Monday, July 20, 2015

Food, Flavor, and Ideas: The Style Saloniste Exclusive Interview with Daniel de la Falaise

Introducing the chic chef’s superb new cookbook: ‘Nature’s Larder Cooking with the Senses’ (Rizzoli).

This week I invite you to a private and very exclusive rendezvous with the multi-talented and super-charming French-English chef/ farmer/ model/ cookbook author, Daniel de la Falaise.

Daniel, who lives in France and dashes from Paris to Milan to cook, and then back to the South of France, is currently in Northern California with his wife, Molly, awaiting the birth of their first baby, Louis, in early August.

We caught up and I know you’ll find Daniel as engaging and original as I have. 

Daniel’s stylish and inspiring new cookbook, ‘Nature’s Larder Cooking with the Senses’ has just been published by Rizzoli. It’s a highly original book, full of uncomplicated and visually dazzling and delicious recipes and ideas. I loved reading his musings and discussions about flavor, farming, growing the season’s bounty, and his concept of cooking from farm to table.

Daniel wrote the book and photographed every image, planning and styling every beautiful moment.

Yes, he’s the nephew of Loulou de la Falaise and the grandson of the great fashion designer/ hostess Maxime de la Falaise and the grand-nephew of the great Mark Birley (Annabel’s) and son of furniture designer, Alexis de la Falaise, and son of Rose, a fantastic gardener.

You’ve seen Daniel in Versace print ads (shot by Richard Avedon), and possibly at a chic party during Paris couture or the Milan collections.

But it’s the cookbook and Daniel and Molly’s life in the Tarn-et-Garonne that we’re delving into this week.

It was a great pleasure to chat with Daniel. We discussed everything—and he opened up his family album so you’ll met the whole family, including the fashion designer, Maxime de la Falaise, and her husband, Alain (reputedly a marquis or a count) and Daniel’s grandmother, the famous Lady Rhoda Birley, a noted gardener.

I propose: This is a wonderfully rich and detailed and inspiring week of reading below, with glorious and exclusive image. Please pour yourself a glass of a lovely chilled rosé, and slice some perfectly ripe chilled Charentais melon and a strawberry or two, and join me to be inspired by Daniel’s culinary daring and rustic adventures.

Daniel’s cuisine emphasizes the bounty of the seasons in his garden, and the lovely lettuces and fruit and tasty morsels he finds at the local farmers’ market.

Daniel de la Falaise approaches cooking as a sensual task and a celebration of quality products involving as little interference as possible.

Nature’s Larder puts forth a thoughtful, deep-rooted way of cooking that reconnects with the land. His compass point: the taste of raw ingredients just plucked from the soil. Daniel’s way of cooking—which places vegetables at the forefront, but is not vegetarian—centers on coaxing the most flavor from each ingredient as it reaches its peak freshness. This book takes the avid cook on "a balloon ride through the seasons," along the way divulging Daniel’s clever techniques, such as using residual heat to cook gently, extracting essences with broths, and adding herbs both in cooking and finishing for a layered effect.

DDS: Daniel, congratulations on your superb new book, ‘Nature’s Larder: Cooking with the Senses’, which you wrote and photographed. It was published by Rizzoli. Please tell us about your concept for this cookbook.

Thank you Diane, I am delighted that you like the book. It was a joyful journey. My objective from the outset was very straightforward: to commit to paper my reference, and method, to cookery. And for the photography, simply to illustrate visually, the images evoked in the text. I come from a long line of cooks and gardeners; the growing and preparing of food is the action that has bound the family together for generations: green fingers, a passion for flavor, and joyful curiosity. 

Early on, my father Alexis conditioned me to the vital importance of soil. As a child, sitting on the back of the tractor as we harrowed, tilled and spread manure, and ploughed cover crops back into the fields, Papa would explain how soil was alive, and held within it, a flavor-giving magic. My sense for flavor grew from this early awareness. The same care for soil was exacted on a reduced scale in the garden. The beds were dug and fed, and left exposed to winter cleansing frosts. A ritual carried out generations hence at Charleston, my great-grandmother Rhoda’s garden in Sussex. 

Equipping my grandmother Maxime and her younger brother Mark with the discerning palates that enabled them to navigate through life, orbiting the realms of food and the senses. There is an undeniable link between “terroir” and flavor. And it all starts with soil—an organism so complex it is beyond comprehension—and those who till it. What matters is that soil is alive, and healthy and balanced. Nutrients taken out of it must then be fed back in, or soil will die. I have always been perplexed by how in America soil is colloquially called dirt! Recently I learnt that in fact it is just an erroneous and barnacled vernacular. American biologists differentiate between the two: dirt is dead-soil. Independent producers proud of their harvest, be it peaches, cheese, lentils, lettuces, herbs, beef, whatsoever it may be; those whose identity is melded with the vitality of the food they produce, these people respect the land, and know that the key to longevity is a sustainable paradigm. Live soil, fresh water and trusty old sunlight. This is what makes for great flavor. 

A great part of my cookery consists of the hunt for vitality, which is to say, for independent producers farming by natural method. So the action is to source ingredients, and then with a bare minimum of transformation, celebrate the natural synergies that occur between them.

DDS: I love the way your book text is like your diary. You document your family’s wonderful recipes, your life, your year, the happenings of the day, the season, the weather, with lovely writing about, for example, ‘tarragon pushing up its tender young shoots’ and your ‘ritual breakfast’.

Nature’s timing is impeccable! Over the course of the year, as by miracle, a procession of ingredients comes into season, one giving way to the next, and so on and on, in a fascinating parade. When composing menus I strive to reference this wheel. Ideally a meal should commence with the last breath of an ingredient soon to be over, consist in majority of ingredients at the height of their season, and conclude with early pickings of the next glut to come. In this way, the food shared at table becomes a celebration of a place and a moment in time. 

DDS: At Tibas, your farm near Toulouse, you eat “farm to kitchen to table’. Your garden, you write, is ‘an ever-present sensory resource’.

Yes, there is always something throughout the year to celebrate, some delicacy or other to tickle the palate. From a bolting sprig pinched from a rogue arugula plant found thriving upon a compost heap, to the perfect August tomato. Grazing upon wild strawberries, or digging through a crust of winter snow for horseradish root to accompany a grilled rib of beef.

DDS: Tell us about your concept of ‘Natural Synergies’ in your book’s third chapter. Your concepts of flavor are very inspiring.

Compositions of seasonal colors, flavors, textures, and tastes complement, contrast, and enhance one another. To pick a young artichoke, pare it down and eat it raw, seasoned with good olive oil, fleur de sel, and chased with a sprig of parsley, creates a sensation of delight. Pecorino is irresistible in autumn, when in your other hand you hold a freshly picked apple or pear. In the context of food, a natural synergy occurs when a combination of flavors eaten together transcend their individual qualities to become a delicacy. Hence the notion: that every vegetable keeps a mistress in the herb garden. Think artichokes and parsley, rhubarb and ginger, wild strawberries and flowering mint, a glass of cider with a borage leaf and a slice of white peach, a persimmon seasoned with acacia honey.

DDS: It’s not surprising you’re a farmer. You grew up in remote Radnorshire, in Welsh border country, in the seventies. You ran wild, ate from the land. This was also the foundation of your life close to the seasons, close to farm animals, bees and fresh vegetables.
DDLF: I was born a farmers son, although my father at that time had only been a farmer for the bat of an eye. Nevertheless I was and I am—amongst the other hats on my rack. My sister and I were blessed with a rare proximity to the cycles of nature through out our early formative years. And onward I have happened upon great mentors to guide me through my various apprenticeships.

DDS: From England and your wild days on the Welsh hills, you moved to France and you gardened at an early age, growing flavorful flowers and fruit and vegetables. It’s a great background for your life today as a farmer, private chef, food writer, favorite fashion model, cookbook author, and now purveyor of delicious delicacies.

Yes, gardening is both a great comfort and a joy to me. To sow seed with the moon, watch it germinate, nurture it, harden it off, plant it out, hope it thrives and then harvest the crop, this is a beautiful ride that never ceases to thrill.

DDS: You come from a family of exceptional cooks. Your grandmother, Maxime de la Falaise, an iconic fashion muse in Paris and New York, was also a very admired cook and hostess. She wrote cookbooks.

Maxime was a huge influence on my cooking. Over the years we spent a lot of time together in the kitchen together, in Wales, and France and NYC. Maxime had an eye as sharp as a jay and a capacity to absorb influences and re-interpret them as her own in a single breath. As effortlessly as she would sketch the bones for a ball gown, she’d invent a dish—that she’d at best daydreamt—and, hit or miss, serve it as a staple classic. She was an exacting teacher. We would cook a dish together, and the next night I would be thrust center stage to go it alone, all under her gaze. And again, and then again, until, the method was deemed honed and I was seen to be flying solo —improvising as I went. She taught me how to riff in the kitchen, to trust an intuition and run with a whim. 

DDS: Your father, Alexis, gave you your first chef’s knife when you were seven, and you learned to cook at this side. What was the essence of what you learned from Alexis?

Alexis foremost brought serenity to a kitchen. I never once saw him raise his voice or slam an oven door. He was precise, economical and consistent. And particularly sensitive to the energy surrounding the preparation of food, as am I.

DDS: You also learned from your father the art of seasoning and the disciplines of cooking, and how to keep an orderly workstation and keeping a kitchen impeccably clean.

Alexis’ kitchen, just as his workshop and desk, was always kept impeccably clean and orderly. He taught me to prepare myself for battle. His logic being that if you are well organized and prepared in advance there is less chance you will be overwhelmed in the heat of the moment. Rather, you give yourself the tools to remain free, and exercise the luxury of changing your mind as you go, adjusting to circumstance when and as necessary all whilst improvising in a controlled and structured manner. Indeed, “mise en place”, is your lifeline to survival in a professional kitchen—where the smallest oversight can rapidly propel you along with the rest of the brigade on a nosedive towards “la merde”. When you are organized you are free to enjoy the task at hand. Cooking should be fun! And for it to be truly so you need to have your shit together.

DDS: You had an intense period of apprenticeship working in the kitchen at Harry’s Bar in London with your great uncle Mark. Then you made the transition from expert amateur and professional chef to top private chef in Paris?

I was lucky to have two great mentors: Great uncle Mark and Alberico Penati (head chef at Harry’s Bar). Mark had the eye of a hawk; he would spot a crooked fork or a crumpled napkin at 50 yards. A waiter having loosened his tie or been caught yawning would stare unemployment in the eye. He was very generous and loyal to his staff, and his standards were exacting —his temper legendary. The King of Clubs! Queues of minor royalty would pass by his table paying respect. He had presidential charisma. Working for M.B. was great—nepotism personified! And so I incurred several years paying of dues and earning stripes. 

Starting at the bottom, kitchen hours, kitchen life, and an apprenticeship of quasi-military service. Alberico, (Chef) is Milanese, passionate and volatile. M.B. on my first day advised me to wear a crash helmet. The kitchen was magic. Like an all-Italian cast, submarine, at battle stations, serving the finest food in London to a high-falutin’ international set. The produce was unrivaled, the pressure relentless and unforgiving. 

When I was risotto boy, an early rite of passage thrust upon me, with the intention of screwing me up, was when an early dinner order came in one evening: “James Bond e Spartacus alla tavola 5” (Connery and Douglas). Chefs voice boomed, “marcheno due risotti al tartuffo bianco—eh Daniel ti recomando!” The adrenaline at the height of service in the kitchen is delicious. As a team you become of one mind, shared purpose, cooperation, reliance and trust. 

Working with M.B. and Alberico were formative years. I was very lucky to have such great men as mentors. Alberico and I are still close. He has the best Italian restaurant in Paris by far. Penati al Baretto, on rue Balzac, across the street from Pierre Gagnaire.

DDS: When you’re not in Northern California or London or Paris or Milan—you live on your farm in Tarn-et-Garonne in southwestern France. I know that region well. It’s rather remote and very agricultural, ancient, unchanged. One glorious summer I went to stay with friends in a 15th-century fortress/ residence there. It was over 105 deg and the ripening wheat-fields smelled like baking bread. Swoon. What brought you to the region?

A hunger to learn something new. My father died appallingly young. Luckily he had wasted no time in having my sister Lucie and I. When he was 44 I was already 22. Though by the time he was 55, he was gone. 

This gave me pause for thought. Enough, of roasting one’s nether regions in front of an oven 16 hours a day, week in week out. By then I was running George in London Mayfair (opened with M.B. in 2001), we fed 2 or 3 hundred members a day, 6 days a week. There was an open kitchen to the restaurant, service permitted neither raised voices nor slovenly looking kitchen creatures— it was theatre. 

I always made sure to hire a few girls in my brigade (a trick picked up from Gordon Ramsey), and promote them to positions of authority, so as to curb contagious machismo. I also sourced a lot of the food for the Birley group: Annabel’s, Mark’s Club, Harry’s Bar and George. And this was a task I found fascinating. Driving out into the countryside to source produce direct from independent producers farming by natural method: lamb from the North Yorkshire moors, honey from Dorset, apples from Kent, fish from the small boats that supply London’s discerning Japanese buyers, moonshine from south west France, et cetera. 

The quest for produce thrilled me and transported me back to the sensorial references of my early youth. The kitchen garden, the seasonal abundance of French markets. An eye sharpened to the ripe, the seasonal, to vitality essentially and the producers, and the environments that enable the continuation of such fare. South West France is a haven of such folk, a lost corner of France where peasant culture persists. A sparsely populated region, le bas-quercy, oak country. The foothills of the Massif Central, rolling orchard strewn landscapes, white peaches, wine, cheese, veal, duck, beef and lamb all to be found under the protective eye of the Pyrenees which stand tall on the horizon—like a looming tsunami. Great produce often reveals great people doing interesting things in dynamic places. 

Like much in life, my discovery of le-sud-ouest —a region until recently scoffed at by haughty Parisians as the armpit of France—occurred by happy accident. 

DDS: Tarn-et-Garonne, an hour north of Toulouse, is also the one of the least populated regions in Western Europe. The climate—300 days of sun a year—seems perfect for farming.

It is a microclimate; buffeted by both Atlantic and Mediterranean weather influences, protected by the Pyrenees and ever vulnerable to a blast of northeastern chill. If France were an enormous vegetable garden, the southwest would arguably be the prime spot! There is a little pocket of land half a mile deep that borders the river Tarn, called Lizac. Known locally as La Petite Californie, it is a paradise valley of fruit. Nestled under the wing of a protective ridge and irrigated by the river whose banks it hugs, Lizac is heaven-sent orchard country. I work with Yannick Colombie there, 20 organic acres of fruit and asparagus. He works with his father and a handful of helpers, on a modest scale, geared to exacting standards of flavor. His quest is to grow the perfect fruit, fruit that first seduces the eye and then tastes just as it smells.

DDS: Your farm is quite rustic?

My Californian wife certainly thinks so! It is a simple farmhouse, a wide central hallway opening from front door to back door, that leads off to large square rooms on each corner. My father was a furniture designer and many of his prototypes furnish the house. The farm sits on a promontory and so is ever bathed in light. It is a happy place: oak, walnut and chestnut, acacia, hornbeam, a cherry orchard, prairies and a lake.

DDS: What does your day there look like in summer?
This summer: a heat wave, days of 40°C. Peach and melon weather! Mad dogs and Englishmen foolhardily soldier on, whilst cats and locals rise at dawn, then retreat to the shadows to siesta once the heat becomes too much. Dawn and dusk is for the garden, high noon for the office. Long summer evenings are spent al fresco entertaining a healthy flow of migratory friends.

DDS: Your book is full of ideas. I love your suggestions for a series of flavors: “A peppered strawberry with a floret of mint, or a mouthful of melon with cardamom, and floral waters, and unexpected garnishes like onion flowers”.

A sensual point of reference to ripe seasonal produce acts as a guide and triggers the imagination. When this combines with an awareness of the natural synergies that occur between ingredients, cooking crystallizes into a sensory vision, operating in two realms at once: the outer reality of the produce available, and the inner potential of your imagination to compose menus in harmony to your mind’s eye and palate. The more connected you become to the inner realm, the more capable you become as a cook. I love herbs, and I try to grow them at staggered intervals so as to have the same variety at different stages of maturation. The very same herb will provide an array of seasonings as it matures. Thus I always have to hand: the delicate young leaf, the crisp texture and pronounced flavor of the bolting sprig, the fragrant flower, and the clean fresh spice of green seed. 

DDS: You want your readers to free themselves and improvise, trust their instincts, cook to taste.

DDLF: The act of cooking should be intuitive and playful.

DDS: What are some highlights from recipes of recent parties you cooked during the Paris couture? What’s new and fresh and exciting in your private Paris dinners?

DDLF: With the recent heat wave it has been a time of peaches and melons. White peaches served as finger food, doused in olive oil, fleur de sel and grappa. And/ or used to garnish bicycle cocktails: peach, borage, ice, a blush of Campari, all topped up with crisp and demonstratively dry white wine. Chilled melon and cardamom soup is another hit this time of year. I just served this to a hundred mouths all gathered to toast the fashion designer Haider Ackermann and jewelry designer Harumi Klossowska. You will find all of the above recipes in the book.

DDS: Your recipe and concept for chilled strawberry broth with acacia flowers and grappa and mint is so chic.

Moonshine spiked strawberry broth! I like desserts to be light, palate cleansing and stimulating. Nothing like a shot of grappa, unknowingly ingested, to spark things up.

DDS: In the book there are fantastic risotto dishes, and easy and intense pasta dishes.

My apprenticeship at Harry’s Bar stands me in good stead for pasta and rice. In the book I try and empower the reader to a structured and improvisational approach. I love cooking these simple dishes, they are tremendously freeing to the cook. Once you have mastered the release of starch and the binding of an emulsion, it is all fun.

DDS: I love your concept flavorings and special ingredients to have on hand at all times. Bottarga is a special ingredient, a secret pantry essential. What other secret essentials to you insist on for your pantry?

La fleur de sel, extra virgin olive oil, bay leaves, horseradish, salted anchovies, foie gras, chutney, pasta, rice, lentils, garlic, ginger, herb infused rice vinegars, floral waters of sage and thyme, honeys, juices and wines…. et cetera.

DDS: I’m going to steal three questions from the recent piece about you in French Vogue. First, what is your most feminine recipe?

Perhaps an herb flower salad. Mostly fines herbes, bolting sprigs and flowers, chervil, tarragon, basil, dill, parsley, borage, sorrel and so on, bulked up with peppery legs of arugula. Then lightly seasoned with a pinch of fleur de sel and a sprinkling of rice vinegar.

DDS: You have seventy recipes and millions of ideas. French Vogue also asked you, “A recipe and menu to prepare for a romantic dinner?”

Spaghetti alle vongole. Although I am biased, any excuse for spaghetti alle vongole will do. It was the first dish I cooked for my wife.

DDS: French Vogue also asked you for your favorite family dish.

Something that involves everybody is good, and it can be super simple. A salad for instance: somebody to pick the lettuce, and herbs, another to wash them, all whilst someone else makes the dressing, and yet another lays the table. Grilling over the hearth focuses attention and stimulates appetite. Getting kids into the kitchen early is a good plan in my book. Setting them simple tasks, cultivating their senses.

DDS: This summer in Paris I discovered your new ‘larder’ products near the Palais-Royal on rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau at Claus and his wonderful new ‘pantry and juices’ coffee shop. Your ‘pantry’ products are there. Tell us about your new collections. It’s wonderfully original and tasty.

I sell my line of fine larder fare at Claus in Paris. We have herb flavored olive oils and rice vinegars. Orchard and woodland flower honeys, biodynamic wines, floral waters, heirloom variety apple juices, and herb flavored salts, such as lovage salt, which is rather like the finer more sophisticated cousin to celery salt, heaven with quails eggs, and a happy addition to a Bloody Mary. Claus’ delicatessen and restaurant are across the street from Christian Louboutin's’ shoe shop and Pierre Passebon’s gallery, which assures a colorful crowd; open from 7am to 5pm, 7 days a week. It is the go-to address in Paris for brunch.

DDS: You write that ‘flavor is aromatic, volatile, and ephemeral’. You celebrate this with dishes like a risotto with crabmeat, and your honey ice-cream recipe is like capturing magic.

I want flavor to flower and stimulate, and taste to lie subtle and clean. An ingredient harvested at the peak of its ripeness will impart aromas and flavors that stimulate the senses as you bite it. And, as whatever you are chewing divulges itself to nose, teeth, and tongue, your palate will be the judge of the product’s freshness and vitality. I was brought up to follow a very simple style of cookery. In a composed menu, I want to recognize the ingredients on the plate. I want to know, what end of which season it is and where I am.

DDS: Daniel, thank you. Your photography is so artful and elegant. Your book is inspiring and generous. It’s a book to read. It’s full of ideas and tips and musings and private notes.

I wish you great success—and I hope you are working on another. Thank you, and welcome to baby Louis in August. 

Anyone who had been addicted to the days of Diane Vreeland, and Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and French Vogue and Tatler and House & Garden will be very familiar with Daniel’s family tree.

First there was Lady Rhoda Birley, whose English garden was much-photographed. Then her daughter, the tall and chic Maxime and her handsome husband Marquis Alain Le Bailly de La Falaise (or was it count?).her husband, briefly. And Lady Rhoda’s son Mark Birley, was the chic and famous founder of all the top private clubs in London, starting with Annabel’s. She was the mother of Loulou, Daniel’s aunt, and Alexis, Daniel’s father. Loulou was of course married to Thadee (Thadeus) de Klossowski, the stepbrother of Harumi Klossowska. It’s all very chic. And now Daniel is married to Molly (Malone), and will soon be the father of Louis. Happy days.


‘Nature’s Larder Cooking with the Senses’ with photography, text and recipes by Daniel de la Falaise is newly published by Rizzoli.

All exclusive photographs in this story are by Daniel de la Falaise and are published here with his express permission. All images from the book and from his family photograph album are copyright Daniel de la Falaise.

Le Garde-Manger de la Falaise oils and vinegars at Claus coffee shop/specialty-food purveyor, rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau (near the Palais-Royal), Paris. For availability:

For more books published by Rizzoli:


peggy braswell said...

stunning + must get this book

Karena said...

Truly a feast for the eyes and such an intriguing interview with Daniel.
Thank you Diane!

The Arts by Karena

CWoodyard said...

Absolutely splendid and delectable post, thank you Diane!