A taste of the action: Len Deighton's cult Sixties' cookbook is back

Deighton's cookbook coaxed macho men into the kitchen with sizzling recipes for seduction. The best-selling thriller writer tells John Walsh why it's his favourite among all his work

Thursday 18 June 2009 00:00 BST

Long before he became one of the 20th century's leading thriller writers, Len Deighton was a top food writer. His famous "cookstrips", explaining how to cook chicken à la Kiev or baked Alaska in a breezy combination of words and graphics, ran in The Observer for two years. Eagle-eyed filmgoers can see one of the strips pinned to the wall of Harry Palmer's kitchen in The Ipcress File, the 1965 movie version of Deighton's first book. And if anyone wondered on whom the cool, independent, black-framed-spectacle-wearing Palmer (played by Michael Caine) was based, one glance at the cool, bespectacled 36-year-old L Deighton should have given them the answer.

At the time, it was considered quirky and unnatural for a man to cook for himself at home, but it soon acquired cachet: a female chore was suddenly recast as a male socio-sexual accomplishment. It was one of the things a chap was supposed to be naturally good at, like driving a car, choosing wine or, as Swiss Toni from The Fast Show would say, making love to a bee-yoodiful woman.

When a collection of Deighton's cookstrips were published in 1965, the year The Ipcress File was launched, they were collectively titled Len Deighton's Action Cook Book. The cover featured a rugged James Bond type in a purple shirt and shoulder holster, tossing spaghetti in a copper saucepan while a 1960s dolly-bird in false eyelashes and broderie anglaise tenderly strokes his hair. The image of the home-cooking macho man, as much at home with a caneton à l'orange as a Walther PPK automatic, was born.

Harry Palmer, the gun-toting gourmet, went on to star in five more novels and two more films. This year, to celebrate Deighton's 80th birthday, all his books are being rereleased by HarperCollins – and among them will be the Action Cook Book, unchanged in all its retro glory. It's a fascinating work, full of nostalgia, with its advice about the importance of buying a fridge, and its assumption (probably right) that readers will have no experience of such exotic fruits and vegetables as asparagus, chillis, salsify and pomegranate ("take a big napkin").

Speaking from his home in southern California, Deighton explained what started his cooking career. "My mother was one of 16 children; so there was a lot of cooking to do, and she did her share. During the war we lived in Gloucester Place Mews in Marylebone. My father was the chauffeur for a family living in the large house behind us. Sometimes my mother would cook in its kitchens, but she also cooked in a nightclub off Baker Street. She'd come home with jolly stories about the extravagant menu names they gave her simple dishes." The Action Cook Book's fascination for slightly gross foodstuffs (Brains in Black Butter? Sharp and Sweet Tongue?) can be traced directly to Mrs Deighton. "Offal wasn't rationed during the war, and my mother resorted to the sort of food she'd eaten as a child: tripe and onions, brains, tongue and braised rabbit. I remember those dishes with great pleasure and I can never get them as good as they tasted when my mother served them."

His kitchen education began shortly after he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1952. "I was an art student on vacation, and got a job at the new Festival Hall's restaurant as a temporary kitchen porter. One day I was mopping the floor when the fish chef asked me if I would do some jobs for him, as his assistant hadn't arrived. My first task was skinning Dover soles. I must have been a good student because he then showed me how to fillet them. From then onwards, my days were spent as unofficial assistant to the fish chef, though I was still paid only porter's wages. I once asked my chef why he'd chosen me for this sudden elevation. He said everyone had noticed the way I 'hung around watching the cooks'. He was right. During my student vacations, I continued to work in kitchens in England and abroad, and I not only hung around watching the cooks, I became one of them."

Was there one chef who influenced him? "Philip Harben," said Deighton. "He was a short, hyper-active man with a neatly-trimmed beard who'd become a TV star in the 1940s. His TV series was called The Grammar of Cookery and one of his many books, The Way To Cook, is subtitled 'Common Sense in the Kitchen' and begins, 'This is not a recipe book.' Harben persuaded me that French cooking provides the best systematic basis for anyone learning to cook anything. My mother provided the skills, and my time spent working in restaurants the professional attitude, but Harben was scientific and he was the one who pointed me in the right direction."

During his six years as a student, punctuated by vocational cheffing, Deighton bought several classic cookbooks. Because he didn't want to see them spattered with Bolognese sauce, he never took them in the kitchen. Instead, he wrote out recipes on slips of paper, adding little drawings and diagrams, and pinned them over the cooker. One evening at dinner, a graphics guru called Ray Hawkey, working for The Observer, walked into Deighton's kitchen and spotted the fluttering recipes. Those, he said, could be published if the lettering and drawing were better. "English newspapers were being drastically revised at the time," Deighton recalls. "Ray and Mike Rand were graphic designers and wanted my cookstrips to be part of a new magazine-like look. The Observer management regarded the changes with dread and would commit to only six strips. But when they started getting letters from male readers, they extended my contract to 50 strips to make up a course in French cooking."

Deighton began retrieving the oldest recipes he possessed from behind the flour bin on a high shelf in his kitchen. It was like strip-mining his past. Perhaps that's why he writes in the introduction, "Of all the books I have written, none of them is dearer to me or more personal than this one." An extravagant claim? "They say that any woman examining the clothes in her wardrobe lives again the highlights of her past. Well, these recipes do something like that for me."

He found the recipes all over the place. A Portuguese fisherman (in Portugal) taught him how to cook squid. A Viennese granny in Hampstead made a brilliant cheesecake before his eyes. A Hungarian cook in Piccadilly taught him to make strudel dough. Where did he find the recipe for Chelo Kebab on page 196? "From the Persian chef in a Persian restaurant in the City. A charming elderly lady doing PR for yoghurt enticed me there with a note saying they had a belly dancer performing, even at lunch time ... It was irresistible. And my Calvinist sense of duty ensured that I came away with a recipe from the chef."

The bulk of his cooking, though, was French. "Henri-Paul Pellaprat's book Modern Culinary Art was my Bible and The Art of French Cooking edited by Bart Winer contained the chosen recipes of eight of the greatest chefs of all time. This was the book I asked Roy Plomley to let me have on Desert Island Discs."

Reading the Action Cook Book, you're struck by Deighton's ahead-of-the-loop sophistication: his keenness on garlic and coffee beans, his contempt for "the stuff marked Pepper that looks like grey flour", his insistence on using only the best kitchen utensils. It all goes back to his sentimental education, miles from home, at 17.

"I was a teenager when I first went to France. It was 1946; the war was a very recent memory. A French friend of my father had agreed to look after me but was unexpectedly sent somewhere, so I wasn't met at the Gare du Nord. I found myself alone in a Wonderland. I saw an advert for a hotel that turned out to be a flea-bitten brothel in Pigalle. I could write a book about that teenager's fortnight in Paris. I became a Francophile and food played a large part in my conversion ... "

So, Mr Deighton, I said, there you were in your 20s, a cool, successful young man about town with your bachelor flat in London and your fancy cooking skills. Were you a big hit with the ladies? And were you in great demand among friends of both sexes, for your flashy way with coq au vin?

"I don't remember doing much cooking for girlfriends during my student years," said Deighton guardedly. "I cooked for myself and my close friends. The girls upon whom I had designs were taken to restaurants, where I could display my knowledge of French menus. In those student days, only a few of my men friends were able to cook. But if they had any sort of apparatus or a stove, I could often get invited and earn my evening meal by cooking for a crowd."

Yes, yes, (I persisted) but when you got the dolly birds with the false eyelashes and the broderie anglaise tops into your kitchen, what exactly did you cook them? What constituted the perfect seduction dish? Chicken paprika? Entrecôte bordelaise? Coquilles St-Jacques?

Deighton's reply was a masterpiece of understatement. "Nothing fattening," he said. "Nothing I couldn't pronounce. And nothing that might burn or boil over if eating the meal was delayed ... "

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