French leave

Monday, 22 March, 2004
Michael Olivier
Book Review - French Leave
In 1990, I was working in England spending time with Michel Roux in his kitchen at The Waterside Inn at Bray. I was staying with friends who decided to take me out to lunch one day 'to eat the finest meal of your life.' I had been waxing lyrical about the food at The Waterside.

We went to a restaurant in Shinfield, Berkshire called L’Ortolan, owned by John Burton Race. The building was an Edwardian Gothic Vicarage. It was the finest meal I had ever eaten and indeed fourteen years later remains so. I particularly remember an Assiette Gourmande a dessert platter for the greedy, which contained miniature versions of all 7 desserts featured on the main a la carte menu. With our coffee there appeared a tiny little silver Victorian cake stand with one perfect little fresh fruit tart on each level.

After the meal as we were getting into the car, he came out of the kitchen to grab a breath of air and I went over and spoke to him and had a very happy conversation. Subsequently he was very kind to me when he accepted a chef of mine to do a stage at L’Ortolan.

Having garnered his 2 Michelin stars in Shinfield, which he maintained from 1986 to 2000, Burton Race took off for London to beard the lion in his den and opened John Burton Race at The Landmark Hotel in Marylebone. The incredible thing about him is that within a year he had reclaimed both stars. In the Autumn of 2002, he took his wife Kim and their 6 children to live in the south of France, in a house with a single bathroom, which alone earns them a whole string of brownie points as far as I am concerned.

French Leave is described in my favourite New Penguin English Dictionary as 'leave taken without permission'. Kim readily gave this permission, though the children took a bit of time to settle in. Burton Race spent the next year getting back to cooking. Cooking fresh regional foods bought at village markets, baking bread with an exciting young man who baked in a woodfired oven using oak and poplar, hunting truffles with a dog called Moustique, milking goats to make cheese, training his children to eat pissaladiere rather than fish fingers and pain au chocolat instead of chocopops for breakfast.

The book is packed with wonderful anecdotes – it’s a good read. In fact a great read. The recipe's are fresh looks at so many of our old favourites and he has recreated them especially for this book adding modern wrinkles to broaden out flavour or ease the cooks' work in the kitchen.

French Leave is published by Ebury Press, a division of Random House, is a joy. It’s a 'use me and keep me in your kitchen' book rather than one to leave on the coffee table and never look at. The television series made for Channel 4 was recently shown here on satellite television on Monday nights. Hope you didn't miss it! French Leave is something I would like to take. Soon.

By Michael Olivier