Friday, 29 March 2013

Richard O'Sullivan - The man about the kitchen...


The history of this still great nation is littered with the works and endeavors of many a great rennaisance man: Pepys, Evelyn and Johnson can all be said to have made their contributions to the furtherment of human culture, pushing the boundaries and quashing the dogmatic beliefs of of their time, but none can be said to have had the same impact as O’Sullivan. 

Richard O’Sullivan was a true shining star, in fact the great Russian writer Lermontov might have gone so far as to call him a hero of our time such was his influence on the collective zeitgeist during the latter half of the 20th Century. 

Actor, writer, social critic and culinary genius, there was a time when O’Sullivan held great influence in this country, from 1974-1982 he was an unmistakeable face on ITV finding fame playing the cookery student, latterly chef, Robin Trip in two of the country’s best loved sitcoms: Man about the house and Robin’s Nest. Playing these roles with a Falstaffian precision he charmed both young and old with choice turn of phrase and bawdy antics as his character tried to get off with either of his house mates (played by Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomset). 

However, of all O’Sullivan’s accolades he should be remembered for a landmark achievement in the world of cookery writing, and one which is rightly placed up there in the pantheon with Apicius, Soyer, Escoffier, Glasse, Adria and Blumenthal. Published in 1980 Man About The Kitchen: A book for people who can’t cook - much was to overturn everything that people previously thought possible in the kitchen. 

Risque chapter titles like: ‘Richard’s Roast’, ‘Birds I Fancy’, ‘Some like it hot’ and ‘Carry on cooking’ make the reader chuckle with their naughtiness, fully capturing the cultural melting pots that were the Italian bistros of the late 1970s where I imagine O’Sullivan and his fellow dilettantes held court. Long before Keith Floyd introduced the UK public to the delights of relaxed cookery, O’Sullivan was advocating a more leisurely approach, as his introduction states: 

‘I like to be on my own in the kitchen, hearing my friends enjoying themselves in the next room. A glass of wine in my hand, something good to cook, and I’m in my element...’

The book beginnings with the bare essentials and handy tips with which to get the most of the cooking experience, such as the importance of investing in a fish slice: 

This is essential, used for turning over pancakes...also good for scraping burnt bits off the bottom of pans, and swatting flies.’ 

Before-hand, as many culinary historians I am sure will attest, home cooks had never been enlightened as to the many alternative, practical uses of kitchen implements which would be opened up by this work, another, clever passage references the modern wonders of a kitchen timer: 

with this ticking away in your pocket you can watch Match of the Day, or go to the pub, knowing you’ll be reminded when the meal is ready.’

Just brilliant, why bother with Jamie’s 30 minute meals when you have this book? O’Sullivan also realised that most people wouldn’t have been aware of the plethora of exotic herbs sampled on the ‘Grand Tour’ he did of Europe during his youth, and much like the great architect, Sir John Soanes, he sought to educate us with the delights of Tarragon, Basil and Coriander. Furthermore he was embracing the continental taste for coffee, only just reaching the shores of 1970s Britain: 

How to cheat at making coffee... and impress your friends. Make instant coffee and serve it in a Cona jug. Put a couple of coffee beans on the hot-plate to give that freshly roasted smell.’

As on of the great, classically trained actors of his day he knew that stage-craft was essential to the perfect meal, as demonstrated in this passage: 

‘there’s a knack to making a good omelette, you’ll soon pick it up, but in the meantime, don’t be too discouraged by your first efforts. Soft lighting, or better still, candlelight, covers a multitude of sins...’ 

Olivier couldn’t have put it better himself.

The whole book is punctuated by fantastic vignettes from a life well lived, from the young O’Sullivan’s daliances with a female sergeant in the Israeli army (evoking scene’s of Turgenev’s First Love and Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman - for which this tale, I have heard, was the driving influence) inspiring such dishes as: ‘Ladies Thighs’ and ‘Legs Fair and Fowl’. He also references his love for Italian cooking, referencing the great honour bestowed on him by Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison in the 60s when he was known as ‘Spaghetti O’Sullivan’ from which he advises the plucky Brits to cook their pasta for 12-15 minutes: 

once done you can get away with leaving it in the water in which it has been cooked for up to about 5 minutes, but once drained it must be rinsed to get the starch off it... so put in a colander and hold it under the hot tap for a minute.’

I am sure that Marcella Hazan would not disagree! 

But it is his metaphorical and philosophical musings that really bring this tome together (concisely comprising of 93 crisp pages), as he warns the reader:

Decide on the menu first. Make certain that the dishes go well together: Don’t have rice soup followed by creamed chicken and rice, followed by rice pudding. Good flavours perhaps, but a bit pale and uninteresting - like taking an ash blonde our on a foggy day.’ 

It is this wit and verve that set this book above the rest and give it the rightly deserved titles as one of the most important cookery books of the 20th Century, if not all time. Let me leave you with another fabulous tip and strongly urge you to pick up a copy where you can: 

‘One of my favourite flambĂ© dishes is Omelette Surprise, when you flambĂ© an omelette with whisky... don’t forget to drink the gravy!’

5 comments:

  1. *SNORT* I must place my order for this tome immediately! ;)

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  2. Enjoyed reading your piece.

    Thank you.

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  3. I think Richard was a genuine lad....

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  4. I bought a copy of this off EBay about 5 years ago just for a laugh. It turned out to be a surprisingly good book.

    "why bother with Jamie’s 30 minute meals when you have this book?"
    I totally agree.

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  5. Will definitely look for this. Such a tragedy that Richard is not acting today.

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