Last weekend was the 29th annual Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery at St Catherine's College, on the topic Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods. I am proud to say that I have been attending this annual get-together on and off for more than 20 years; at the same time, I was saddened to see so few chefs participating in these exciting discussions.
On a personal level I would even say that the Symposium was instrumental in changing my life. I met three great men at this Symposium, Harold McGee, Alan Davidson and Nicholas Kurti. The word molecular gastronomy had not yet been coined, but these great men were already delving into the mysteries of cuisine. I was a self-taught young chef and Nicholas especially was crucial in teaching me enough science to empower me, by understanding the chemical and physical processes that control all manner of techniques, such as emulsions, roasting, frying, boiling, steaming and even low-temperature cooking.
For many years, he took me deeper and deeper into these same questions, I remain most indebted to Nicholas Kurti (1908-1998), who retired in 1975 as Professor of Physics at Oxford University. He used to bicycle to visit me in my kitchen - a wonderful sight, with his white hair flowing in the breeze.
Nicholas must have liked my cooking - he certainly helped me improve it. He loved cooking himself: in 1969 he gave a talk at the Royal Society (of which he was, of course, a most distinguished Fellow) called "The Physicist in the Kitchen", where he amazed his scientist-audience by using a newly invented gadget called the microwave oven to make an inside-outomelette norvegienne (Baked Alaska), cold on the outside and hot inside. He also performed this culinary miracle - and several others - over the years at the Oxford Symposium, of which he was an early participant who became an elder statesman. This connection resulted in my book "Blanc Mange" (1994, followed by my BBC2 series Demystifying the chemistry of cooking.)
Last week I renewed an old friendship with one of this year's speakers, Harold McGee, the author of McGee on Food & Cooking, a book that belongs in every chef's kitchen library.
My other great influence was one of the founders of the Symposium, Alan Davidson (1924-2003), whose life's work,The Oxford Companion to Food, I consult nearly every day, as I do his several books on fish. Though his own tastes ran to ice cream and trifles, Alan also encouraged me in my pursuit of the scientific understanding of my own cooking.
That is why the Symposium is so central for much that I was doing. I have gained so much knowledge and made such important friendships at these meetings, that I was thrilled at being able to give something major back to the Symposium last year, when my executive head chef Gary Jones and our team joined St Catz' chef, Tim Kelsey, and prepared a splendid, multi-course Saturday night banquet for the 200 Symposiasts. It was quite a feat to use someone else's kitchen to prepare a meal that was up to Le Manoir standards, and I am proud and delighted to say that we succeeded!
I have felt for a long time that the Symposium, a group that is about 60% academics from many disciplines - scientists, medical people, historians, anthropologists, psychologists and literary types - and 40% practical people, gardeners, farmers, marketers, engineers, food technologists, artists, writers (plenty of food journalists) and interested amateur cooks, really needed more chefs to attend. And my own wonderful experiences at the Symposium convinced me that chefs can profit enormously from the intellectual content, from the sharing of great meals, and from the networking opportunities, which are not to be despised.
That was why last year I had to idea to create a "scholarship" for young chefs to attend the Symposium. The board of trustees of the Symposium (it's a registered charity) decided to seek sponsorship to underwrite free places for the weekend for several young professional cooks chosen by me, and did me the honour of calling the scheme the Raymond Blanc Young Chef award. (Le Manoir, I'm happy to say, was one of the sponsors again this year.)
The young people come to Oxford a bit early, put on their whites, and help in the kitchen at St.Catz. The first batch of winners, last year, actually also worked with us in the kitchen of Le Manoir, and every one of them said this mini-stage was a great experience. This year, Elaine Mahon, Daniel Penn (and later, Max Barber) worked with Jeremy Lee ofLondon's Blueprint Café for the Friday dinner, with the chefs of Barshu on Saturday's Sichuan/Hunan lunch and with Pádraic Óg Gallagher (of Gallagher's Boxty House) on the Saturday night "grand Irish banquet."
Like last year's winners, though, the most important thing was that they attended all the talks and presentations that take place at the Oxford Symposium, from which I so much benefited myself.
The next Oxford Symposium takes place on 8-10 July 2011 at St Catz. It is the Symposium's 30thanniversary, and the subject, aptly enough, is "Celebrations." I encourage any reader under 30 or so (they're flexible as to the meaning of "young") to apply to come. The details of how to do it will appear in due course on www.oxfordsymposium.org.uk.