Bradford-born chef Clive Fretwell on how he became Raymond Blanc's go-to guy

PUBLISHED: 20:24 13 March 2013 | UPDATED: 21:09 05 April 2013

Clive Fretwell, director and executive chef of Brasserie Blanc, outside the Leeds restaurant in Victoria Mill

Clive Fretwell, director and executive chef of Brasserie Blanc, outside the Leeds restaurant in Victoria Mill

Bradford-born chef Clive Fretwell tells Jo Haywood how he became Raymond Blanc's go-to guy

They might have been born 12 years and 730 miles apart, but Raymond Blanc and Clive Fretwell have a lot in common.

Both are dedicated, talented chefs; both are passionate about seasonal, local produce; both like to talk the hind leg off a rare breed pig; and, perhaps most importantly of all, both were first introduced to the joys of cooking by their no-nonsense mothers.

Ive always cooked because my mother always cooked, said Clive, chatting animatedly over coffee at Brasserie Blanc in Leeds. She came from a family of 13; we were a family of six. We all cooked so we could all eat.

I think my food experiences as a child have shaped the way I eat and cook today. Sometimes money was tight when I was a kid and we only had a few ingredients to work with, but we still ate well. My mum could make something absolutely delicious out of a cabbage, a couple of strips of bacon and a handful of beans. She taught me well.

Clive, who was born in the front room of his familys Bradford home in 1961, was just five when he decided he was going to cook his first solo Sunday lunch. He sent his mum back to bed and got stuck in, only calling for help when he realised he didnt know how to make Yorkshire puddings.

Now he has more than 2,500 recipes in his repertoire, each created, developed and tested for Brasserie Blanc, where hes been director and executive chef for five years.

I photograph everything I make so our chefs know exactly whats required of them, said Clive. I try to make every recipe foolproof, minimising, if not eliminating, the places where a chef could mess it up.
This habit of photographing and recording in minute detail each step of his recipes was something he learned early in his career, and it paid particularly impressive dividends when he first met Raymond.

When RB (as he habitually calls Monsieur Blanc) was looking for a chef at Le Manoir I went along to the interview and just handed him my recipe diary, said Clive. He poured over it for 40 minutes, barely saying a word.

Needless to say, he got the job, working his way up to head chef in the 14 years he spent at Raymonds world-famous Oxfordshire restaurant. Not bad for a man who, as a teenager, hadnt a clue what he wanted to do with his life.

It was 1977 and there were no jobs and no prospects, he explained. Mum suggested catering college as a way of keeping me occupied. I thought Id give it a go what did I have to lose? And from day one I absolutely loved it.

He was good at it too, scooping Student of the Year when he graduated from Bradford Catering College along with six of the seven available cups (the seventh was for front-of-house skills, so he soon got over it).

His post-graduate career began at the Hotel Jarl in Norway, where poachers often arrived in the kitchen with salmon and reindeer, before taking him to the Michelin-starred Hotel Richmond Geneva in Switzerland, Le Manoir in Oxfordshire and a four-year stint at Itsu, the London-based Japanese sushi bar chain.

And now hes back working with RB again, developing Brasserie Blanc and a new White Brasserie pub-based venture. But hasnt he ever hankered after his own place?

I was one signature away from opening my own 60-cover restaurant in Oxford, said Clive. I got very, very close, but I realised I knew nothing about the financial side of business. Im very, very pleased I didnt go down that route. It would have been a disaster.

There are now 20 Brasserie Blanc restaurants across the country, with half a dozen new sites currently being scrutinised by RB and CF (thats Clive Fretwell, in case you were wondering). They recently launched two White Brasserie outlets and plan to continue building this pub-based brand until its on a par with the already well-established stand-alones.

Raymond and Clive inevitably have to work very closely to ensure the Blanc brand is not diluted by expansion, but do they always see eye-to-eye?

We both have strongly-held views and are not afraid to air them, said Clive, with admirable diplomacy. If I think hes wrong, Ill tell him. But hes a magician in the kitchen, and magicians are rarely wrong.

One of Clives strongly-held views is that there are good chefs, and there are naturals. And the key to discovering the next great chef is to seek out a natural.

Im a natural cook, and I reckon about one in 20 of the young chefs I work with is a natural, he said. You can spot them straight away. I worked with Marco (Pierre White) for several years and he was an absolute natural.

A good chef can produce a great plate of food, but a natural can blow you away with their creativity.

But even a natural like Clive draws the line at cooking for a super-natural like Raymond.

I would never have him home for dinner. Never, he said. The pressure of cooking for him would be too intense. Something informal, like a barbecue, no problem. But a formal dinner? No chance.

Clives still happy to cook for him mum though, popping in regularly to his parents home in Sheffield on his way to and from the Leeds brasserie.

Theyre very proud of what Ive achieved, he said. And mum even asks me for recipes occasionally. Not for cakes though. She still makes the best cakes bar none.

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