Thursday 17 August 2017

Richard Whittington

Foul-mouthed food writer who secured the devotion of top culinary experts

Richard Whittington, who died on January 3 aged 62, was a Soho figure renowned as much for masterly food writing as for his extreme approach to friendship, which veered between cruel wit and great kindness. Wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis for the last 20 years, he had the devoted attention of star chefs on whom he lavished praise or poured vitriol depending on whether they deviated from his strict ideas on good food.

He was born on February 12, 1948, in Bury-St-Edmunds in Suffolk, England, to Jeffery and Florence Whittington, and was the youngest of four. Early life was comfortable but a change in family circumstances forced a move to Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland, where Richard was targeted by classmates for his "posh voice".

After a year at Essex University, where he read American literature, he left to begin a career in journalism. With Jane Eckersley, whom he had met and married in 1969, he moved to take up a job as a trainee reporter for the Birmingham Post. In 1972, his marriage ended and he moved to Soho in London, where his love of women, food and drinking bloomed.

Soon he joined the documentary film-makers Gerard Holdsworth Productions and travelled around Europe. On a visit to Stockholm in 1972 he broke his ankle in a fall which he assumed had been caused by drink. But when he returned to Britain and attempted to acquire health insurance, he was refused: Swedish doctors had diagnosed MS but not told him.

Soho was his domain: evenings often ended at Louise's Club, an underground bar. Whittington was handsome, witty and moved effortlessly through the scene, especially at The Colony Room, where he became friends with Francis Bacon, Jeffrey Bernard and proprietor Ian Board.

Whittington also began to explore his interest in food. A stint as a chef at a restaurant in Neal Street was cut short as MS made kitchen work difficult. Then he met the chef Alastair Little and they became friends. It was Little who suggested that they work on a book -- a combination of Little's recipes and Whittington's love of simple cookery.

The result was Keep it Simple (1993), which proved an instant hit. The title was credited to Board, with whom Whittington had shared a flat in the late 1970s. One night Board had asked Whittington to cook him "a nice piece of liver, simple". On discovering that Whittington had added a small knob of butter to the liver, Board hurled his plate against the wall, screaming: "I told you to keep it simple."

Whittington was renowned for his foul mouth, often delivering expletive-filled tirades in person to chefs. Part of his anger stemmed from the belief that his wheelchair-bound life stopped him from being recognised for his food writing.

As a co-author, he had felt forced to turn chefs' back-of-envelope scrawls into workable recipes -- unsatisfactory working relationships from which five books had nonetheless emerged: Food of the Sun (1995); Quaglino's: The Cookbook (1995); Fusions (1998); Modern British Cookbook (1998); and Baking With Passion (1999).

Two exceptions were Cutting Edge (1996), about emerging cooking styles in California, and perhaps his best work, Home Food (1999).

In the course of his life, his anger was tempered by two things. His second wife, Pippa Steel, whom he missed deeply following her death in 1992, softened his reprobate ways. Then, in 2007, he was baptised into the Church of England.

Richard Whittington is survived by a son from his first marriage.

Sunday Independent

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