Last Summer, we had the great good fortune (although at the time it didn't feel like it) to agree to be the bookseller at the UK's First Children's Food Festival, a monumental undertaking that saw us haul a transit van full of cookbooks, two marquees and assorted furniture/ tarpaulins, etc. to the middle of a muddy field near Abingdon over two days. The experience was incredible, but at the time it nearly killed us. Two very good things came out of that experience. One: we learned an awful lot about planning future book events, and two: we met the amazing Raymond Blanc. Raymond was the undoubted star of the event. His ability to inspire and communicate passion about food to both young and old was a joy to observe. At the time, he mentioned his planned autobiography for the following year, so we asked him if he would come and do a signing in the shop when it was published. He agreed, and sixteen months later - true to his word - he made the journey to Abingdon. We anticipated a lot of interest. In this part of Oxfordshire - 12 miles or so from Le Manoir - everyone is tremendously proud and possessive of Raymond Blanc, looking upon him very much as a local hero/favoured son. However, one last marketing push couldn't do any harm. So, given the success of the chalkboard eight day's earlier, I stuck to the kind of no-nonsense marketing messages that had performed so well for Martin Clunes:
This time I'm not sure we needed it. By 1.30pm we had too many people in the shop, and I had to request the start of an orderly queue outside the shop:
Nicki and I have watched both series of The Restaurant religiously. Several of the wannabe restaurateurs have been married couples, so there are some great insights and lessons to be grabbed (even if it sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing). One of Raymond's key messages is attention to detail - and Nicki had spotted the obvious mistake in our window display earlier in the week, replacing the bottle of Chilean Merlot for French Shiraz:
By 2pm, the queue was halfway up Stert Street and the traffic was slowing down:
I started chatting to the front of the queue. One couple had travelled up from Dorset. I started to panic that we wouldn't have enough books. I had arranged to meet Raymond in the car park and escort him to the shop. En route we were accosted by a lady who shrieked when she realised who the famous chef next to me was. Having missed the final episode of The Restaurant, she asked him who had won - clearly overwhelmed at getting the result from the great man himself. We hurried round the corner into Stert Street.Obviously I'm biased, and I'm a big fan. But really, the guy is incredible. He sat for over three hours, talking, signing, having his picture taken with everyone who asked - and always being nothing but sincere, genuine and passionate. He took time to give advice to budding chefs. These guys (Tom and Matthew) were seriously buzzing when they left the shop:
Adam is another budding chef - I have a suspicion he received an invite to come and look around the kitchens at Le Manoir.
As at the Food Festival, he really connected with the kids: Here are the Webbs from Dorset: Having arrived at 2pm, we didn't expect him to still be around at 5pm. He didn't bat an eyelid when we asked him to sign pre-orders with personalised dedications.He even tried some cake. Obviously we'd never reveal what he thought, but if you've never been in for one of Alison's chocolate brownies you might now want to give them a go: It was a really incredible day. A big thank you must go to Leanda and Tracey at Le Manoir for setting everything up. And of course to Alison and Cailin who worked almost as hard as Raymond all day in the shop. But mostly we owe a big thank you to Monsieur Blanc for going above and beyond the call of duty for a book signing. He could have showed up, signed a few books, and that would have been great. Instead he turned it into one of the most special events we've ever had in the shop - and an unforgettable day for the people who came to meet him.