Our chef in Paris – a life entertaining the ambassadors

The British embassy cook is being awarded the Légion d'honneur. He tells John Lichfield about 40 years of catering for high society

Presidents, prime ministers and ambassadors may come and go but for 40 years a small corner of Britain has had only one "chef". Since June 1970 James Viaene has been "our chef in Paris", the head of the kitchens of the British embassy residence in the French capital. Mr Viaene has cooked his way through 10 British ambassadors, five French presidents, 15 French premier ministres and seven British prime ministers. Most of them have eaten at his table.

Although he is French, he has become a cross-Channel ambassador for British cuisine and, quietly, one of the most influential French chefs of his generation. His "pupils" or "commis-chefs" can be found in key positions all over the world. They include, just down the street, Bernard Vaussion, the head chef at the Elysée Palace, the official residence of the French President.

The presidential chef, Mr Vaussion still calls his "British" mentor and neighbour, Mr Viaene, "chef" which also means "boss" in French. On Tuesday, to mark his 40 years in office, Mr Viaene, 73, will receive the Légion d'honneur from the hands of the French Prime Minister, François Fillon. Five former British ambassadors and their wives – and Baroness Soames, widow of Mr Viaene's first ambassador in 1970 – will travel to Paris to be present at the ceremony on 16 November.

Mr Viaene, who was made an MBE 20 years ago, is a tall, jovial and incorrigibly modest man. He agreed to give his first ever British press interview to The Independent to mark his new award. "My proudest claim, I think, is that I never panicked," he said. "In all those years, with all those different ambassadors, with all the changes in cooking styles, and with the many changes in the way that embassies do things, I cannot remember a single moment of real calamity or panic."

Although trained in the classical French style of cooking, Mr Viaene has triumphantly adapted to British cuisine and British produce. He is especially fond of "pies" and Irish stew and what he calls, with reverence in his voice, "le Lancashire 'otpot". "Cooked and presented in a modern way, with a fine piece of lamb – British lamb – and a delicate sauce, the Lancashire hotpot can be something truly splendid," he said. (By Mr Viaene's kind permission, readers will find a recipe, right, for his nouvelle cuisine-influenced version of Lancashire hotpot.) Fish and chips have frequently been served by Mr Viaene.

Recently, he has made a speciality of "mini-fish and chips" – small portions of battered fish and miniature chips with "petits pois ecrasés (mushy peas) handed out like canapés at stand-up, embassy receptions. They come complete with cone-shaped wrappers decorated with photocopied pages of newspapers.

Mr Viaene had some early training in British food. He worked as a young man for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, when they lived in gilded exiled in Paris. The Duke liked to eat British favourites. The Duchess, he says, "was only interested in perfection, which made for a very good apprenticeship".

Mr Viaene has since promoted British food and cooking not only through his own work but through appearance on French television cookery programmes.

"The French always used to have great prejudices about British cuisine," he said. "They used to say that it was all roast beef served with jam or mint sauce served with everything. No, of course it was never really like that. British traditional recipes, adapted to modern tastes and styles, and cooked well, can be as good as any other form of cuisine."

Lady Susie Westmacott, the wife of the present British ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, said: "He is an extraordinary man. It is not really for me to say that he is one of the best chefs in Paris but our French guests always rave about how good the food is here.

"He is the absolute opposite of one's image of a moody, difficult French chef. The word 'no' is not in his vocabulary. He can change direction on a dime. A lunch for 20 can suddenly become a reception for 200. Chef will just do it. He is astonishingly flexible and astonishingly versatile."

One of the biggest transformations that Mr Viaene has seen in his 40 years is the evolution of diplomatic entertainment away from the traditional pattern of glittering receptions for politicians and diplomats. Much of his work now – lunches, dinners, receptions – is hosted and paid for, not by the British government, but by British companies or trade associations who want to promote their wares in France.

Lady Westmacott says that "chef" always goes out of his way to do something appropriate. She recalls an "absolute triumph" last May. The British perfume label Jo Malone held a lunch for French journalists and buyers at the beautiful embassy residence on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré (purchased for the crown by the Duke of Wellington in 1814). Jo Malone wanted to promote a new fragrance called "English Pear and Freesia". Mr Viaene asked for a list of the ingredients and incorporated many of them in a three-course lunch. "The results were astounding. Everyone was enchanted," said Lady Westmacott.

Mr Viaene says that life in the embassy kitchens has changed in other ways since 1970. "Money is much more of an issue now. I have to prepare estimates for everything. To save money, and preserve quality, we have gone away from the tradition of serving courses on enormous dishes with seconds for all, and, frequently, much food left over.

"We now serve individual plates to everyone, which means that we can devote time to making each plate look pretty in the modern style." Has anyone ever rejected one of Mr Viaene's dishes? Yes, he remembered, but only one. The "culprit" was his old boss, the Duchess of Windsor, who refused to eat the ice cream that she was given. "Luckily I knew her tastes and was able to make a quick orange soufflé," he said. Have there been any memorable quarrels with ambassadors or their wives? "Quite honestly I can say 'no'. My policy has always been to adapt to change and to what my ambassadors wanted, not to impose myself.

"There was one occasion, however, when an ambassador insisted on serving kedgeree. I agreed but said that I wanted to add a milk-based sauce flavoured with smoked haddock. He was horrified. Kedgeree with sauce was unheard of. He finally agreed and called me the next day to say that all his important guests had telephoned, not to speak about politics, but about the sauce with the kedgeree."

Mr Viaene's predecessor in 1970 went on to open his own restaurant and auberge. Other trainees and commis-chefs from the British embassy kitchens have gone on to other important posts, like Mr Vaussion at the Elysée. Did Mr Viaene never hanker after fame and fortune elsewhere? "No, honestly I never wanted to leave here," he said.

"With every change of ambassador, you have change, and a new challenge, without having to leave. I mostly cooked in private houses before I came here (including for Michel David-Weill, the boss of Lazard Frères bank) and this is one of the greatest of private houses but, also, at the same time a kind of public stage."

On 16 November, when he receives his Légion d'honneur, France's highest civilian award, "chef" will, for once, be the guest of honour in his own house.

James Viane's Moderne Lancashire HotPot sur canapé (serves 6)

Ingredients

Two racks of lamb, with fat and bone removed, rolled and stringed into a roulade, 200g of carrots, 150g of parsnip, 100g of celeriac, one potato suitable for puree, 50g of yellow onion, 20g of shallots, 250ml of stock made with the lamb bones, a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf, a soup spoon of chopped parsley, 70g of butter, salt and pepper, six "half slices" of white bread cut in rectangles and darkened in a frying pan with a little butter and peanut oil, 30 sizeable, thin, crunchy potato or parsnip slices cooked until crunchy, six cherry tomatoes and a little watercress.

Instructions

Peel and cut the vegetables, including the onion and shallots, into small cubes. In a cocotte (metal covered casserole dish) heat and colour the roulades of lamb well in the butter and put them aside into a dish.Then place the vegetables in the cocotte, except the cubes of potato, and lightly colour them in the butter. Lay on top ofthe vegetables, the roulades of lamb, then the thyme and bay leaf and the potato cubes. Salt and pepper sparingly. Add the lamb stock. Cook on a low heat for 15minutes, covering when the mixturestarts to boil. Then leave the casserole ina warm place for15 minutes.

Place a crouton (oblong of bread) on each plate. Spoon some of the vegetable cubes on to each one, mixed with chopped parsley. On top of the vegetables, lay small slices of the lamb, spread in a fan like playing cards. Then add, for crunchiness, the cooked thin slices of potato or parsnip or a mixture of both. The sauce from the casserole can be added to the plate or placed in a gravy boat. Add a cherry tomato, lightly cooked, and a little cress.

At the embassy this would be served with a Château La Tour de By (Medoc) 2001.

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