FFOD & DRINK / Carrier's lean cuisine conversion: The gourmet who introduced excess to Britain is back - but this time promoting a lighter, vegetarian menu.

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The Independent Culture
ROBERT CARRIER has recanted. He has renounced his wrongful ways, his gastronomic excesses, his love of rich food and a fond indulgence in alcohol. He has foresworn the fleshpots forever.

A new-look Carrier is back in town. Carrier The Vegetarian Gourmet, if you'll credit it. Robert Carrier, a stone less in weight, with a morning spot on GMTV cooking up dishes for well-known veggies like Spike Milligan, Molly Parkin and Germaine Greer. And his first veggie book comes out next month.

The American gourmet and cookery writer has said enough's enough. That's not to say he'll never indulge his carnivorous tendencies. 'I haven't given up eating meat but I eat it less,' he says. 'I say I'm a semi-vegetarian, a demi-vegetarian.' All this comes from the man whose reputation is based on bringing luxurious continental cooking to impoverished post-war Britain; from a man who convinced us for a while that food wasn't worth eating without masses of cream, butter, oil and eggs.

Robert Carrier is making an unexpected comeback. He hasn't worked in Britain since 1982 when he sold up his two restaurants and decamped to New York. Since then he has lived mainly in Morocco, with forays into France (a book about Provence) and Spain (another book).

He slipped back into Britain largely unnoticed last year for a 70th birthday party hosted by his former publisher, Liz Glaze, founder of the magazines Taste, Me and Essentials. Her proudest success, she boasts, was her partwork, Robert Carrier's Kitchen. This was originally to be published fortnightly for a year but was so successful that its life was extended to 18 months and eventually to two years (giving a headache to the compilers of the featured A to Z of world dishes who had already used up most of the alphabet. How many dishes can you squeeze out of Xanadu, Yemen and Zanzibar?).

Robert Carrier's initial plan was to open a restaurant again. 'I'd got the itch,' he says. But after the itch, the hitch, and while bickering with backers he got a call from John Tagholm of Pineapple Productions who offered him the slot on GMTV. He asked if Carrier would do vegetarian food. ' 'Why not?' I said. I've always considered vegetables an important part of my cooking.'

Robert Carrier a vegetarian, though? 'I eat meat perhaps every third day. The other days I eat pasta or risotto, stir-fried vegetables or an escabeche (marinated fish).' This way he finds he eats less. Perhaps not yet slim-line, he's shed a stone and at this rate he'll need to go to his tailor.

He confesses he had been growing increasingly unhappy with his lifestyle in semi-retirement. 'In Morocco I lived a lotus-eater's life,' he says. 'I was eating big meals every day. Dinner parties every night. Waited on all the time. Siestas.'

And drinking too much. 'In the old days I'd have Russian vodka in the deep freeze, almost frozen solid, and we'd have three or four of them before lunch. I began to hate it. I wanted my mind to be agile and inventive. I realised my brain mustn't be drugged, doped and overfed. It must be allowed to breathe. So I decided not to drink, unless I was with other people, and to cut out big meals in restaurants and some dinner parties. I don't have two meals in one day. I don't have a great bang-up meal more than once every other day. With this new regime I've accomplished an amazing amount.'

The Vegetarian Gourmet is the least of it; he's made TV guest appearances (alongside Loyd Grossman on Masterchef). He is writing a second book, and articles for House and Garden, and for Chic magazine (for the recently retired).

He had sold his flat in Eaton Square, so he's created a new base, in South Kensington. The old Carrier would have been surrounded by acolytes, secretaries puzzling over his thick-looped handwriting (he favours the illegibility of a felt-tipped pen). The new Carrier is seated at a console of phones, word processor, printer and fax.

'Search]' he orders his Commodore and, after an initial reluctance, the machine identifies a series of quotes praising the great man and his works. 'Print]' he orders and silently the machine runs them off. 'I love this machine,' says Carrier.

He is not modest. 'A genius in the kitchen . . .', '. . . sensualist, egotist and showman . . . most successful media cook in the world . . .' '. . . a Mrs Beaton following . . .' '. . . a performer's ego and flair for self promotion . . .' '. . . Liberace-style personality . . .'. (Do you think you should be showing us this, Bob?) He beams. But suddenly there's a hiccup with the new technology. The phone rings and rings but when he answers it, there's no one there. The fax bursts excitedly into life and spews out blackened sheets of paper with unreadable messages.' I paid pounds 800 for this,' he curses. Mr Carrier's mood swings. 'I hate machines.'

In the restaurant of his choice, Aubergine, he warms to the cooking of Nick Ramsey, a young chef who trained with Marco Pierre White. But he is less than amused when the head waiter, addressing him in French, interrupts him mid-sentence. 'Je suis en train de parler,' snaps Mr Carrier.

Warming to his demi-vegetarian theme, he orders brill for his main course, and to start with, a vegetable soup; cappucino of beans with truffle oil. He's bowled over. But words do not fail him. 'It's so modern. So witty. So original. So light. So immediate.' This is his new philosophy, he says. Light and immediate.

He talks about his TV programme which gets an average 4,000 requests a week for the recipes. He is currently filming a second series, to be shown starting next month. A researcher interviews well-known veggies, such as Virginia McKenna, Dave Lee Travis, Toyah Wilcox and Hayley Mills, and then he creates an appropriate dish for each.

For Benjamin Zephaniah, the Jamaican rap poet who lives in a licensed squat, Carrier invented a dish with ackee (a vegetable that grows on a tree like a fruit, and looks like scrambled egg on the plate). 'I infused it over a rich tomato sauce, so it looked rather like oeufs a la neige (the French dessert made with whites of egg) and scattered it with diced avocado. I made saffron and parsley mash fritters dusted with chick pea flour. It looked very handsome. Benjamin said he couldn't believe the dish had been made in his kitchen.' This is veggie cooking in the fast lane, no dish taking more than seven minutes. They are a long, long way from the classical, grand cuisine, with layers of rich ingredients, which made him famous.

'I couldn't have done it five years ago,' he says, 'but I'm into recanting now. I like immediate foods, cooked and served, bang].'

Carrier is American-born, with Irish and German grandparents (his father was a MacMahon) and he trained for the stage. He toured Italy, improbably, with a rep company, singing the juvenile lead in American musicals. It was in Paris that he first started to experience and write about good food. He came to Britain in 1953 and soon wowed magazine editors with his sophistication and theatricality (until then a cookery writer was someone who could suggest ways of using leftovers).

His first cookery book, Great Dishes of the World, was a publishing first and lavishly illustrated for its day. It cost a staggering sum which, allowing for inflation, translates to around pounds 100 today. He grew in fame. More books followed, then cookery cards, Carrier cookware, TV series. Then he opened Carrier's, his first restaurant in Camden Passage, Islington, which won him a Michelin star. Then a country house in Suffolk, Hintlesham Hall, which won another star. Lastly he opened a grand, lavish cookery school.

In 1982, he suddenly decided he'd had enough. He was bored, he said, and his health wasn't so good. His doctor took him off alcohol and fatty food. His liver was suffering what the French call une crise de foie. Those who accepted his invitation to place their hand over his liver, situated back right, under the rib cage, could feel it palpitating, like a live fish on a slab. 'It was the size of a football,' he proudly recalls.

Since then he has lived chiefly in his home off the casbah in Marrakesh (he wrote a fine book on Moroccan cooking) though it didn't stop him becoming chairman of the London-based Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain. He led a four-year campaign lobbying for a relaxation in the drink laws to allow wine to be bought with a meal. It culminated in a successful march on Downing Street. For his services to the restaurant trade, Robert Carrier was awarded an OBE.

He's started again, in fact, campaigning for drinks to be served after 11pm. An altruistic act, for when courteous waiters offer dessert wines and liqueurs, he declines. He has been drinking an excellent Sancerre, but he does not drain his glass.

Whatever next, exercise? There are figures, he has learnt, which indicate that 40,000 Americans each year have died while engaged in exercise to improve their health. 'You know about jogging. The guy who invented it dropped dead.' All the same, he walks home from the restaurant, half a mile. In the old days, you can rest assured, he would have taken a taxi.