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21 April 2014

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Interview with Raymond Blanc

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raymond blanc 2012_Sustainable City awards - Raymond_Blanc_launches_the_Sustainable_City_Awards_2012.jpgRaymond Blanc OBE has judged the ‘sustainable fish’ category of the City of London Corporation’s Sustainable City Awards 2012, whose winners are to be announced on 1 March. A passionate campaigner for ethical food practices for nearly two decades, Blanc was a pioneer of the sustainable fish movement, and his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons was the first Michelin-rated establishment to be accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council. Square Meal asked the French chef for his take on sustainability issues in the restaurant world.

The Sustainable City Awards have shortlisted lots of local restaurants in favour of more high-profile ones. Was this a conscious decision, or are high-profile restaurants less committed to serving sustainable fish?

I think the world is changing. Two years ago, I would have told you straightaway that there were hardly any [high-profile restaurants serving sustainable fish]. It’s sad because chefs are meant to be the ambassadors for gastronomy and to hold all of these values. Before, chefs were highly creative but didn’t take into account the importance of the sea. But, at last, the chef is becoming a leader. It’s very exciting.

Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons was the first Michelin-starred restaurant to be accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council. How important is it for two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants to practise sustainability

It’s hugely important because we’re the leaders: everything comes from the top down. If Michelin-starred chefs don’t realise the importance of sustainability and simply go on doing business as usual, as if there are plenty more fish in the sea, then we will be in trouble.

Why aren’t more Michelin-starred restaurants following your example?

It’s a problem of culture. Thirty years ago, food was totally unimportant. The food in top restaurants was not very good; the chefs didn’t care. Nobody cared about sustainability – not customers, not retailers, not restaurants. The food chain was a nightmare. Over the years, chefs started to connect their work with their creativity, but they did not connect their creativity with their conscience. Now, though, the whole world has started to wake up and it’s exciting. If you don’t care about sustainability, you will be marked out. The consumer will know which are the good guys and the bad guys.

Should it be Michelin-starred restaurants leading the way, forming public opinion and educating customers?

I think it’s the restaurants’ responsibility to serve only sustainable fish. At Le Manoir, we explain everything to our guests. If you communicate with your guests you will be amazed how they respond.

It’s a more complicated issue for places like Nobu and Zuma: commercially, it can affect them. But there are always other fish, there are plenty that you can use, and those restaurants have to look at the bigger picture: the proper management of our seas. We have a duty of care. People are buying into ethical issues more and more and I think chefs will play an increasingly important role.

At the moment it seems to be chain restaurants and independent eateries that are leading the way with sustainability. Do you think that this is unusual?

Chains are usually not led by ethical values but by profit and commerce, so they traditionally go for low food costs. But some chains are featured in our shortlist for the Sustainable City Awards, which shows that such groups are starting to engage completely with this issue.

Even McDonald’s have responded to ethical concerns. I don’t like to promote McDonald’s but I will for once. Years ago, I said that if McDonalds didn’t change its products, it would not exist as a business in the future. People were asking the right questions of McDonald’s, and because of that, it completely changed its ethics and morals. It has responded to the voice of its consumers and taken a lot of responsibility at the risk of killing the brand. That should be a lesson to other restaurants.

Was it difficult to find restaurants to shortlist for the Sustainable City Awards? What proportion of restaurants in the UK do you think are properly committed to sustainability?

If I guess it will be about 10%. That may be very generous of me. But it’s a start. It’s growing – there’s a huge momentum. And businesses who want to do the right thing by doing this will have more customers. It’s massive and exciting that food is now in our consciousness and not separate from ethical issues. We are thinking and behaving differently.

Where would you eat if you had to choose a high-end sustainable restaurant (apart from Le Manoir)?

Bistrot Bruno Loubet – Bruno strikes me as a wonderful man and a wonderful chef. The Galvin brothers are marvellous, and they cook responsibly. And Heston Blumenthal is a great guy with a great reputation.

The Sustainable Fish award category is being run in conjunction with Sustainable Fish City. To find out more about the City of London Corporation’s Sustainable City Awards 2012 or to read the shortlist, visit the organisation’s website.

Interview conducted in February 2012.

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