Restaurateur and television chef whose book 'Great Dishes of the World' sold 10 million copies
Saturday 01 July 2006
Robert Macmahon (Robert Carrier), restaurateur, cookery writer and broadcaster: born Tarrytown, New York 10 November 1923; Hon OBE 1987; died 27 June 2006.
Robert Carrier was one of those transplanted Americans who have contributed so much to the improvement in British eating habits. Carrier's personal aptitude was for glamour and glitz, and he endowed most of his endeavours with lashings of both.
His heyday was the late 1960s and the 1970s, but, though he had two notable restaurants, his real sphere of influence was the domestic dinner party. He wrote the book. In his Great Dishes of the World (1963), he introduced a large audience to dishes that had previously been the province of "gourmets", including not only the French classics, but moussaka and even a properly made ragù bolognese. This was at time before cooks were afraid of cream, butter and the brandy bottle, and Carrier, a portly man, encouraged the use of all three.
In retrospect, there was something camp about all Bob Carrier's enterprises - the service in his restaurants was flamboyant, and the food itself was overdecorated, whether served in one of his eateries, or as in the photographs for the dinner-party blueprints he published as "cookery cards". He was probably the first person to think of printing a glossy photograph of a dish on the recto of a wipe-clean, stiff card, and the recipe on the verso.
Taking a card at random, a recipe for sardine-stuffed lemons has a tin of sardines, 5oz of butter, Dijon mustard and other seasonings, and a stiffly beaten, uncooked egg-white. The illustration shows a white plate upon which rest four human hands and wrists, modelled in white porcelain, each supporting a white ridged eggcup in the same material, atop which sits a hollowed-out lemon, with a scoop of the sardine mixture garnished with "a sprig of fresh thyme, a bay leaf or a small green leaf". The packet of cards cost 7s 6d - in those pre-decimal days the most extravagant thing about the recipe was the six lemons it took.
Carrier was born Robert Macmahon, of Irish paternal and German maternal descent, in Tarrytown, New York. He was the third son of a lawyer who lost his fortune in the Depression, and was a child actor, taking the juvenile lead in musicals. He later assumed the surname of the grandmother who taught him to bake biscuits and to pan-fry the fish that could still be caught in the streams of upstate New York.
He first came to England with the US armed forces in 1943 as a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Once he told me bluntly, "I was a spy", but I believe that probably referred to his work, after D-Day, when he moved to Paris as a cryptographer in General Charles de Gaulle's headquarters. He became editor of a magazine called Spectacle, which supported de Gaulle's party, the RTF, in the post-war power struggle, until it folded in 1949.
For a bit after this he knocked about Europe, working as a radio journalist for an American English-language station, acting (he was a cowboy in musical revue in Italy), and then he fetched up at a restaurant in not yet fashionable St Tropez, Chez Fifine. "Fifine" took the good-looking young man under her wing, and gave him the only professional kitchen training he ever had.
Invited to return to London for the Coronation in 1953 by a friend, Carrier fell in love with the place, though rationing had not yet ended, and the food pickings were slim indeed. Spam was still in the ascendant, but he managed to cook a dinner party so impressive that one of his guests offered him a recipe-writing job on Harper's Bazaar. He moved into PR, where his accounts included stock cubes, New Zealand apples and cornflour - conflict of interest was an idea that had not yet been born. Home magazine unselfconsciously called him "London's gayest gourmet".
Carrier wrote for Vogue and for the new Sunday Times Magazine, and devised the cookery cards. Great Dishes of the World in its various guises and permutations was said to have sold more than 10 million copies, and more cookery titles followed, including some ingenious part-works for Marshall Cavendish from 1981 to 1983. He styled the photographs himself, and I gleefully told him that, in the appetising shot of a Chinese lamb dish, the beautiful split-bamboo whisk poking out of the wok at a jaunty angle was actually the washing-up brush.
This prompted a playful feud, which we made up in 1985, when we were both guests at the 21st birthday bash of the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong, and Bob proposed a conciliatory drink with the question, "Your suite or mine?" He then told me that my taunting him with his errors (there were a very few others) had cost him a tear or two, "but shed on the way to the bank".
He even made a success of the difficult restaurant business. In 1966 he bought a restaurant in London, in Camden Passage, Islington. The Greek couple he had intended to run it for him disappeared, and he ended up cooking himself. The area had become a stylish centre for the upmarket retail antique trade, and Carrier's showmanship and flair had found a worthy outlet. Carrier's was done up in imaginative (and slightly imaginary) French provincial style, with Provençal fabrics and a great deal of wood; it was serene decor, and looked and felt expensive.
With its avocado starters, fresh herbs used with profligacy, generous servings of country terrines, rich desserts, and lots of main courses that weren't steak, the menu appealed both to those who knew the food of France and those who, for the currency-controlled moment, could only aspire to know it. Still, this was something new on the London restaurant scene, and Carrier's became a chic destination restaurant, with gossip-column names to be found dining there most evenings.
In 1967 he opened a specialised cookery department in Harrods, and for the next decade produced a continuous flow of cookery books and cards. Grateful housewives bought them. They were more specific and easier to follow than the recipes of Elizabeth David, and made it possible for tens of thousands of middle-class women to prepare food that would satisfy their men and impress their female guests.
Carrier needed a new theatre, though, and in 1971 he bought Hintlesham Hall near Ipswich, a huge, Grade 1-listed Tudor brick house with a Georgian front and 175 acres. He paid £32,000 for it - without commissioning a survey - in fact it was almost falling down. It took a workforce of 60 to put it right, and he never really achieved the vision he had for it as a country house in which he would live and entertain while thinking of some money-making role for it. So, in August 1972, he opened Hintlesham as a hotel and restaurant. He later invested another £300,000 to turn it into a state-of-the-art cookery school, but, when the instructor he had in mind failed him, in 1981 he began teaching the courses himself.
People flocked to the school, for the ebullient Bob Carrier was now a celebrity - television appearances helped with this (in 1975 he had begun presenting Carrier's Kitchen). However he was soon bored with the repetitiveness of teaching and closed it in 1982, selling the house to the restaurateur Ruth Watson the next year. In 1984 he gave up Camden Passage (where, among others, Shaun Hill trained).
Carrier travelled a lot now - to France, but also to Morocco, where he had a house in Marrakesh, and took up painting. In 1987 he published one of his best books, A Taste of Morocco. He once commissioned me to buy two velour tracksuits, from a shop we both knew in Hong Kong that sold designer goods that had fallen off a lorry on its way from the factory that made them. He took delivery of the bulky parcel in a slightly cloak-and-dagger fashion over a drink at El Vino. When I asked why he needed two, he said they were both bound for Morocco - one for a boyfriend, "the other to bribe the customs official".
He made another two or three TV series, and scored a success in his native United States in the 1980s with a weekly magazine. In 1984 he showed a public-spirited side, and became the face of the restaurant industry, arguing vigorously and vocally for changes to the licensing laws. His efforts were rewarded by appointment as honorary OBE.
After his Moroccan sojourn, and living for a bit in New York, he returned to London in 1994, because, he said, his Christmas-card list showed that most of his friends were in Britain. Lately he had retired to Provence, where he painted. His close companion of many years, Oliver Lawson Dick, predeceased him, and as an octogenarian he was looked after by his good friend Liz Glaze.
The upper echelons of foodiedom were always a little sniffy about Bob Carrier - authenticity was not a word that sprung immediately to their mind or his lips. But he did more to change people's attitudes to food than many a more serious-minded cookery writer, and he knew the great secret that food is fun.
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