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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape