Having set up your chilidren’s cookery school La Petite Ecole at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, you are clearly an exponent of children in the kitchen. What is your earliest memory of cooking?
We lived the most cliché of French life where the table was the very heart of the house. From about five or six years, my siblings and I were already helping our father in the garden. We were five children and we didn’t have much money, so the garden was very important; it was the garden that produced our food, and I mean a serious amount of food.
Our vegetable garden was about a one-and-a-half acres. Actually, my father did very little. The children did all the work – moving stones, preparing the earth, churning it out, watering the plants, and then of course picking the produce. I remember as a child going to fetch wild strawberries or raspberries. It was like a scene from a Walt Disney film. Beautiful ripe fruits growing on the trees, falling, huge grapes on these tall trees. The flavours were unbelievable. Everything was good for hunting, whether wild asparagus or mushrooms. I had a blissful childhood, which was the most incredible, joyful thing. As a result, I developed a deep understanding of the moods and cycles of the seasons and a great respect for purity. Plus it was enormous fun.
So what sort of things do you remember actually preparing?
Any local produce, like chicken, for example. We would go into the farm next door, because we didn’t raise chickens, we raised rabbits. My father would find the biggest, fattest rooster, a mega specimen around 5kg, and I would have to run after it and tackle it with rugby moves. Eventually, I would win – after one or two hours – and bring the beast back home and kill it. I would remove the feathers, the stomach, then give it to my mother to cook. I was a minion in the kitchen.
We also often ate rabbit for Sunday lunch. I remember my mother loved the rabbits, she really loved them, but she also loved the taste and flavour. We would see her smiling and crying at the same time while she was eating the rabbit. Every Sunday, there was a large family gathering and the children were very much part of the event. We had to behave, but food was really much a part of our culture.
Did you do the same with your children?
My children were brought up in England which is a very different environment. They were both at private school, where food had no importance whatsoever, so it was more difficult to teach them from a distance. I also didn’t want to bring them up in the same profession. Still I showed them how to cook an egg and how to do a little omelette – simple food.
What inspirited you to start La Petite Ecole?
We’ve been doing the cooking school for seven years now. It was the first business to actively encourage children in the hotel and restaurant. We had a bit of criticism at first from some food writers who thought little hooligans have no place in that temple and shrine of excellence. I didn’t want my restaurant to be a temple. It is part of my culture to have children around. It takes two seconds to make a foe or friend of a child. They make their minds up so fast. When they come here I give them a big wink and say “I’m the best ice cream or chocolate cake maker. You wait and I will show you in the kitchen later.” In one minute you’ve made a friend.
So you’ve never had any disasters?
Once, but was a long time ago. A totally paranoid and silly mother, whose son was behaving like a little assassin in the restaurant – pulling everything, throwing glasses. We told the child to quieten down because the mother didn’t. But generally, we never have problems. We cook real food for children. As far as the school is concerned, I felt that children were treated so badly, a big problem in our society which is going to get worse if we don’t deal with it now. We have a full course divided into age groups. It’s fun with very much a party-like atmosphere. It’s not just cooking. We’re connecting the children. We have a two-acre organic vegetable garden where they can grow and nurture their seeds in a pot. There are lots of fun competitions with blind tasting, knowledge competitions, and a prize for the best chocolate-maker.
Parents now really need to understand the impact of food on every facet of our life. But basically we have to target our children first, to introduce them to the meaning of food and how it affects our family lives. Let’s think of one aspect of it: if a parent doesn’t have time once a week to cook and gather the family together, imagine what kind of society we are creating. When you eat together as a family, you get to know each other, love each other. It’s a natural way to communicate. You can learn a lot of social skill and graces – why not? The pleasure of food is important but we need to learn how to eat well and have a balanced meal too.
At what age do you think children should start?
From the nipple. Sorry to be so raw, but it really should start from birth. As your baby grows, let her explore food – give some lovely new strawberries, totally organic, and let her experiment. The juice is going to go all over the place, but who cares? You’re just introducing your baby to very delicious flavours. Obviously don’t give a piece of rhubarb unless you hate your child! But a nice ripe plum or fig is perfect for your child to discover flavours, textures, colours, to be interested in food, to show the diversity. By introducing your child to better food, I think what you are doing is enormous. You are helping your child to be part of a community by sitting him at the table and sharing a meal with him, or a strawberry or a piece of mild cheese. You’re getting to know your baby, and her likes and dislikes, as well.
It also has wider implication. If your child is eating a locally grown organic strawberry, then that must have benefited a local organic farmer, which then helps to keep the colour and character of our villages, and support our farming community which has suffered so much. Plus, a strawberry is healthy and has the right vitamins and minerals so you’re talking about mega effects on health, environmental and social factors.
Are any golden rules that parents should follow?
Don’t devaluate food. Understand how it connects with everything else, and try to pass that on to your child. Parents may need to re-educate themselves before educating their child. Be humble about that.
I think the modern consumer has a collective role to play for demanding a better food chain and a more sustainable form of farming and better quality ingredients for ourselves and children.
Do you think parents should be cooking more wholesome foods?
I wish we would think a little and give more importance to food within the context of the family. Cooking often means effort, I’m sorry, but you don’t have to create a gastronomic feast. Give me three eggs, some olive oil and I will give you the most fabulous omelette, with tomatoes, fresh herbs and cheese. In no time you have created a wonderfully healthy, delicious meal that has taken three minutes. We are hiding behind false reasons why we don’t cook. It is a tiny effort. How can we buy soup in tins when you can make the most delicious, wholesome soup in about five minutes. Just chop anything you have – broccoli, cauliflower, a bit of butter, sweat it up, pour boiling water over, bring to the boil, purée then serve with cream and you’ve got a wonderful soup. I don’t buy the fact that we don’t have time.
What sort of things can young children do in the kitchen?
They can do a lot of peeling! All the stirring and tasting. They’re more likely to eat broccoli if you explain to them that they’re going to cook it, and see how the texture changes from its raw state to cooked.
Who do you think are the best culinary role models for children?
I think Jamie Oliver has been absolutely brilliant. He’s a role model and I’m glad. Jamie’s the guy who’s done a great deal.
What about Gordon, who’s a bit more lively?
No, that’s jumping on the bandwagon of marketing. There are some serious chefs who I truly like, like Jamie and Delia Smith. There are a lot of chefs who have jumped on the band wagon, who don’t give a shit about it, but just jump on the marketing to bring their image up.
Would you give any advice to budding chefs?
Anyone who can touch his passion and talent is a very lucky man. Touch and find your talent, and if you find it, give your all, not half your energy and heart, but all of it. Have fun. Although it’s a very demanding profession, it’s the most exciting profession – you touch art, people, it’s very rewarding.
What are the benefits of getting children interested in food and cooking?
The immediate benefit is to see one’s child enjoying food, rather than throwing it on the wall or in your face. Then a child knowing more about food and where it comes from. It makes your child more intelligent, more aware. Equally it creates a closeness and a bond with your child. Food is one of the greatest bonders of people. You introduce your child to a whole new world, the world of farming, sustainability, nutrition. By sharing that moment, to eat a meal together, you are creating a closer society. A closer family first then a closer society.
La Petite Ecole children’s cookery school runs one-day non-residential courses between August 14–17 and costs £195 per child. For details, tel: 01844 278881
Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford OX44 7PD; www.lemanoir.com