Hailing from Louvigné du Desert in Brittany, Manon Lagrève is a passionate baker. The nation fell in love with her French flair on the ninth series of The Great British Bake Off back in 2018. However, between being raised on a dairy farm and becoming known for her beautiful bakes, she was an au pair, is an economics and management graduate and a former software project manager; a multi-talented woman to say the least. Since reaching the quarter finals in GBBO, she has built a successful lifestyle blog, Manon’s Little Kitchen, where she shares her mouth-watering recipes, tales of her travels and general musings. I sat down with the delightful Manon before Christmas to chat about food (bien sûr), farming, family and more.
You first came to London as an au pair. Why did you choose this city?
I actually wanted to go to America, but it was difficult to get a visa. I just wanted to learn English, so when London came up, I decided to go for it. I found a host family in two weeks then told my parents that I was off!
I was 19 at the time and didn’t get into my chosen business school, so I had to choose between spending lots of money attending a school I wasn’t interested in or going somewhere to learn English and then come back home to study. I finished my economics degree in France then returned to London because I’d fallen in love with it. London feels like home now and I’ve had so many opportunities here.
After 10 months of being an au pair, you joined a software company and worked your way up to a managerial position. How did you eventually transition to full-time baker?
I’ve always wanted to have my own business because I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Getting a pay cheque at the end of every month is still strange for me; I never grew up with this routine. I’d put enough money aside to live off for around six months, so I just thought, “Fuck it, I’m going to give it a try.” I knew that my skills were in high demand because I was receiving job offers every day, which meant that I felt comfortable leaving my job as I could always find another one if things didn’t work out. I like to take calculated risks!
Your family owns and runs restaurants, dairy farms and vineyards and you’ve said that you’d love to make a documentary about them. Why do you think this show would be so engaging?
When you move away from something you’ve known for so many years, you realise how lucky you are. I had the sort of idyllic upbringing that many people dream about. In our family, we have a strong set of values and sense of community: I love all my cousins and we see each other regularly; I go out with my uncles and aunts like I would with my friends. Nothing has ever been awkward in my family. I grew up surrounded by my extended parents, with one set of grandparents living on the farm and the other only living 15 minutes away by car. We’d all get together for big dinners where there’d be at least 20 of us each time.
Speaking of big dinners, what does a traditional Christmas look like in the Lagrève household?
We have two Christmas meals: one on my mum’s side on the 24th and one on my dad’s side on the 25th. On the 24th, we have appetisers with Champagne then everyone sits down to eat foie gras followed by a seafood platter with prawns, crabs, oysters, etc. By this point, you’re starting to feel a bit full, but that’s just the beginning!
Then we have pigeon, reared by my grandma and prepared by my cousin, who’s a chef. It’s stuffed with chestnuts and served with Gratin Dauphinois, so that’s the main course. At midnight, we open the presents, the cousins all go upstairs to have our annual pillow fight, come down to have wine, a big cheese platter with salad to cleanse our palates, Bûche de Noël [Yule log], more chocolate and dried fruits. And we do it all over again the following day!
Foie gras remains a very controversial ingredient – what’s your view on it?
My parents sold eggs to a guy who made foie gras, so I got to see what happens, and my mum also makes it at home. It’s not that I’m desensitized to it, but what they do is like when you’ve drunk lots of water, your belly is really full and you can’t feel anything. Force feeding animals is obviously cruel, but I think there’s a huge hypocrisy in cities: people walk past the homeless all the time and pay more attention to animals than human beings. I know it’s an extreme thing to say, but we also need to treat people better.
What’s the difference between eating veal and foie gras? To me, eating the former is worse than the latter. In any case, I believe that either you adopt the view that all animals are sacred and don’t eat meat or fish, or understand more about what goes on behind the scenes, e.g. intensively reared cattle, and eat everything.
Having been raised on a farm, you have a deep connection to food and its roots. What advice would you give to city dwellers who’d like to reconnect with their food?
Nowadays, it’s very easy to access information about provenance, so educating yourself is a good starting point. Vegetarianism and veganism have really become popular, which is great because we do need to reduce the amount of meat and dairy that we eat. But people are so disconnected from their food: they see a chicken breast and have no idea where it came from. At home, my grandma rears and kills chickens, she plucks the bird, I eat the head and neck, which are my favourite parts. We cook the whole thing and eat everything. There’s zero waste because we make stock from the carcass as well.
“Eat less meat or dairy, but when you do, make sure it’s good quality.”
I think we need to remove our blinkers and stop saying things like, “Oh, that looks so disgusting.” I know what I’m eating; can people say the same about eating something like McDonald’s chicken nuggets? The same applies to ready-made meals in supermarkets: do you know where the meat is coming from? Let’s stop being hypocritical and spend more money on good food and less on shit food. Eat less meat or dairy, but when you do, make sure it’s good quality. I’m currently reading a book by Jessica Wragg, one of the few female British butchers. In it, she talks about visiting slaughterhouses and it being one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. It didn’t make her love meat any less, but she did come away appreciating it more.
“People are so disconnected from their food.”
I’d also advise people to cook more: if you buy a whole chicken, you can easily feed a family, or a couple for dinner with leftovers for lunch. I cook a lot of vegetarian food at home and usually make two days’ worth of food for around £5 for my boyfriend and I. But there are times when I spend all day baking then can’t be bothered to make dinner, so I order something on Deliveroo. I’d much rather order takeaway than have a ready-made meal as it was made using fresh produce by a chef in a restaurant, but each to their own; I don’t judge others for their choices.
Do you ever make any classic British dishes or treats for your family?
Two years ago, I started making sausage rolls for Christmas and everyone loves them so much that they ask me to make them every year! I get sausage meat from the butcher and add lots of onions, garlic, nutmeg and a bit of seasoning.
Every time a French person criticises British food, I tell them they’re wrong. For me, London is the best place in the world for food right now. I’ve eaten in New York, Paris and so on, but sometimes I prefer what I eat here. I was in Mexico last month and while I really enjoyed the food, I actually preferred what Thomasina Miers [founder of Wahaca] made for us during a recent dinner party.
What are your thoughts on Channel 4’s version of Bake Off compared to the BBC format?
It’s hard to compare the two channels as they both have very different values. Bringing in new presenters shook things up and modernised the programme, making it more appealing to a younger audience. Also, me being French, I didn’t really understand Mel and Sue’s humour; it’s very dry.
Sandy and Noel are hilarious, and I feel like the best bits are edited out. I really admire Sandy for everything she has achieved for the LGBTQ+ community, Noel is so cool and funny, then you have Prue, an incredible chef with a stellar career. I think she’s better than Paul Hollywood due to her broad experience. He’s the expert when it comes to bread, but Bake Off is about more than just baking now. Even when you make cakes, it’s very different to baking bread. Paul Hollywood likes coffee and chocolate or orange and chocolate, so if you work those flavours into your recipes, he’ll be happy. Prue’s palate is more receptive to different combinations.
You’re very active on social media, particularly Instagram. Does it ever becoming overwhelming, and if so, how do you try to avoid reaching that stage?
I’m very lucky to be able to show the real me on Instagram; I don’t pretend that anything is perfect. I’m happy to share my life this way and I enjoy it. Obviously, there are times when I feel insecure, but overall, I’m so proud to work with brands like Citroën, L’Occitane and Comté. Influencers have got a bad reputation, but people like me love what they do and use our voices to positively influence people. I don’t do it for the money. Yes, I have to pay my rent, but I’m proud of my work. And why shouldn’t I get paid for developing a recipe, spending all day on a shoot and then using the platforms that I’ve built to share that with my audience?
In terms of the comparison trap, I have some amazing friends and we support one another, so we don’t get caught up in that. However, there are always a few people who don’t want to see you succeed. Regardless of what you do, they’ll always rain on your parade and there’s no need for it: there’s space for everyone to do their thing and be successful. What I really hate is the popularity game; it’s so unnecessary. I try to focus on the positives of whatever I’m doing.
You’ve already collaborated with some major household brands – which others are on your wish list and why?
There are certain things that I still want to achieve, one of which is creating a product with a specific brand instead of simply advertising something. If I ever become a millionaire, I’d go straight to Anthropologie and buy everything! They do everything, and I adore their homeware: most of my kitchen items are from there. I also love how they support and showcase small brands in their stores. Working with Levis would be a dream come true as well.
As for food brands, I’d love to create a biscuit with Lu. I partner with many French brands, which I love doing: it’s my USP! I’m passionate about the French way of life and promoting it. I also want to change people’s perceptions of French food being difficult: the basic elements of everyday French cuisine are simple. People think that because I’m French, I grew up with crème pâtissière and Chantilly in my veins, but that’s not true; I had to learn how to make them like everyone else!
Prior to appearing on Bake Off, you took part in a show called The Box and were criticised for having an unfair advantage. How did you handle this criticism?
I applied for this show on a whim, which was fronted by James Martin; I had no idea who he was at the time. I came in for half a day, cooked something using the ingredients in the box and that was it. One of my best friends is a professional photographer and when she started out, she took loads of photos of me, which put me at ease in front of cameras. So, if I did have an advantage, it was thanks to my friend, not the show.
I just thought it was a very funny story, and it taught me that anything you read in The Daily Mail or The Sun is absolute rubbish. The Sun ran a headline saying, “Manon from Bake Off cheated!” and the sad thing is that so many people believe everything they read. To be honest, I was the same before as well, i.e. not checking the facts then just repeating what I’d read.
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and I just try to ignore it. The only opinions which matter to me are those of my family and friends. It’s so easy to twist a story using photos, words, video, etc., and I feel bad for people who get ripped to shreds in the press; it’s so unfair. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what you say and that it’s best not to retaliate. Bake Off have a press team which provides media training and helps you to navigate the press. Fame can make people go crazy. I don’t care about that stuff and am lucky to have my childhood friends in my life who keep me grounded. Unfortunately, fame can go to people’s heads and turn them into nasty characters.
You seem like a very optimistic person – how do you maintain a positive outlook despite negative press, current affairs and so on?
I think it comes down to the way I was raised. My mum is a very positive person and that has influenced me. She always says, “You get what you give” and I like to see the positives in every situation. Life is too short and too hard to worry about silly things. In my relationship, there are so many little things that just don’t bother me; they have such a minimal impact on my life that I refuse to waste time stressing about it.
I don’t get stressed very often, although it does happen when people put pressure on me. It’s mainly because I don’t want to disappoint anyone who believes in me. I’m very grateful that my family has always supported me and it makes all the difference.
What do you like the most about yourself? And the least?
I know I talk too much sometimes; I just love listening to people’s stories, asking questions and having that two-way interaction. I can be overly sensitive because I care a lot; I cry often. I think I handle criticism well and do welcome it, but only when it comes from a good place, not if the person is criticising you because they’re unhappy about themselves and jealous of you.
Some people find it hard to handle my honesty. There are times when I’ve been invited to restaurants and while I’m grateful for the generosity, there’s no way that I would’ve paid so much for what I ate. An influencer friend of mine told me that she contacts the restaurant or PR company afterwards to share her feedback privately and then doesn’t post anything on social media. But then where do you go for honest reviews? Influencers don’t make any negative comments because they won’t make any money.
“Some people find it hard to handle my honesty.”
To avoid becoming jaded with it all, I’ve started volunteering at Luminary Bakery. I wanted to get back to connecting with real people in the real world. I love being in the kitchen and at the market all day, seeing how that kind of business operates and meeting people who genuinely care about other people and aren’t self-centred. I’m lucky to earn a good living through working with brands, which enables me to invest my spare time helping people.
Social media has made people become very snobby about food, but it’s one of life’s simplest pleasures, along with sex! I appreciate the dedication that goes into fine food, but that doesn’t mean we should look down on simple pleasures, such as bread and butter, which is like a drug for me.
What’s your most valuable possession and what does it mean to you?
I value the friendships that I’ve made over the past eight years more than possessions. Yes, it’s nice to treat yourself to something on pay day, but that’s not my priority. At university, there was so much emphasis on how you looked and it was draining. Don’t get me wrong, I love fashion and buying nice things, but I don’t have any possessions that I’d be willing to die for. I think people enrich your life, so I have a very laid-back, minimalist approach in general.
I’m very lucky to have been gifted some amazing things as well; I’ve always dreamt about having a Thermomix and now I do. When I went on Bake Off, I bought myself a Kitchen Aid, which I’d wanted for so long. The same goes for Le Creuset gifts; I thought I had to get married to have Le Creuset!
You’re a big fan of Paris-Brest – where’s your favourite one in London?
Yann Couvreur did an event at The Connaught, so his was the best one I’ve had in London by a French pastry chef! French patisserie is very sweet, but also very savoury; we put a lot of salt and vanilla in our patisserie to accentuate the other flavours. His version was so caramel-y, with a praline cream inside; so good!
If you enjoyed this Manon Lagrève interview, you can check out the rest of the Spotlight on Chefs series here.