I am lucky to be married to someone who worked with the late Richard Olney on Time Life’s ‘The Good Cook’ series. Commissioned in 1977 and finished in 1982, the ambitious 28-book series has never been surpassed. It’s as fresh today as then. Olney, an American by birth and a European by choosing, masterminded the series in his specially built studio kitchen in the Time Life building off London’s New Bond Street, flying in and out from his home in Provence. I arrest all urge to say “well, somebody had to………”.
Out of print today, individual titles can been found on Amazon, in specialist book shops and even car boot sales. New copies sell for between £32-48 per book, but used can be bought off Amazon for as little as £2. You can always do you own repairs if they are too tatty. What’s important is content, not appearance, because these are workshop manuals, not those current dreary recipe books, with the smug ‘sleb chef/goddess expressing image and attitude on the cover, published only to adorn the shelves of a designer kitchen. Richard would have surely despaired, indeed dismissed, at their very being.
Olney recruited some of the best people around to help assemble each book – and several books would be in production at any one time. His brief to the photographer was fresh, strict and straightforward. Every picture had to inform. Everything was done for real. Shots to show mixing were always on white, chopping on wood and pastry on marble.
There was no styling ever, except for cover shots and frontispieces.
On ‘Patisserie’, Joy recalls a meeting where food colouring was discussed for an hour or more. Should they import Cochineal Beetles, asked Olney, and photograph them being crushed to extract the red colouring? It was decided that might overly shock, so cochineal essence was used – green came from spinach, yellow from saffron and so on.
Which were Olney’s favourites I asked Joy? Certainly not ‘Patisserie’ which he said was “a load of sweet shit”. The meats, offal and wine books were his manor – specially ‘Offal’ which defied his American birth. Americans quaintly call offal ‘Variety Meats’ – and there, to this day, offals mostly go for pet food and into the ethnic communities, Only the most daring of US chefs feature them – step up Mr Anthony Bourdain. I bet Bourdain and Olney would have been a great kitchen pairing to sit alongside – Tony and Dick at the stove.
Simplicity was the Olney way – having mastered the techniques by study and practice, he went on to refine and simplify. As I always say, you can only break the rules when you know the rules. Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) had put it even better years before when he said ”Faites Simple”. Only the most confident and able of cooks ever achieve it.
It’s my regret that I never met Richard – our paths nearly crossed on occasions, but we never made it to shake hands and share a highball glass of Glenmorangie on the rocks. My partner Joy was part of his team on ‘Patisserie’ and ‘Outdoor Cooking’. Like she says, where do you go from there in food?
Few days pass without us referring to ‘The Good Cook’ for some gem, technique, reminder or sometimes to just wonder at their culinary splendour. Olney is one a few to mention removing a wishbone in his ‘Poultry’ book - something I insist on since I learned the technique in a French kitchen in the 80s.
I even have a near complete second set of the series in storage from the old Longhouse kitchen library.
Olney really did understand food – he had an intrinsic feel for the French kitchen more than any other. Someone recently wrote that he would ‘compose’ salads, not ‘toss’ them – what utter bull-corn and worse, what a show of complete ignorance of French cuisine. That shows how little this salaried national newspaper staff writer had grasped of Olney or food - he would have been quick to point out that a ‘salade compose’ was quite a different dish to a ‘salad’. Big salads , charcuterie and fine cheeses were served for lunch at Time Life and when Richard made the salad they were always tossed by hand – because that is the only way. Olney didn’t suffer fools.
It’s said he passed away peacefully in his house in Provence in the high summer of 1999, having prepared and eaten a simple lunch – and then cleared away. Such care and precision with real food has never been needed more than today. Richard Olney (1927-1999), Salut and RIP.