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Carrier, Robertlocked

(1923–2006)
  • Paul Levy

Robert Carrier (1923–2006)

by Barry Marsden, 1998

Carrier, Robert (1923–2006), writer on cookery and restaurateur, was born Robert Carrier McMahon on 10 November 1923, at Tarrytown, New York state, USA, the third son of a wealthy property lawyer of Irish descent. His mother was of German descent, and also from a wealthy background. (His middle name, later his assumed surname, was that of one of his grandmothers, chosen because it looked good in print and was easy to pronounce in French.) When his parents lost their money following the Wall Street crash he became a child actor, taking the juvenile lead in musicals; he eventually appeared on Broadway, in Leonard Sillman's revue New Faces, probably in 1943. After leaving school, when not acting he took art courses. He first came to Britain with the American armed forces in 1943, as a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. He later stated bluntly, 'I was a spy' (personal knowledge). His wartime duties were in intelligence. After D-day he moved to Paris as a cryptographer, and worked in the headquarters of General de Gaulle. He became editor of a magazine, Spectacle, that supported de Gaulle's party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français, until the publication folded in 1947. He then stayed on in Europe, working as a radio journalist for an American English-language station, and acting (he took the part of a cowboy in a musical revue in Italy), and eventually arrived in not yet fashionable St Tropez. There he received the only professional kitchen training he ever had (he never called himself a chef), at Chez Fifine, where the proprietor took the tall, good-looking young man under her wing.

Invited by a friend to return to London for the coronation, Carrier fell in love with the place, though rationing had not yet ended, and the food was poor. However, he cooked for a dinner party where the food was so impressive that one of the guests, Eileen Dickson, offered him a job writing about food for Harper's Bazaar. He went on to write for Vogue, and then a weekly column in the Sunday Times Magazine. He was probably the first cookery writer to make use of cookery cards, stiff wipe-clean cards with a glossy photograph of a dish on one side and the recipe on the other. He also worked in public relations, which gave great scope for his flamboyant charm. His accounts included stock cubes, New Zealand apples, and cornflour; conflict of interest was not then a consideration in the world of food journalism. In 1957 he and his long-term partner, Oliver Lawson Dick, published The Vanished City: a Study of London, featuring architectural prints of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London's temples, gardens, parks, and squares.

Carrier's heyday was the late 1960s and the 1970s. Though he had two notable restaurants, his real sphere of influence was the domestic dinner party. Home magazine called him 'London's gayest gourmet'. In his Great Dishes of the World (1963) he introduced a large readership to foods that had previously been the province of self-styled ‘gourmets’, including not only the classics of French bourgeois and regional cookery, but also moussaka and a properly made ragù bolognese. This was a time when post-war, post-Spam cooks cherished their recent access to cream, butter, and the brandy bottle, and Carrier, now a portly man, encouraged all three. Great Dishes in its various guises and permutations was said to have sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Many cookery titles followed, including some ingenious part-works for Marshall Cavendish from 1981 to 1983, for which he styled the photographs himself. His recipes were more specific and easier to follow than Elizabeth David's, and made it possible for tens of thousands of middle-class women to prepare food that would impress their guests.

In 1966 Carrier bought a restaurant in Camden Passage, Islington. The Greek couple he had intended to run it for him disappeared, and he ended up cooking himself. An outlet for his showmanship and flair, Carrier's was done up in imaginative French provincial style, with Provençal fabrics and wood that looked and felt expensive. Avocado starters, fresh herbs used with profligacy, generous servings of country terrines, rich desserts, and lots of main courses beyond the usual steak, appealed both to those who knew the food of France and to those who could only aspire to such knowledge. Something new on the London restaurant scene, Carrier's attracted people whose names featured in newspaper gossip columns. There was a show-business touch of camp in all Carrier's enterprises—the service in his restaurants was elaborate and the food itself as over-decorated as in the photographs in his books and cookery cards. In 1967 Carrier opened a specialized cookware department in Harrods.

His talents needing a new theatre, in 1971 Carrier paid £32,000 for Hintlesham Hall near Ipswich, a huge, grade one listed Tudor brick house with a Georgian front and 175 acres. He had failed to commission a survey, and its tumbledown state meant that, though he had a workforce of sixty, he never achieved the vision he had for it as a country house in which he could live and entertain, so in August 1972 he opened it as a hotel and restaurant. Later he invested another £300,000 to turn it into a state-of-the-art cookery school, but in 1981, when the instructor he had in mind failed him, he began teaching the courses himself. His career as a genial television cook had begun in 1975 with Carrier's Kitchen, and clients flocked to his cookery school. But the repetitiveness of teaching bored him, and he closed the school in 1982 and sold Hintlesham the next year. In 1984 he also gave up the Camden Passage restaurant, which had become a nursery for talented chefs, including Shaun Hill.

Carrier travelled a good deal, bought a house in Marrakesh, took up painting, and published an excellent book, A Taste of Morocco (1987). He made further television series in the 1980s, and had a success in his native America with a weekly magazine. In 1984 he became the public face of the British restaurant industry, arguing effectively for changes to the licensing laws, and he was made an honorary OBE in 1987. He returned to London in 1994 from Morocco (having passed a few years in New York), then lived his last few years in Provence. Oliver Lawson Dick predeceased him, and the octogenarian Carrier was looked after by his close friend and former editor, Liz Glaze. He died in France on 27 June 2006.

Sources

  • The Guardian (28 June 2006)
  • The Times (28 June 2006)
  • The Independent (1 July 2006)
  • personal knowledge (2010)
  • private information (2010)

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, light entertainment footage

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1963–86, PA Photos, London
  • photographs, 1968, Getty Images, London, Popperfoto
  • photographs, 1981–2000, Rex Features, London
  • M. Birt, bromide print, 1982, NPG
  • J. Downing, photographs, 1982, Getty Images, London, Hult. Arch.
  • H. Schwarz, watercolour, gouache and conte, 1994; Bonhams, 21 Nov 2006, lot 13641
  • H. Scharwz, oil on board, 1994–5; Bonhams, 17 Feb 2004, lot 11037
  • B. Marsden, colour transparency, 1998, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs, Photoshot, London