My Best Teacher;Interview;Robert Carrier;Features and arts

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Madame Fifine changed my life. She taught me how to cook. She was a wonderful woman, a self-taught cook and restaurateur in St Tropez, where I had a house in my 20s. I'd bought it for pound;700, and the previous owner had left me a mattress, a bed, toilet paper and a rather dirty frying pan. I was working in Paris, doing a radio programme called Bonjour Madame, which presented the best of French culture to 382 stations across the United States, and I spent the summers carousing in the south of France.

Every night a group of us ate at this little restaurant called Fifine, which had just opened on the Russe Suffren, a block behind the port. Fifine was a fantastic chef, a natural Provencal cook. We became very fond of each other and when she was going home at two or three in the morning and I was off to the bars and nightclubs, she would say: "Meet me in the morning and come with me to the markets." I did, and then she would ask me to stay and eat with her, and would show me how to cook. She also stopped me drinking.

She was about three years older than me and we became fast friends. There was no romantic involvement - although there should have been. Her lover was a great friend of mine. Fifine and I were more than friends though, we were loving friends, and we remained so until her death, three years ago.

She was small and pure looking, with a fresh complexion. She wore no make-up and when she was working she dressed in a white smock and a red bandanna. She wasn't slim, but she wasn't fat either. She was rounded, like a fleshy Italian Madonna, and she had the most enchanting smile you have ever seen. Her hair was black and her eyes dark hazel. She was a very smiley, very loving person.

Her restaurant was quite inexpensive when she started out, and a gang of between five and eight of us would meet there about 7.30 every night. Fifine had taught herself to cook working in other people's restaurants, first washing up and then, little by little, as a cook. She grilled fish over a fire and made the most wonderful bouillabaisse on the coast. She made the best salade nicoise I've ever eaten. It was a simple little restaurant. There were no great puddings and the only wines were Provencal, which were not chic then. This was in the 1950s before Bardot made St Tropez famous.

I learned to cook every Provencal dish simply by watching her. The first thing I learned from her was a Marseilles dish - pieds et paquets, which is tripe and innards wrapped in little packages. It's delicious. Then she taught me how to grill fish and make her fantastic salade nicoise. She taught me how to make bouillabaisse, all the great St Tropez dishes. Unlike a lot of cooks, she wasn't at all protective of her recipes. She was totally generous in sharing her culinary secrets. I became, perhaps, her greatest friend.

I wrote about her in Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, the Sunday Times and my books. Fifine's became one of the most famous little restaurants on the coast. But although she became a celebrity, she remained a simple woman.

When I no longer lived in France I used to go every year to see Fifine and to cook for her. She was amazed and delighted that I'd followed through and that cooking became my career. She didn't teach me for that reason -she just knew I was mad about food - and she wanted to stop me drinking.

She cooked almost until the end, although as she got older she had an assistant. I went to see her about three years ago when I was making a television programme called Robert Carrier's Provence. She was going to star in it but she was too ill. She had given up the restaurant. She was in bed when I saw her and near death, her face like a child's it was so smooth. She looked so beautiful. She took my hand and you could see in her eyes extraordinary goodness and love. I said to her. "I love you, you know," and she said: "I know." My producer and film crew were with me and we were all in tears. She taught me everything I know about food and she taught me about love. Every time I think of her my voice goes a little funny. I miss her terribly.

Robert Carrier, OBE was born in New York, the son of a lawyer. He served in the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) in the Second World War before embarking on careers in magazine and radio journalism and public relations and as a restaurateur. His 'cookery cards' notched up sales of 400,000. He has made many television programmes about food and wine and published 11 books in 12 languages. The latest, 'Great Dishes of Spain' was recently published by Boxtree. He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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