Thursday 22 August 2019

The cook, his grief, his wives and his lovers... Keith Floyd - the original celebrity chef

Keith Floyd was the first celebrity chef, a man whose cooking talents were matched by his immense charm, whose lifestyle was every bit as flamboyant as his dress sense

Keith Floyd in Spain in 1992 filming his BBC series ‘Floyd on Spain’ in which he took a gastronomic tour of Spain
Keith Floyd in Spain in 1992 filming his BBC series ‘Floyd on Spain’ in which he took a gastronomic tour of Spain
Keith Floyd with fourth wife Tess

Emily Hourican

'Now I'm going for a walk out in the countryside. Actually, I'm going down to the pub for a quick one." That was Keith Floyd, in a clip from the BBC archives shown recently on Saturday Kitchen. He had just prepared a rabbit stew - liberally using his hands, burning his fingers, one of which had a creepy flesh-coloured sticking plaster on it, adding "a little bit of white wine" (it looked like the guts of a bottle), and ordering the cameraman around: "come to me, come to me" - and was leaving it to simmer for half-an-hour. He came back and sat down to eat the stew, wearing a pale-yellow V-necked jersey with white bow tie, managing to look smart and dishevelled all at the same time, and asked his female guest "What are you doing after the show?"

The stew, which looked frankly unpromising as he assembled it, hampered by the unappealing camerawork and styling of the era - mid-1980s, at a guess - had somehow metamorphosed into something delicious. Perhaps it succumbed to the undeniable charm of Floyd, just as the rest of us did.

Keith Floyd was the original celebrity chef. At a time when domestic cooking was very much a woman's job, and professional chefs (mostly male, then as now), stayed in their kitchens, behind their aprons and tall hats, Floyd was a face, a name, an attitude that began the process of rescuing British food from the utter doldrums of the 1970s; he began to make food something a man could be interested in and knowledgeable about; brought it out from anodyne kitchens and 'here's one I made earlier,' into the open air of campsites and fishing boats. In all of this, Floyd hugely influenced the next generation such as Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay and Nigel Slater.

For the average viewer, however, it was Floyd's personality far more than his cooking techniques that was the draw. The way he appeared to bumble, and indeed sometimes clearly did - "The way I cooked it was so off-putting that she knows, already, it's going to taste absolutely awful," he once confided to viewers, of the French chef about to taste his piperade - the way he got visibly more pissed as the show wore on, and the way his suave English-gentleman persona was subverted by a strong hint of loucheness. The real joy of Floyd was the way he looked as if he was only ever a glass of red away from doing or saying something outrageous. And of course, in his private life he very often did just that, his irresistible charm and joie de vivre vying with lengthy battles with depression and alcoholism. Four marriages, all of which ended in divorce, and two children he felt he hadn't done right by, along with bankruptcy, frequent changes of country - he lived in France, Spain, Ireland and Thailand as well as England - and business (he opened, and closed, at least 12 restaurants and pubs), escalating paranoia and belligerence, all suggest a fairly chaotic personal outlook.

Keith Floyd with fourth wife Tess
Keith Floyd with fourth wife Tess

Born in 1943, Floyd was brought up in Exmoor, a childhood close to nature and rural tradition, and educated at Wellington school in Somerset (along with Jeffrey Archer). He tried journalism first, then switched to the army, where he gained a commission in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment in 1963. The army didn't last either, and Floyd began working in restaurants, often lowly jobs like kitchen porter, in France and London, until in 1966, aged just 23, he opened his first restaurant, Floyd's Bistro, in Bristol, where his parents helped out by washing dishes.

He was a talented chef and charming restaurateur who knew how to fill the tables. Proper fame may only have come once his TV career took off, but Floyd was always 'someone.' "I mean in the context of my little area of Bristol, Clifton, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I became very famous," he once said. "I have always attracted attention, without having to seek it. It's very strange." And even though he came to hate fame - journalist Lynn Barber once wrote that he would come to describe it as "a type of leprosy he contracted in 1985" - seeing success as the possession of enough money to disappear, he attracted it as effortlessly as he seemed to attract women.

He married first when he was 24, to Jesmond Ruttledge, and had a son, Patrick, but the couple separated after three years, partly, Floyd always claimed, because he believed she had had a previous child, knowledge of which she kept hidden from him. This belief seems to have sprung from a fairly ridiculous episode - Floyd ringing the hospital after Patrick's birth, to be told by a nurse that Mrs Floyd's 'second child' had been born; there were, it later transpired, two Mrs Floyds in hospital that day. As a misconception, it seems perfectly ridiculous - the kind of thing a novelist wouldn't get away with - but apparently it did its sneaky work, poisoning the relationship. That said, relationships may simply have been something Floyd wasn't very good at.

Running a business apparently wasn't either. For all the apparent success of Floyd's Bistro - busy, booked out, talked-about - the financial side seemed to be beyond him, and in the early 1970s he sold the restaurant and used the proceeds to buy a yacht, Flirty, and set sail for the Mediterranean, leaving Jesmond and Patrick behind, although he and Jesmond wouldn't get divorced for another decade. This was Floyd's bid for freedom and the open road. Until then, he believed, he hadn't "had a life", and so he left without counting the costs. "I had vanished without thinking much about Patrick, a confession that sounds too cruel . . . As time went by, I would come to think of him all the time, and then the nightmares started." After 18 months, he came back to England, where he spent more time with Patrick, but accompanied by a girlfriend, Dolores (in his autobiography Stirred But Not Shaken he never gives her a second name, but describes her as "a kind of sub Mary Quant . . . with her raven black hair she was outstandingly attractive") and her mixed-race daughter. However, rural Somerset in the 1970s wasn't a broad-minded place, and Dolores and her daughter were viewed with hostility. Within a few months, she had left. Floyd then met Paddy Walker, the glamorous woman's editor of the paper he had once worked on as a reporter, and the two set up a wine-importing business, moving back to France, with her three children. There, Floyd did the very brave thing of opening a small restaurant, just six tables, in the Provencal town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, succeeding where most English people dismally fail. "Paddy was an absolutely wonderful woman," he writes, "but I couldn't handle the children." In the end, they moved back to England - "we simply abandoned the house, didn't even sell it" - and went their separate ways.

Back in England, without a penny, Floyd opened another bistro, simply called Floyd's, with the backing of friends - they called themselves the Five-Hundred Club, and there were six of them, who stumped up £500 each, on the basis that they could 'eat off' their investment." But there too finances were problematic, and by the time a TV career was foisted upon him, he was close to bankruptcy. Producer David Pritchard is the man responsible for Floyd's broadcasting career, persuading him in the face of initial reluctance - Floyd told him he "hated TV people" - and building a show around him rather than trying to fit him into an existing format. In 1985 the first series, Floyd on Fish, went out. More series followed, each with a book to accompany it, and almost instantly Floyd was a household name, and a bone fide celebrity, one who generated headlines in the red tops.

By then Floyd was married again, to Julie Hatcher, blonde, beautiful, ten years his junior, whom he wed just months after they met, and with whom he had a daughter, Poppy, who recalls that as Floyd's fame grew, he spent more and more time away, filming and working. At first, she would travel out to meet him, decked out with an 'Unaccompanied Minor' badge, but as the years wore on, he became more remote. "I remember him sending Easter eggs and they would arrive in the post in pieces. He might be in Thailand or he might be in Norway. We got the occasional postcard. When he remembered Christmas he would phone us up." Eventually, Julie and Floyd divorced, with Julie accusing him of "gambling, whoring and drinking ad infinitum." He denied the whoring.

Floyd, in one of his many sudden emotional reversals, moved to Ireland, to Kinsale, on what he described as a "Murphy's inspired whim." Kinsale, for Floyd, was to be a return to something more humble and real; "after the bullshit of making television commercials and attending chat shows, this was life with a roaring heart and blood pumping through it." He bought a cottage and moved in, but, for all he claimed to want a quiet life, he brought with him all the trappings of the Floyd roadshow. Poppy recalls one visit where he threw a party to celebrate the arrival of two plastic crocodiles from the by-then-closed Floyd's; "It was a classic picnic - pink Champagne, fresh lobster and caviar on a boat."

He became very involved with Kinsale rugby club and bought a flat in Beggar's Bush in Dublin, where he would go ostensibly to write, although the reality may have involved more time at the Shelbourne Hotel. Floyd himself recalled the romance of the period - in Ireland, like England, there seemed to be no shortage of women keen to spend time with him - "During that halcyon, hedonistic time women came and went but no hearts were broken and no blame attaches." One wonders if the women felt quite as blithe.

By now, Floyd was drinking more, and had "moved on to the hard stuff." He was, in his own words "desperately unhappy." Ireland had not proved the solace he hoped for, and the relentlessness of fame and the need to make money, gave him no let-up. He continued to travel for work, and eventually sold the cottage in Kinsale. He had a relationship with a property developer, Zoe Meeson, but she left him after a couple of years. Then, following a period where he was known to ring girls who sent him fan mails, suggesting they come and stay with him - in Devon, at the gastropub he opened, called Floyd's Inn, where Jean-Christophe Novelli was chef - he met an Irish girl, Shaunagh Mullett, 23 years younger than him, and proposed marriage within four hours. Marry they did, but that lasted only two years - he accused her of forgetting his birthday and threw her and 50 diners out of the pub.

Novelli recalls Floyd thus: "His humour used to change, you know, but his food was very consistent . . . He may seem a bit of a spoiled child when he is pissed, but he is so funny, so gregarious, so loyal. He is a darling." But for the many staff Floyd hired and rapidly fired - he became known as 'The Butcher of Tuckenhay' - and the customers he occasionally abused, describing them as "thick and snobbish and as stupid as you can get", there was clearly another Floyd. Again, finances were a disaster, and in 1996 the pub was sold after a period in receivership.

It was, according to Floyd, a merciful release. "Thank God it's over," he said. "I was permanently frustrated and angry." He met his fourth wife, food stylist Tess Smith, 18 years his junior, and moved with her to the Costa del Sol, where the plan was to work very hard for a couple of years, then "hopefully, we'll have enough money to pull the drawbridge up, have children and lead the kind of quiet life that only money can buy." In the event, there weren't to be any children, and marriage to Tess ended in yet another divorce, 13 years later, after their lives together became, as he said "one long round of screaming matches interspersed with complete alcoholic blackouts" on his part. For her part, she later said, "I've never discussed why it didn't work out, and probably never will. Let's just say Keith wasn't the easiest man to live with." However, she described a life that was all work, with very little downtime; "in the whole time I was with Keith we never once celebrated my birthday because we were always travelling around the globe making one of his shows and were too busy even to go out for dinner." She also recalled, "Even if he was heating up a tin of soup, he'd shout 'Service!' to get me to clean up after him." And then there was the toll celebrity takes: "Women would come up and ask him for a kiss. Men would shove me out of the way to say how much they admired him."

There was talk of another pub or restaurant, first back in England, later in the Far East, but never with much conviction, although he lent his name to Floyds Brasserie in Phuket, opened in 2007. Floyd was at this stage drinking heavily, experiencing hallucinations, and his health was suffering. He had become increasingly paranoid and combatative, engaging in endless rows with producers, his manager, even friends. In 2009 he was treated for bowel cancer, but given the all-clear in September. To celebrate, he went for a typically extravagant lunch with Celia Martin, widow of his long-time friend, David, one of the Five-Hundred Club, with whom, he said, he was "very much in love." That evening, the Channel4 documentary about Floyd's life, Keith on Keith, made by Keith Allen, was to be broadcast. In the event, Floyd didn't live to watch it. He had a heart-attack during the broadcast and died that night. After two decades of hard work and considerable fame, he left just £7,500 in his will.

There is a touch of Alex Higgins, of George Best, to Keith Floyd - the considerable gifts and charm, allied to a difficult, selfish, self-destructive personality. In the end however, his TV series' stand the test of time. Behind the stale, static camerawork and unappealing styling, Floyd is as effervescent and brilliant as ever, very much a match for the Jamies, Hestons and Gordons he inspired.

Saturday Kitchen is on BBC1, 10am, Saturdays. Saturday Kitchen Best Bits is on BBC2, 10.10am, Sunday mornings

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