This year, six lucky bronze participants from Wheatley Park School in Oxfordshire were invited to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant just down the road. Blanc, who has run Le Manoir since 1984 – and his eponymous on-site cookery school for 30 years – was an early advocate for teaching cooking and nutrition, and has recently become involved with the DofE, including attending a gold presentation in 2017.
“I think the charity is fantastic,” says Blanc, before the children’s arrival. “It offers so many opportunities for young people to discover, or rediscover, what has been lost. Whether that’s working for elderly people, charities, doing building work, working at a hospital, on a farm, they really test their metal, strengthen themselves and help others. That’s what we’ve forgotten in our society.”
Among the six attendees today are Sarah Culleton, 14, and Jake Richards, 15. “I’ve been cooking for quite a while now, I’d say five years,” says Jake. “It’s a passion, a hobby.” For Sarah, the inspiration to cook for her DofE came from seeing her mother cooking constantly. Already a keen baker, “I thought I might as well do cooking, to help her out and get life experience”, she explains. “I think people should learn before they go off to university and their own houses – they need the skills.”
The class is run by Mark Peregrine, who was Blanc’s first ever apprentice back in 1979 and, after stints working abroad, has run the Raymond Blanc Cookery School for 12 years. A natural, charismatic teacher, he has plenty of experience instructing both adults and children, describing the latter as better students. “They usually nail it, because they have no preconceptions.”
For Blanc, learning about food and cooking is a crucial life skill, and just as important as other elements of DofE. Through food, he explains, children can learn about nutrition, sustainability, biodiversity, seasonality, budgeting and more. Knowing how to prepare one’s own meals is associated with a healthier diet, providing more variety and lower salt, sugar and saturated fats than ready meals or takeaways.
Cookery, latterly known as domestic science, isn’t currently a compulsory subject in schools beyond Year 9, and is often left to the whim of the head teacher. “We lost our food culture a long time ago,” says Blanc. “We saw food as fuel, and embraced the Walmart culture of the cheap. I really believe, maybe I’m a dreamer, that food will be seriously taught at a very young age at school.”
The class kicks off with a demonstration, by Peregrine, of one of Blanc’s signature dishes – chicken in a shallot, cream, white wine and morel sauce. Peregrine runs through several skills and techniques (how to use knives to slice or dice the shallots; the difference between braising and poaching; the importance of resting the meat and reducing the sauce) before the attendees are wowed by the rich sauce with its earthy mushroom kick.
Then they produce their own dishes: fried salmon with (divisive) crispy skin on a bed of spinach and watercress steamed with wasabi and cream; and an airy dark chocolate mousse. The results are uniformly impressive, confirming Peregrine’s mantra that kids learn quickly.