Today is a very special day for true gastronomy. One of the world’s finest food photographers – in my view – celebrates his 82nd glorious year today – and he’s down in his Devon farmhouse nursing a sick, injured dog.
His name Anthony Blake. Without Anthony this country would have been late in its discovery of Michelin stars and the sheer magificence of dining in these rarified establishments. His book ‘Great Chefs of France’ was published in 1978 when there were just 12 three Michelin starred chef-patrons in France. I think Britain had two – Michel Bourdin at The Connaught Grill and Albert Roux at Le Gavroche – the two just a 5 minutes brisk walk of one another across Grosvenor Square (London).
Living alongside the Chefs Day and Night
With words by journalist and restaurant critic Quentin Crewe – some readers may remember Brasserie St Quentin in Knightsbridge – Blake and he worked sometimes for several weeks on and off, in with each of the chefs they photographed and wrote about. Early mornings at market, witnessing – always camera at hand – how the day works in establishments of this high order.
He photographed it as it was – with the high drama, flared tempers, time off and post service relaxation. These, after all, were the Maitre-Chefs who kept their personal lives to themselves – whether they drove a 2CV or a Ferrari (I doubt it), lived over the shop or in a chateau (I doubt that too), we’d never know. All we do know is their cooking in a pre-Hello world.
I tried my hardest for two years to get a publisher interested in a Great Chefs 2 – by then there were 17 three starred chefs in France and still less than a handful in the UK. I even had the late Auberon Waugh interested in writing the words although he stood aside when Literary Review began to take up all his time. He suggested two other great writers with enviable food experience, Len Deighton and Anthony Burgess. At least I got to talk with them. No British publisher was interested. The food book world was already in swift change.
Without serendipity of getting to know Anthony around this time I would never have visited some of France’s finest kitchens. When I first visited Jacques Pic in Valence, for example, with an introduction from Anthony – AB to some and even ‘Tony’ to others, but always Anthony to me – the first visit took me into another world.
I pulled up outside Pic - the restaurant was in an insignificant side street in hot and dusty Valence – in moments the car was taken away and bags taken to the room. By the time we walked up two flights of stairs, there were two pink grapefruit sorbets at perfect eating temperature awaiting us.
‘Blue Collar Gastronomy’
Much the same happened at Troisgros in Roanne the following year. At a dinner there, there was much jolity and raucous singing from a salon to the side of the main dining room. We asked what was happening and were told it was the local binmen celebrating one of their number’s birthdays – and you wonder how I coined my description of ‘Blue Collar Gastronomy’.
Staying with Pic for a moment – he was the first chef I’d met who had no name on his jacket, no ribbons, no medals – just plain starched white and a huge ear to ear smile. Jacques stayed in his glass sided kitchen throughout service – he only left there to greet diners on arrival and wish them goodnight. Long hours and hard work – he regained a previously lost 3rd star – took him early. Jacques, the master, died in his early 60s.
Meeting Anthony on one his rare visits to London two years ago, he implored me to visit Pic now being run by the only female chef working in France – Jacques’ daughter, Anne-Sophie. I’ve yet to make it, but it’s on my must-do’s for 2012. She now heads up a 120 year old Pic gastronomic dynasty. There may be older restaurants – Tour d’Argent and La Petite Chaise in Paris for example, but none have a chef dynasty to rival Pic’s.
I’ve watched Anne-Sophie on YouTube and her technique is superb, amazing and quite out of this world without laboratory trickery and the chemistry lab. Anthony confided his recent meal there was quite one of the finest he’d even eaten. That’s some recommendation from the man that’s eaten everywhere worth eating at – and many more in between. I owe it to Anthony in my ability to get along with real chefs. I learned so much by osmosis.
Where Blake’s work differed was that he used natural light, real food, no styling, no props, chefs’ hands not hand models’ – food as it really was being prepared for the table. Nothing was ever faked or enhanced. He loved sequential shots – there’s one of Paul Bocuse holding a Bresse chicken – never published was the next frame as Bocuse hurled, with .22 accuracy, the bird at the young sous who’d ommited to remove the wish bone and trim the legs properly. Wherever that chef is working today, he’ll still smart from that moment of deserved indignancy. He caught the elan and charisma of Bocuse in this limited edition picture. At 85, Bocuse stills cooks at Colloges-au-Mont-d’Or most evenings. I sent a friend from an posh British supermarket there a few months ago – she said it was quite simply one of the best experiences of her dining life.
To think that around this pre-digital time, most food was shot as a long drawn out still life on a 10×8 plate camera – with the photographer hidden beneath a black cloth like in Victoria’s day. Make no mistake, Anthony Blake was a man well before his time. The only photographer to come close would be Robert Fresson – a Belgian who lived and worked in the USA, but also for a time lived in La Puye (Poitou-Charentes) – as a close neighbour and friend of a dear friend of mine. I am amazed we never got to meet over an aperitif at Chez Giteau, the village’s only bar/restaurant.
More Great Collaborations
After Great Chefs came collaborations – always driven and inspired by Anthony, hence his name was given prominence on the front cover – they included Pierre Koffman’s Tante Claire cookbook ( plus one of my favourites, Memories of Gascony, which is an all time classic), Nico Ladenis, many titles from Albert and Michel Roux (Senior), Gary Rhodes, Roger Verge, Freddy Giraudet and Gino Santin’s remarkable ‘Cucina Veneziana’. Many of these will be out of print, but be sure Amazon or a good second hand book seller will help you find copies.
Gino had just moved from a tiny but popular restaurant in Richmond into Ebury Street (Belgravia, London) where he opened the uber-elegant Santini in the late 80s. Anthony had watched him progress and was taken by Gino’s heart felt passion for Venetian cooking – he’d heard once too many times people talk down the cooking from his birthplace.
Whether is a close up of a dish being cooked, or a landscape of a restaurant set for service, or a split-second moment when Blake catches the chef unawares – the style has become known as reportage, meaning it’s immediate and real. One of Anthony’s close photographer friends, Chris Smith, was a multi award winning sports photographer – with sport there’s only one chance to catch the winning goal or try, or a dozen or more ‘chasers jumping in the Hennessey Gold Cup, mud and sweat flying as each horse and jockey gives their all.
These previous two years or so he’d been helping his old friend Michel Bourdin curate a Musee du Gastronomie in Provence – he’s even been back into the dark room printing up early work for the permanent exhibition. What’s a dark room I hear someone say?
Let’s hope the new dog recovers soon and we see you in London – most likely eating with Pierre Koffmann who has been a friend since the early days of La Tante Claire – and now back at the stoves at Koffmann’s Knightsbridge.
NB I still have a dried pig’s bladder given to me a few months back by PK to prepare the famous and much photographed Poulet en Vessie – see Great Chefs (pages 36 and 180). If I can find an affordable fresh black truffle (only the melanosporum will do – anyway the white Alba truffle is off the scale in price and should never be cooked), it may be Christmas Day lunch at our table with what I find at Les Glorieuses de Bresse mentioned in yesterday’s post.