Saturday, September 10, 2005

'I always wanted to be a butcher'

The (London) Telegraph published this article by Colin Randall about my beloved Gérard Depardieu in its September 2, 2005 issue:

Gérard Depardieu, France's most famous actor and bon viveur, has joined the massed ranks of celebrity chefs. Colin Randall reports

First, there was the GI Diet; now, get ready for the GD diet. If you enjoyed being on "the Atkins", with its abundance of protein and fat, you'll love being on "the Depardieu".

Gérard Depardieu, the quintessential anti-hero of French cinema, will this month publish the British edition of Ma Cuisine, his book of sensuous, traditional and highly calorific recipes. Already a bestseller and much talked-about in France, though not without some controversy, the book won a special prize at this year's Gourmand World Cookbook awards.

Depardieu is not the first film star to reinvent himself as a gourmand. It seems that almost every big name in Hollywood has their own restaurant - including Robert de Niro, Johnny Depp, Cameron Diaz and Bruce Willis - but few can match the Frenchman's lifelong passion for food.

"I also wanted to be a butcher," he writes in the book's introduction, "but in the meantime became an actor."

His harshest critics might argue that the man who celebrates 40 years in films this year fell out of love with acting some time ago. Many consider him a fading giant whose greatest performances, in such classics as Jean de Florette and Cyrano de Bergerac, seem a long time ago as he settles for an endless string of lesser roles.

A kinder assessment reveals Depardieu to be a national institution who has outgrown the big screen; an inspired if temperamental go-getter who has turned to business activities with all the vigour he previously put into a multitude of film roles.

With his chateaux, townhouses and holiday retreats, Depardieu is probably a millionaire on the strength of residential properties alone. But his fiefdom goes further. In partnership with the French actress Carole Bouquet (despite speculation about the current status of their relationship, they have been more or less together for the best part of a decade) he co-owns not only the hugely popular Parisian restaurants L'Ecaille de la Fontaine and La Fontaine Gaillon, which are in the same tranquil square a few paces from the Opéra, but a Sicilian vineyard.

At a time when most French winemakers wring their hands in despair in the face of falling demand and ever-sharper New World competition, Depardieu's viticultural empire keeps on growing. To add to 20 or more vineyards in France, Italy, Spain, America, Morocco and Algeria, he now plans to expand into Hungary.

Ma Cuisine (My Cookbook) sees the logical extension of any successful foodie's career. But what diet-conscious and occasionally squeamish British consumers will make of Depardieu's notion of good eating is another matter. From lapin en gelée (rabbit in jelly - his favourite dish) to pot-au-feu aux quatre viandes (a stew with four meats), these are not dishes for the faint-hearted, or those shackled to low-cholesterol regimes.

Calves' feet, pigs' ears, potatoes and lashings of wine play their full parts in the preparations; cream, butter and rich sauces abound.

Depardieu is, after all, a man reputedly able to devour four chickens at a single sitting, and, at the height of his drinking, quaff three or four bottles of decent red in a day.

Perhaps he is making up for a childhood in which meat, usually a cheap horsemeat cut or rabbit, was affordable only in the first week of the month. "To this day, meat remains for me a symbol of prosperity," he writes.

On wine, his language is even more extravagant. "Wine has a soul," he declares. "For me, it's synonymous with friendship and the sharing of simple pleasures. I don't drink to get drunk, or to forget. I love wine because it puts me in good humour."

Depardieu's appreciation of food and drink stands out in any scrutiny of his lavishly illustrated book. But how many lavish illustrations does anyone actually want of a man whose appearance might be considered an acquired taste?

The shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, on his internet blog, recently described Depardieu as "slovenly and outwardly repulsive. But at the same time, is there not something magnetic?"

Not according to the French writer Martin Monestier, one of the actor's many detractors. He and Depardieu were on the same television talk show this year when an apparently well lubricated Depardieu, angered by Monestier's criticism of his book, launched an intemperate verbal assault, calling him "un abruti" and a "tête de lard". Translation of French abuse is not an exact science, but think of morons and stubborn pigs and you get the drift.

It wasn't Depardieu's first public row in recent years - there have been a number of heated exchanges in the Parisian press with his actor son, Guillaume.

In fairness to Depardieu, his part of the spat was restrained, if stern. Guillaume, he told Paris Match, was "very difficult, incorrigible", capable of behaviour that had led to a rupture in their relationship. "I made the break because I don't want to be the bin that you throw everything into that you feel like."

His son, who has had problems with drink, drugs and authority, and lost his right leg after a motorcycling accident, pulled fewer punches. He denounced his father as "a coward and a cheat", a man who was thoroughly rotten but had a raging desire to be loved and have money.

Since the dispute arose nearly two years ago, the mutual acrimony may have subsided. In any case, it does not seem to have turned young French people away from Depardieu; in a recent poll, they voted him the nation's favourite personality, ahead of the exemplary footballer Zinédine Zidane.

Depardieu is admired by many in France because he is a reformed delinquent. He grew up in poverty, got into trouble and ran away from reform school. Eventually, he joined an itinerant theatrical troupe and realised he had talent. Even today, sympathetic observers describe a mix of genius and tragedy.

Leave aside the early brushes with the law and it is easy to see that the simplicity of Depardieu's background has instilled a fierce attachment to country ways and traditional methods of farming that would find resonance in rural Britain.

In Ma Cuisine, he talks of his horror at livestock being transported halfway across Europe to slaughter. However strictly the distant abattoir may observe rules of humane treatment, he believes, no such animal will ever make good meat. "Before killing a pig," he writes, "I talk to it. Stroking a creature before killing it helps it to die peacefully."

He also deplores the American obsession with fat and cholesterol when, he says, the presence in food preparation of sugar and carcinogenic substances is ignored.

So how do we see Gérard Depardieu now? Bruised romantic or irredeemable rogue? Ma Cuisine does not tell the whole story.

But readers of the book who choose to give him the benefit of the doubt will skip past the admission that his appetite obliges him to embark on a series of diets to lose nearly five stones each year - five stones he knows he will soon pile back on again. They will turn instead to his extravagant paean to the glories of food: "Close your eyes for a second and imagine the sensation of rediscovering the taste of an exceptional dish, prepared with ingredients of extraordinary flavour and served with love. For that, above all, is what cooking is about: an act of love."

Buy the English version of 'My Cookbook'by Gérard Depardieu (Conran Octopus, published on September 15) from
ou en francais de