Golden ages come and they go – now is no golden age for stellar cooking (more a silver and ascending phase), but another will be upon us sooner than we think. Tournus based Michelin-starred young chef, Jean-Michel Carrette was proof enough the new age was arriving, judging by the cooking at ‘Aux Trois Terraces’. Jean-Mich’ had completed his formal training in Roanne with Troisgros and reckoned there be few better places to study and learn.
Anthony Blake had known the Troisgros brothers, Jean and Pierre, in the early 1970’s. Such was their standing, the French decided to route the TGV via Roanne to Lyon as celebration of the Troisgros restaurant. I visited them with Anthony’s calling card and my welcome was splendid, as was the generous plate of sliced, interleaved potato and black truffle I was served as hors d’oeuvre.
How this piece ties together is simple – and the ever modest Mr Anthony Blake would never say it. Had there been no Anthony Blake, then people in England and elsewhere outside of France, would have taken another two decades to learn the real meaning of Michelin stars, great chefs and that golden age of gastronomy and the chefs’ art there were a rich seam across France of the 1970’s/80’s.
‘Great Chefs of France’ was published in 1978. It was 100% Blake’s idea, he having met and photographed most of France’s chef-patrons whilst on a long running assignment for the Mumm Champagne and working for Marie-Claire.
“There was nothing to compare in England, or indeed other countries where I was shooting at that time. I was a man driven to tell a story through pictures. I needed someone to write the words, so I took my 80% complete ‘Great Chefs’ proposal to the Frankfurt Book Fair,” Blake told me.
“One thing led to another, fortune smiled and I came home with a publisher and a deal.
“Paul Bocuse said he’d only come in on the project if I also had Troisgros, Vergé and Guérard. I had, so he did,” smiled Blake.
Mitchell Beazley packaged Anthony Blake’s ‘Great Chefs of France’ and Quentin Crewe was commissioned to write the words.
“I remember well how Quentin would bounce ideas off his pal Bernard Levin, then at The Times. I think Levin would have liked to have written Great Chefs too,” shared Blake.
This book was my introduction to the great chefs – and it began the long friendship with Anthony Blake which lasts to this day.
‘Great Chefs of France’ sold well and was published in French (naturally), Spanish, German, Flemish and Japanese. Copies are still available from time to time on Amazon. Over 100,000 copies were sold – a large number indeed for such a specialist book.
We tried, sadly with no success, to have a ‘Great Chefs 2’ published in the late 1980’s – I approached publishers and writers, losing three precious copies on the way. Auberon Waugh expressed interest in writing the words – imagine that – but then had to pull away as he took on editing Literary Review.
Others considered included Blake’s friend, Len Deighton, who was also a gastronome and cookery writer – evidenced by sequences in his epic 1962 spy thriller ‘The Ipcress File’ where the Disque Bleu smoking hero, Harry Palmer, shows his verve in the kitchen.
Waugh introduced us to Anthony Burgess, then living in the South of France – and he expressed interested in the project. Alas, even with writers of this calibre, no publisher came forward and ‘Great Chefs 2’ was stillborn. For me that remains a career disappointment because the book should have been published.
Winding back to the beginning, Blake had learned his craft as a photographer in the RAF after spending his early teenage years escaping threat of WW2 bombs by moving from Richmond to Wales, then Scotland where an idea struck him.
First, in Wales where he helped out as a young boy on a dairy farm, learning to milk cows “most times in the field”. His father had been involved with making and selling ice cream before the war, so dairying seemed natural to young Anthony Blake, then aged 12. When in Scotland immediately after the war he watched in wonder, as any young lad would, as they set about dynamiting the Clyde to rid it of WW2 wrecks, some with their dangerous unexploded ordnance.
“The explosions also stunned the fish and I watched as they floated otherwise unharmed to the banks and thought how this might be a lucrative business for me back in immediate post-war Richmond-on-Thames what with fresh food being short,” confided Blake with a smile.
Here I learned the answer to a question I’d never had courage or impudency to ask – how did he lose two fingers off his left hand.
“I was packing some explosive substance into a couple of metal pipes I’d found on a bomb site – probably weed killer or something freely available. Little was I to know this stuff became active by being compacted into the pipes – and up it went in my bedroom.”
Anthony Blake’s Thames fishing initiative ended there – and he was short of his ring and little fingers.
“Amazingly I was still able to milk cows and I so wanted to become a dairyman, but my age was against me -it seems I was too young and that made me despondent. The head herdsman bet me 10/- I wouldn’t join the RAF. That 10/- changed my life for ever.”
Five years as a regular airman in the RAF taught Blake the fundamentals of photography, from setting up reconnaissance cameras in fighter squadrons in Egypt and Kenya, to using high speed cameras on Pendine Sands (Wales again) and finally learning the art of a hand-held camera.
On leaving, Blake became a photographer with a dark room below his father’s restaurant – waiting at table and helping the kitchen by day and developing by night. His first camera was a Roliflex and his subjects weddings, dinners and people.
A chance meeting with someone who knew Fleet Street and the world of glossy magazines took Blake from shooting the demi-monde of Richmond and into the pages of Good Housekeeping and then Woman’s Mirror. Here he began working with Katie Stewart, breaking new ground by shooting food in colour and by using only natural light where possible. Blake continued working with Katie Stewart through most of her long career at The Times, Woman’s Journal and writing many cookbooks.
“Around this time I went to an exhibition of Cartier-Bresson at the V&A (London). I went in knowing photography and came out seeing in pictures – meaning everywhere I looked I saw a perfectly framed shot. I never looked back.”
“A commission from Time-Life took me to New York and there I was able to use the amazing lighting set-up used by the ground breaking ‘Sport’s Illustrated’ in their 9th Avenue studio.
Time-Life hired Blake to shoot the British Isles edition of their Countries of the World series. “They gave me carte-blanche – all I had to do was deliver the pictures on time. As is always the case, Time-Life led to other commissions, notably The Sunday Times Magazine, then a designer’s dream.
Few who love food can forget Blake’s ST Magazine front cover shot of Paul Bocuse – then an unknown in England – holding a massive chocolate confection which some might say was a big as the chef’s ego.
‘Great Chefs of France’ was without doubt the Blake major opus.
A series of chef and cook books also ran over the years – Albert & Michel Roux, Nico Ladenis, Gary Rhodes and, London’s great man of the stoves, Pierre Koffmann.
“I met Pierre when taking Lee Bolton to the original La Tante Claire for a lunch when he was over from New York. We had the trademark stuffed pig’s trotters and certainly the pistachio soufflé – it was all remarkable cooking and, on the spot, I suggested a book to Pierre and two books followed,” recalls Blake.
‘Memories of Gascony’ was based largely around the notebook of Pierre Koffmann’s grandmother, Camille, and it took Blake and Koffmann onto locations in the Gers. The first of the two titles centres on the haute cuisine of the Michelin starred La Tante Claire**.
As with all Anthony Blake’s books, he insisted on his name being on the front cover with equal billing to the writer – unknown until Blake began the trend and proof, if required, that his books were his ideas. ‘La Cucina Veneziana’ was another first, talking up the genuine, yet sadly maligned cooking of the Veneto, home to Gino Santin who went on to have restaurants in London, Milan and Instanbul.
Sitting with Anthony one afternoon I asked him to talk me through pages of ‘Great Chefs of France’ – to tell me what he recalls of the moment he shot this and that frame – was it hot, noisy, frenetic and more.
“Dog food? That’s what Jean Troisgros was saying here as his arms crossed with a young chef.
“Then family moments snatched in the Pic family apartment. Jacques then had regained his precious – and deserved- three Michelin stars. He’s seated in their apartment with his very young daughter, Anne-Sophie.
“Anne-Sophie is today’s most celebrated female chef with three Michelin stars to her name and many more honours besides for her cooking in Valence and her new Paris restaurant. She cooked for me quite one of the best meals of my life when I visited last year to give her some unseen photographs of her late father,” he said, urging me to get to Valence again soon.
Blake has been back in his dark room personally printing photographs for the walls of the Fondation Auguste Escoffier – a musée of gastronomy in Escoffier’s birth place – the tiny village of Villeneuve-Loubet, around 15 kms in the hills behind Nice. Another Blake friend, Michel Bourdin, is curating there in his retirement from The Connaught (London) where he was first in the UK to be awarded Michelin stars.
The Blake style comes from his natural empathy with the chefs – he could become near invisible in their kitchens as he became friends with most of them, often returning year after year, at their invitation, on trips through France. It shows in his pictures and is nowhere more special than in ‘Mémoires de Chefs’ – published 2012 by Textuel with more photographs accredited to Anthony Blake than any other – most in monochrome and showing how well the chefs inter-acted one with the other – another measure of the Blake personality to capture these insights on film for ever.
“Often, even for me, when taking pictures during service or whenever, language can get in the way. Odile knew what I wanted and did all the talking.”
Did Blake have favourites across all the chefs he’s worked with? Would he share? I could only ask.
“Yes and no,” came the measured reply.
“I remember I was sitting outside Au Sauvignon (St Germain, Paris) one time. Alain (Chapel) spied me from across the busy boulevard and immediately worked his way through the traffic to say hello. He was on his way to a TV studio, clearly pressed for time, but insisted on us having a glass together.”
I asked also about the other great photographer of the period, Robert Freson, something I’d never thought to do in all the years I’ve known Blake. He reached for his copy of Freson’s ‘A Taste of France’ and explained some technicalities about Freson’s work, saying: “He’s Robert Freson. I am Anthony Blake.”
The bond is clearly there for when I interview and write about Freson some day soon.
“Only in my wildest dreams could I have imagined working with Anthony Blake. It’s been an amazing 23 years. We’ve never come to blows as we have the same attitude to food – we love to cook and eat good stuff – the pictures show that.
“We’ve always wanted to learn from the experts – Bocuse and his likes of course, but also those like the elderly couple in Sardinia making their pane carasau (carta di musica) for eight hours every Saturday in a specially made oven in a converted garage for the local shepherds.
“Another time, we cooked with reclusive Amish and Shaker bakers who fell under his easy charm and perfect English manners,” shared Linda Collister working with Blake.
Collister trained at Le Cordon Bleu (London) and went on to work and study at the École La Varenne in Paris. This led to her working with Anne Willan, founder of La Varenne, on her fine book ‘French Regional Cooking’.
“If ‘French Regional Cooking’ had gone on to be the biggest best seller of all time, Anne would never have re-couped the personal money she put into bringing it about,” Linda once told me.
With Blake, she wrote ‘The Bread Book’, ‘The Baking Book’ and ‘Country Bread’ – each a definitive title for anyone truly interested in making and learning about bread.
Some of the simply amazing Anthony Blake Library has been digitalised and taken on by StockFood (email@example.com). Jonnie Léger at the London office of the German-owned photo library said: “It’s an enormous privilege to have Blake’s work now in StockFood. He’s a photographer who takes on a subject and fully covers it with a lot of style to a point of perfection.”
This is a start, but more must be done to save a record of what we call La France Profonde and other locations as diverse as the Tokyo Fish Market, most of Europe through food and more. His is a library of a lifetime of people, food and gastronomy.
Anthony Blake the photographer cannot go unmentioned as Anthony Blake the cook. Not only could he shoot food like no other, he cooks like a dream too. I know he’s cooked for me many times – and is seen here in 1988 with a great Belgian starred chef, Rudi de Volder of ‘Restaurant T’convent’ set in the flatlands of West Flanders at Lo-Reninge, between Veurne and Ypres.
“I owe much to my parents,” he told me recently. “My mother taught me how to boil a perfect egg when I was a tiny kid. My father was a stickler for plate layout, whatever the meal.
“I guess I’ve learned more than a few tricks from the many chefs I’ve worked with over the years. A photographer should always be watching and learning as he shoots.”
Modest and charming to the end. We finished where we’d started this interview – in his potager deep in the Devon countryside on the land where his mother had lived for most of the years after WW2. Artichokes, beans and salad to cut for dinner – and fresh laid eggs from his hens for a salad of freshly lifted potatoes.
Most of what we ate together he’d grown and cooked. I left with a sealed folder under my arm. I opened it when I arrived back home in London. It was a signed print of the last ever shot Blake had taken of the late Katie Stewart – his friend for over 50 years and mine for half that time.
Sometimes we have to breathe deeply to remind ourselves it’s not all a dream.
Bravo, Anthony Blake – born 1929 and as strong as an ox.
* Jean-Michel Carrette – ‘Restaurant Aux Trois Terraces’ – www.aux-terraces.com
** Pierre Koffmann – now Koffmann’s Knightsbridge.co.uk – www.pierrekoffmann
***Anne-Sophie Pic – ‘Pic Valence’ – www.pic-valence.com
‘Great Chefs of France’ – ISBN:0-86134-008-6
‘Mémoires de Chefs’ – ISBN: 978-284597-452-4 (€45 / French text only)
Titles by Linda Collister and Anthony Blake:
‘The Bread Book’ – ISBN: -85029-532-8 ; ‘The Baking Book’ – ISBN: 1-85029-765-7; ‘Country Bread’ – ISBN: 1-84091-117-4
Anthony Blake images from StockFood – firstname.lastname@example.org – 00 44 75 29 86 40