will be a military operation; we will have teams of people cooking certain things.

“You need rigour, discipline and total organisation, as talent alone is never enough to carry you. That’s the first thing I teach the young people who come and work with me.

“I want to see what I can get out of it – and I will be there with (development chef) Adam Johnson, who is my wonderful field marshal!”

This may be Raymond’s first foray into the woods at Wilderness – where he will be joined by fellow Michelin-starred chefs Angela Hartnett, Nuno Mendes and James Knappett – but he is no stranger to festivals, having hosted a live cooking demonstration at Jamie Oliver and Alex James’s Big Feastival, on Alex’s farm up the road at Kingham. He returns this year, sharing a bill with rappers Dizzee Rascal and Grandmaster Flash, dance music stars Groove Armada and Example, and Paloma Faith.

Born into a working class household near Besancon, in eastern France, Raymond acquired his obsession with food from his parents – ‘Maman Blanc’ being a notable cook and Raymond’s father a keen gardener and forager –the young lad joining him on trips into the surrounding woods.

After a short-lived stint as a glass washer and waiter near his home town, the young Raymond packed up his Renault 5 and crossed the Channel, arriving in Oxfordshire for his first real kitchen job – at the Rose Revived in Newbridge.

It was there he also met his first wife – the owner’s daughter Jenny. They went on to have two children, divorcing in the mid-80s. He was subsequently married to psychotherapist Kati Cottrell, again divorcing in the 90s.

From Newbridge, he came to Oxford, working at La Sorbonne in the High Street, then setting up his own Les Quat’ Saisons in prosaic surroundings in Summertown, in 1977. The establishment was an instant success, being named Egon Ronay Guide Restaurant of the Year and picking up two Michelin stars.

“When I came to England, food was a disaster!” he laughs. “But I didn’t come on a white horse to try to save it; I was just a young man with a big dream to create a beautiful restaurant, and Oxford gave me everything. When I got here and held a frying pan, I knew where my heart lay.

“England was in a terrible abyss, and I felt for it, but instead of laughing I fought for the nation and we got through together.”

Entrepreneurial spirit to the fore, in 1981 he opened the first of his nationwide chain of La Maison Blanc cafes and bakeries, then, two years later, made the move to Great Milton, turning an old manor house into one of the country’s finest restaurants.

In the 90s, he opened the first of his Le Petit Blancs. Now known as Brasserie Blanc, they offer a more informal, homely experience than the gastronomic temple of Le Manoir.

“A visit to Le Manoir is a special treat,” he says. “People might go once a year, or once a lifetime, but this is a place I want people to be able to come all the time – to eat good French cooking made from mainly local produce from butchers, farmers and fishmongers who I know. The first thing my mother told me was gastronomy must be local and produce must come from your own earth – either your garden or close to it. And this is my terroir. I have always loved Oxford, and I have lived in the heart of the city for 36 years. I am part of this community; its values are our values – and that is at the heart of my gastronomy.”

So what does he have planned for Wilderness? He winks, but says nothing. But while the menu remains a secret, he says he can’t wait to get started. “I love the idea of being asked to create a theme,” he says. “And this festival looks brilliant!”

Wilderness Festival. Cornbury Park, August 6-9. For details and tickets go to
The Big Feastival, August 28-30,