Floyd uncorked: A vintage encounter with TV's booziest foodie

With his skewed bow ties, fiery temper and legendary fondness for wine, Keith Floyd has endured more highs and lows than an overdone soufflé. Now back with a one-man stage show, Susie Rushton joins TV's most colourful cook on his gourmet gallop around Britain.
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The Independent Online

You get a free glass of red wine included in the price of the ticket to see Keith Floyd's one-man show, currently doing the circuit of Britain's provincial theatres. Nothing special – just an OK montepulciano – but the gesture fits nicely with the vino-swigging schtick his fans expect.

While the 63-year-old legend of telly cookery is having a stiffener in the pub next door, 100 of his faithful are milling about in the foyer of the Pocklington Arts Centre in North Yorkshire, flicking through a free booklet of his favourite recipes (some of which are printed on these pages).

Later, they enjoy a 90-minute, glass-in-hand reminiscence of a life dedicated to cookery and indulgence. And what did they like best about the garrulous gourmet, who for more than 20 years and 26 TV series has gamely cooked robust, classic food over camping stoves in exotic locations while barking at his long-suffering cameraman, Clive?

"Well, he's a boozer, isn't he? But he can really keep going while he boozes. He just carries on cooking," says David Fenton, a confessed Floyd fan, as he sips his montepulciano. "I like his style of cookery," adds Fenton's wife, Patricia. "He just throws everything in. Rick Stein – he's only copying Floyd, isn't he?"

More comparisons to Stein – whose first appearance on television was a walk-on role in Floyd on Fish (1984) and who now works with Floyd's former producer David Pritchard – are offered. "But I think Floyd's more of a showman," offers Nigel Perry, another long-time viewer. "It was one of his shows that made me want to go and visit India," adds Perry's daughter Caryl.

Although he's been eclipsed by Jamie and Nigella and Gordon, Keith Floyd was the original modern celebrity chef. If each of the telly cooks now has a single trademark, Floyd had the lot: the slugs of claret, the dickie bow, the bawling out of his crew on camera, the travelogue format, the passion for seasonal food with "integrity". The cooks that followed him may be multimillionaires with supermarket advertising contracts and Michelin-starred restaurants in Dubai. But Floyd, well, he published 23 books and taught a generation how to cook boeuf bourguignon and aioli.

And he is still recognised everywhere. Which is a total nightmare, he insists later. "Those camera phones now... and people come up behind you... I'll be in the queue at the airport and they'll come up and ask me where my glass of wine is. I mean: I'M AT THE AIRPORT."

At the moment, his only appearances on UK terrestrial TV are short " Floyd on Provence" slots on This Morning. But in the never-ending repeat nirvana of satellite, he's there at all hours, decked out in his colonial-style sand-coloured suits, commandeering the kitchens of a posh hotel to bake a whole seabass in salt, or poaching a lobster in chocolate sauce over a campfire on a beach. "Oh, my shows are screened as educational aids in the Kuwait or Brunei, to help people improve their English," he says, blithely. "All these shows are on all over the world and I don't get a penny."

But, strangely, when I turn up at The Bell Inn in Faringdon, the comatose town in Oxfordshire where Floyd's soon-to-be-former fourth wife, Tess, lives, I can only recognise the man by his voice and his wonky bow tie. While part of his wrinkly eyes and raspy laugh have always been part of his on-screen charm, I'm surprised to find him looking not only older than his years, but visibly frail.

We sit outside, exiled by the smoking ban. Last year he was diagnosed with malnutrition, he says, caused by getting back to hotels late at night and constant jetlag. In 2002 he had a small stroke and in 2004 was convicted of drink-driving and banned for 32 months. "I'd prefer to work less," he starts, "but I wouldn't give up at all, no, no. I wouldn't do it if I couldn't put my heart into it. I'm not cynical at all." His pension plan was The Maltsters Arms, a gastropub on the banks of the river Dart that he owned at the beginning of the Nineties. It went bust.

So, continue to tour and cook he must. Luckily his joie de vivre – and his list of friends, such as the the landlord of The Bell (who drives Keith to his shows around the country) – are still intact. The lure of doing a one-man show, he says, apart from the money, is that he gets to meet his public. There is a question and answer session at the end of his act and they always ask the same things: what would be his last meal before he dies? What was his most disastrous moment? What is his favourite meal? This last one really riles him. "I don't HAVE a favourite meal, OK?" he splutters.

That's his other riff: how much he hates talking about food when he's not in the kitchen. He'd rather talk about rugby, Ireland, Ernest Hemingway; anything but how to cook a turkey. He is shy, avoids socialising and detests London, but did once reluctantly go to a party thrown by the late drummer Jim Capaldi. "Every rock'*'roller going was there. George Harrison opened the door. And the first thing he asked me was what I thought about vegetarian stock cubes. Paul Young wanted a menu for his tour. Leave it out, mate."

Harrumphing over, he admits that he's pleased people actually cook his recipes. He knows they do, he says, because his fans go backstage and ask him to sign old copies of Floyd on France. "They'll say, 'We cook these three recipes all the time.' And I can tell it's true because the pages are splattered with gravy." In the mid-1980s, when there was either nouvelle cuisine or bad British food, Floyd was selling the notion of classical Continental cookery to the masses.

"In today's culinary environment, I am retro. If I go to India, I cook Indian food. I don't interfere with it. I know that viewers love to see those exquisite plates by great chefs, and they love to buy their cookery books, to put on their shelves. But they'll never read them. If I've influenced people, I never set out to. I just wanted to bring real food to people and show them where it came from, and why."

That "real food" is in part derived from the no-nonsense seasonal cookery of his mother during his childhood in Somerset in the 1950s. In his stage show, he spends a good 10 minutes reminiscing about her faggots made from pig's brains and the enormous bowls of crusted clotted cream that sat in the Floyd larder. But his style also owes something of a debt to Elizabeth David, whose interpretations of French country cookery arrived in Britain in the same era.

"My recipes were always quite simple with achievable ingredients," he says. "And I'm honest. I'm practical. If you're having a dinner party, you must start cooking yesterday. Don't get petrified on sherry and start peeling an onion just as your guests walk in the door."

Classic Floyd, in case you haven't caught him on Discovery Asia recently, is coq au vin, fish stew, ratatouille, lobster thermidor. It was this classical cuisine that he had cooked in the original Floyd's bistro in Bristol in the 1970s. He was born in Somerset in 1943 into a working-class family. They saved up to send him to Wellington School – a minor public school, not to be confused with Wellington College, whose most famous living old boy is Jeffrey Archer – and his first job was as a cub reporter at the Bristol Evening Post. The editor, taking a fancy to this teenager in handmade suits and bow ties, made him his assistant and took him to expensive restaurants. Floyd, who always lived beyond his means and hankered after a Bentley, got a taste for terrines and white burgundy. After seeing Zulu he decided to join the Army, becoming a lieutenant in the Royal Tank Regiment, but got kicked out for spending all his time in the mess, not a tank.

By the age of 28 he had three restaurants and was getting a divorce from his first wife, Jesmond, by whom he has a son, Patrick. To pay for his divorce, he sold his restaurants. With the leftover money he bought a boat, called Flirty, and spent two years sailing it around the Med. Inevitably broke again, Floyd was bailed out by friends – a recurring event in his biography – and he set up a restaurant once again in Bristol. One night, a BBC producer eating there asked him if he'd like to try cooking in front of the camera. Floyd agreed, and there started the nine-year collaboration with David Pritchard that would make him a household name. "It was purely accidental," he insists. "I didn't ask to be on television."

Unfortunate events – particularly any concerning money or women – are a theme in Floyd's life. After Jesmond, his wives have got progressively younger. His second marriage, in 1983, was to Julie Hatcher, the mother of his daughter, Poppy, and 10 years his junior. He proposed to his third wife, Shaunagh after meeting her in the pub four hours earlier. She was 23 years younger than him and the marriage, which lasted three years, ended in 1994.

On one occasion he wrongly accused Shaunagh of forgetting his birthday and threw her and 50 diners out of his pub. Two years later he married Tess Smith, a food stylist. He tells me, in an unconvincing voice, that they are still happy together – "although travelling makes things hard. She wants to be in England for her parents, and I prefer to live in France." The next night, on stage in Pocklington, Floyd admits to his audience that they're getting divorced.

Although by the late Eighties the dream coupling of Pritchard and Floyd had become so sour that they only communicated on set via notes, in their heyday Floyd On... was must-watch television. Its star was the first bad-boy chef. His drinking, unabashed criticisms of bad food and the edited version of The Stranglers anthem "Peaches" that became his theme tune made for some of the sharpest TV around, and has continued to influence food programming to this day.

Floyd now says he only ordered his cameraman around because he hadn't had any television training and didn't know how else to make the shots work. He says that the slugs of red wine afforded him a few seconds time to work out his next ad-lib – there was no script. "Floyd was a natural," says Bill Knott, the writer and founder of now-defunct food magazine Eat Soup. "His show was one of the first to take food out of the studio. He was a pioneer."

In the now-crowded field of telly fakery, Floyd got there first, too. " We once faked a scallop festival in Bridport. It wasn't just not on – it didn't exist. I used to make up names of some wines in my books, too, and restaurants – just to see if anybody was paying attention."

And though his fame bought him the longed-for Bentley and legions of female fans who posted him nude photographs, Floyd now says that Pritchard wanted him to behave like "a television freak" while the cook himself wanted to show his abilities.

After Floyd's American Pie in 1989, his last for the BBC, he spent £320,000 buying the Maltsters Arms, and another £350,000 on renovations. He admits it didn't help that he left the restaurant to film in Australia, and in the past friends say he blamed his then head chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli, for "stuffing too much foie gras in the pigs trotters", but the real reason that the bailiffs were called in in 1996 was that he is, as he says, "a shockingly bad" businessman.

Today only one restaurant bears his name, at the Burasari resort in Phuket, Thailand. "I was there on holiday with my wife and the manager overheard me saying how we should move there. He asked me if I wanted to open a restaurant in the hotel." While he has devised the menus, the resort shoulders all the financial responsibility, which is, perhaps, just as well. His main home is in Avignon, France, and he only visits England for short periods.

"One of the reasons I don't live here is because of the political system. We've got no civil liberties left," he says, "They're even going to put undercover policemen in pubs to stop them from serving drunks." He moves on to the unfair advantages given to immigrants, the smoking ban; you get the feeling that Floyd on Current Affairs isn't likely to be the commission to get Keith back on the box.

Has he ever thought he drinks too much? "Of course I sometimes drink too much. But then," he adds, "I've never met a journalist who doesn't, by the way."

For the two hours that we sit shivering on the picnic bench, Floyd disappears off to fetch me three coffees and a glass of wine, but drinks nothing himself. When we go inside for his portrait to be taken the barman makes the blunder of telling him he's put Floyd's drink to one side.

Given his recent health issues, has he ever considered quitting the booze? "No." Ever been ordered to give up? "Yes." And what is his response? "I drink now in moderation. You're on the road. After the show, what do you do? There's no one to talk to, you've talked all night in fact, you've done all you possibly can – let's go and have a stiff onee," he says, resignedly.

Although Floyd is friends with Marco Pierre White and Novelli, and insists he has "the highest respect" for the current cookery stars, he says he's disappointed with the way TV cookery has become mere " entertainment". "I'm convinced the people watching these programmes are sitting at home eating pre-prepared meals from Marks & Spencer. I'm not persuaded that this wonderful modern cookery translates into the domestic kitchen."

But things have improved, haven't they? Polenta sold in every supermarket and all that? "Oh, things have improved for those who do cook. But you know, sometimes nowadays you go into a house and there isn't even a dining table."

Floyd rose to fame in an age before cooks had agents – surely otherwise a trusted advisor would have curbed his drinking and famed extravagances. The fortunes of Ramsay (thought to be £67m), Oliver (£58m) and Stein (£36m) don't inspire obvious envy. It might be modesty, but he's flummoxed at the suggestion he has been a trailblazer of Britain's foodie culture.

"That's flattering, but I don't know whether it's true," he says, waving his hands in that exasperated manner so many of us would recognise across an airport terminal. "If I've influenced people, then I have. But I've got no idea who Floyd is. Not a clue."

Floyd Uncorked: The Life of a Bon Viveur is at Morecambe on 13 October, Norwich on 15 October, and Floyd's Cookery Theatre at Linthwaite House, Lake District, from 13 to 22 November

Floyd's Favourites: Number 1

Soupe de poisson (fish soup)

Serves 6

Ingredients

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, chopped
1 leek, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely sliced
1 frond fresh fennel, or one coffee spoon of dried fennel
1 bay leaf
21b (1kg) mixed fish (mullet, conger eel, girella, hoghfish etc.), gutted and washed
pinch of saffron
salt and pepper
2 handfuls vermicelli
gruyére or parmesan, grated

In a large saucepan fry the garlic, carrot, leek, celery and tomatoes in the oil. Allow to brown before adding the onion, fennel and the bay leaf.

Pour in 3 pints (2 litres) cold water and bring to the boil. Throw in fish and simmer with a lid on for 20 minutes.

Ladle out the soup from the pan and blend it in batches before straining it back into the saucepan. Bring the soup back to the boil, add the saffron, and some salt and pepper to taste.

Throw in the vermicelli and serve when they are done, with grated cheese on top.

Floyd's Favourites: Number 2

Poulet rôti à l'ail (chicken roasted with garlic)

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

1 corn-fed chicken
salt and pepper
juice of 1 lemon
2lb (1kg) plump cloves garlic, half in their skin, half peeled
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
olive oil
1 glass dry white wine

Rub the chicken inside and out with salt and pepper, and squeeze lemon juice inside and over the skin. Stuff the bird with 1lb (500g) peeled garlic, the bayleaf and the thyme.

Brown the chicken in olive oil with the frying pan, then transfer it to a roasting tin, breast down. Pop into the oven for about 30 minutes, or until the bird takes colour. Add the remaining unpeeled garlic and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil to the tin, turn the chicken on its back, baste and continue roasting for approximately 1 hour. (Remember that it will take a little longer than usual because of the stuffing.)

When the bird is cooked, remove it and the roasted unpeeled garlic cloves on to a warm serving dish. Add a glass of dry white wine to the juices in the roasting tin. Bubble this for a moment or two, season with salt and pepper and strain over the dish.

Floyd's Favourites: Number 3

Ratatouille

Serves 8 to 10

Ingredients

1 aubergine
1 courgette
salt
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
2 onions
10 tomatoes
olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
parsley, finely chopped
pepper
thyme, chopped

The vitally important thing about ratatouille is that each vegetable is cooked separately. So cut all the vegetables into equal-sized pieces – fork-sized, perhaps.

Prepare the aubergine and courgette first. Sprinkle them with salt and leave them to "sweat". Then cook with kitchen pepper. In a large frying pan cook each vegetable in olive oil (also very important), one after the other, until they are tender, then put to one side with all the juices from the pan. During this process, if necessary, top up the oil from time to time. Now put the lot into a saucepan, add the garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and thyme and all the left-over oil and cook for 10 to 15 minutes just to mix them all up. Leave to cool, refrigerate and eat cold.

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