A kitchen thriller

When thriller supremo Len Deighton goes into hiding, he's as likely to be cooking as writing. In a rare interview, he tells Michael Bateman about the revival of his cookstrips - an easy guide to the essence of French cuisine
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The Independent Culture
A new book from one of Britain's most popular writers, Len Deighton, is always an event. The fact that his latest is a cookery book, a Basic French Cookery Course, makes it even more remarkable.

Deighton is the author of over 30 thrillers, the most successful of which have been filmed. The first, which made his and Michael Caine's name, was The Ipcress File. Deighton broke the mould of upper-class Bond-style agents when he created anti-hero Harry Palmer, an insubordinate Cockney. A string of best-sellers followed such as Horse Under Water and Funeral in Berlin, a number of books set around the Second World War and the novel Winter, the story of a German family from 1900 to Hitler's downfall. Recent trilogies have included Faith, Hope and Charity.

And now a cookbook. If it seems like vanity, it isn't at all. Those with long memories will know that a cookbook from Len Deighton is far from being a new departure. Now in his late sixties, he is a casting a nostalgic backwards glance to a time when, before the dominance of the TV cooks, he himself was a pre-eminent cookery figure of the day.

In the early Sixties, Deighton, not long out of art college, was indulging his passion for cooking. Friends who came to dinner included magazine publisher Clive Irving and graphic designer friend Raymond Hawkey. As he cooked for them in his crowded kitchen in Camberwell, they noticed that he'd pinned step-by-step drawings on the wall as an aide-memoire of the recipes he was preparing, in order to protect his precious cookery books, and the idea of creating a cookstrip was born. It appeared in the Sunday Observer and was an instant success.

The cookstrip became a personal voyage of culinary discovery. Over three years, Deighton graduated from basics to a definitive analysis of the French kitchen. It is this work which he has now revised. The food critic, Fay Maschler, describes it as "one of the best primers to French cookery".

Unexpected as this is, it is the least of the mysteries which surround Deigh-ton, for he is one of Britain's most reclusive authors. It's rare for him to give an interview. It's unusual to sight him at all. The whereabouts of his home is so secret that no one is ever sure which country he currently lives in. He has had homes in Ireland, Austria, France, California and Portugal. Far from being a Europhobe, like many of his compatriots, he loves the company of foreigners and their food. "I'm a xenophile," he declares. Today, Len Deighton has broken cover and is in London. And he is giving me an exclusive interview.

We meet in the kitchens of the Savoy Hotel. Len is a great admirer of its Austrian-born chef de cuisine, Anton Edelmann and the admiration is mutual. "I think Len's best book is Winter," says chef Edelmann. "It's a remarkable achievement. He tells the story from the German side. I asked Len: Do you speak German? He says no. It's remarkable."

But Len Deighton would rather Edelmann praised his cooking, confessing that he prefers the company of caring, sharing chefs to that of other writers. "A gang of writers can pick each other to pieces," he says.

Before lunch, a photograph has to be taken. Deighton has said he doesn't want to be photographed, but he gives in with good grace and reveals that his role during National Service was as a photographer with the Special Investigation Branch in the RAF.

Deighton left the RAF to join BOAC as a steward, working for a time as a pastry chef. His passion for cooking had been inspired by his mother, a professional cook (his father was a chauffeur). "I started cooking very young. My mother let me fool around in the kitchen."

His best subject at school was art, and he later graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, keeping a hand in at cooking, and working for spells as a waiter. As a writer, he was a late developer and his progress was slow and painstaking. When IBM heard that his first book had run to 25 drafts, it offered him one of its new computers. "I believe I wrote the first novel ever on a computer - Bomber, in 1970. It was enormous, an IBM MT72, and it had no screen."

His writing and film career was soon in full spate. He retreated to Ireland to write and married a second time, to Ysabele, a Dutch diplomat's daughter. When they had children, they decided to educate them at home.

"I hate schools. My wife is a scholar, she speaks eight languages, and we arranged things so that neither of our sons went to school. Cooking provided the basic teaching for our children.

"You could call it physics without tears. Weights: English and metric. Measures: dry and liquid. Tempera-tures and heat changes. The dangers of hot metals and hot liquids. The stability of emulsions. History and geography can all be part of the cooking lessons.

"And at the end of each lesson there was something to eat. We ate it with relish. That contribution to the table gave the children something to take pride in.

"By starting early (they are both now in their twenties) my children are very accomplished cooks. They can do many things that I can't. My elder son can bone game birds without breaking the skin. My younger son makes perfect strudel pastry. Only the other day he said what a benefit being able to cook had been at his Californian university."

The boys weren't entirely educated at home because the Deightons decided to move to France, and put them in the village school. Since no English was spoken, they learnt to speak French. And a few years later, Deighton moved to a skiing village outside Salzburg in Austria and repeated the treatment.

In an old-fashioned way, Len insisted the table should be the focal point of the family. "I think sitting down with the whole family to eat is vitally important. In our family it's been a time in which anyone could say anything. Suggestions, complaints, or grievances can all be taken care of round the table."

The result was two internationally orientated young men (one of them speaks Japanese, too) both of whom easily qualified for degree courses at UCLA in California.

Now that the boys have left home Len and his wife have moved back to their house in Portugal. "You get wonderful fresh fish there," he says. "You don't have to do much to it, I sprinkle some top quality olive oil on it and then put it into a hot oven for a few minutes." But as far as the skills of the kitchen are concerned, his loyalty to French cooking has never faltered. "It is methodical and consistent. Every chef I have worked under had a pocket-sized book, Saulnier's Repertoire de la Cuisine, where all the important dishes are listed. Just a one-sentence description is enough to enable a trained chef to cook the dish. In a grand restaurant, if a customer asked for a dish not on the menu, provided it was in the little book, he got it."

The sense of order and discipline in French cooking appeals to Deighton's analytical mind. "I have always been interested in the science of the cooking process. For example, how an egg cooks to provide a structure that is quite firm enough to support a souffle. The effect of heat on different kinds of food. I sometimes cook a shoulder of lamb for three or four hours in a low oven, say 275 degrees. But I wouldn't do that with a leg of lamb. This is because the collagen and connective tissue in the shoulder dissolves to become a delicious 'glue'. The same technique with a leg is a disaster, because the leg is not saturated with fat and collagen."

His Basic French Cookery Course, from which we reprint two of his cookstrips, is not a collection of recipes, therefore, but a system. "It is based on the training given to cooks in the French style," he says. "Trained chefs seldom need recipes because they know what will happen to food. The ideal cookery book, would be called 'Throw Away All Those Recipe Books and Start Cooking'."

That's not to say he doesn't respect the heritage of French recipes. His most-consulted book is L'Art Culinaire Francais, known in France as "Flammarion", after Ernest Flammarion who collected together the 3,700 recipes after the war. (It is published here by Paul Hamlyn as The Art of French Cooking.)

Deighton is concerned, though, that the French are not protecting their own traditions, and puts the blame on the example of their three-star restaurants. "When food critics started hyping up nouvelle cuisine," he says, "chefs came out of the kitchen, went to the banks for overdrafts, and started large and fancy restaurants of their own. Proprietor-chefs artistically arranged food on large and fancy plates, and discovered that publicity was the key to success. They neglected their customers, went flying to Tokyo and New York, all the time, and created new dishes with ever more bizarre combinations, abandoning all the traditional French dishes.

"In the old days, the customers could have told the proprietor they didn't like what was happening. But which customer is bold enough to say to the proprietor-chef that he doesn't like the cooking?" Maybe Deighton is right, too, and it is time to put aside the thrills and get back to the time-honoured basics. !


Independent on Sunday readers can purchase Len Deighton's 'Basic French Cookery Course', published by HarperCollins, pounds 7.99, at a specially discounted price. Send a cheque for pounds 6.99 (inc post and packing), made payable to HarperCollins Publishers, to: Mail Order, Department 214W, HarperCollins Publishers, Westerhill Road, Bishopbriggs, Glasgow G4 2QT.