The Aristocratic Chef: An Interview with Daniel Le Bailly de La Falaise

Daniel Le Bailly de La Falaise on private caterings for celebrities, the sexuality of a peach, and how the simplicity of food is the ultimate luxury.

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | February 2016 | 14 minutes (3,672 words)

 

“The most stylish chef in the industry,” according to Vogue Paris. “A fairy tale child,” according to fashion editor André Leon Talley, “straight out of a gothic novel.” The grandson of Maxime de La Falaise, a 1950s beauty who wrote for American Vogue and played muse to Andy Warhol. The nephew of Loulou de La Falaise, the afflatus of Yves Saint Laurent. The great-nephew of Mark Birley, who ruled London nightlife with Annabel’s and Harry’s Bar. And on and on.

Daniel Le Bailly de La Falaise has always had much to live up to.

Yet even from his younger years, Daniel parried the pressure with aplomb. He modeled for Vogue Paris as a wispy seventeen year-old. He acted in plays on the West End alongside Michael Gambon. It was the same path of aristocratic, creative urbanity that his forebears lived so well.

But one day, he realized it wasn’t quite the life for him.

“I asked myself the question of whose career I coveted and I couldn’t really come up with the answer,” Daniel told me over the phone from Bolinas, California. “I wanted control over what my life would be and cooking was something that I had always done.”

So cook he did.

He was slated to start work at the River Café, a respected Italian eatery on the banks of the Thames, but his great-uncle Mark Birley challenged him. “If you’ve got the balls, if you’ve got balls, Danny, you’ll start at Harry’s Bar,” Daniel recounted him saying in reference to the members-only Mayfair restaurant founded by his great uncle. “He thought I’d make a week and in the end I did years there.”

Today, Daniel lives mostly on an estate near Toulouse, France, with his wife, Molly, and infant son, Louis. He manages Le Garde-Manger de La Falaise, an exclusive line of oils and vinegars sold at Selfridges in London and at Claus in Paris, and he is the author of a recent book from Rizzoli called Nature’s Larder.

But his central work remains cooking. He cooks for himself, his family, and his friends, but he also caters celebrity and fashion events, which take place mostly in Paris, London, and Milan. He catered Kate Moss’ wedding and, most recently, he was in charge of a 125-person dinner at the Château de Courances in northern France for the Olsen twins’ fashion brand, The Row.

Although Daniel’s provenance is one of sophistication and blue blood, he eschews pretension. His favorite food is spaghetti alle vongole and, as he puts it, “there is no better luxury than really distilled simplicity.”

Daniel spoke to me about the pressures of aristocracy, the sexuality of food, and what cooking for the rich and famous really takes.

You’re in San Francisco right now; you’re coming from Paris; you were born in Wales; you’ve worked in London. Where is home?

Home is southwest France. I have a farm in southwest France. But having said that I am kind of neither French nor English, really. I’m both. One is always a kind of, to a degree, an outsider, wherever one is.

You had a modeling and acting career for a little while. Did you choose to go into cooking because you loved cooking specifically itself or because you didn’t want to be in that crazy, hostile city environment?

I went into cooking because I love cooking. My great-grandma was a great cook; my grandmother, Maxime, was an extraordinary cook; my father was a great cook. And actually the family, when we got together, which was pretty much all the time, the heart of the house was always the kitchen and that was the action of the family.

And so that’s something I grew up doing from a very early age, you know? Baking bread when I was six or seven before I was allowed near the gas flame. And also learning to garden at the same time as learning to cook. So it was that full arc from digging a vegetable to the washing of it, to preparing it, to serving it to the table. The immediacy and the vitality of food was something that we experienced from a very early age.

Can you paint me a picture of what your farm set-up is like in southwest France?

It’s a very simple place. But the beauty of the place in southwest France is the space it provides. It’s twenty hectares — fifty acres — with a charming farmhouse right in the middle on the promontory and the land has woodlands; there is a lake; it’s exposed on every side so the light works the whole way round it during the day. The land is turned over to hay meadows really just to protect the space. And then I have my herb garden.

And when I need more than herbs I reach out to my neighbors and a little further beyond. Any day of the week you can go twenty kilometers in one direction or the other and you’ll happen across the most wonderful food market. I have decades worth, more than a decade’s worth, of relationships with these people.

And you were brought up on a farm, correct?

The first part of my childhood was on a farm and on the Welsh borders, yeah.

Did your interest in food start with this agricultural upbringing then?

Yeah absolutely. Because we had a wonderful vegetable garden and we had sheep and we had poultry and to a large degree we were self sufficient in terms of what was upon the table. So that reference to vegetable gardens, which my mother and my father and my grandparents have benefited from in their own time, was passed onto us at a very, very early age and instilled a real reverence of ingredients at the height of their season in us from the start.

Do you integrate that idea of self-sufficiency in your own cooking process now?

I mean I can’t grow enough food to feed the world but what I can do is I can source out to people who are doing that. So what I do is I go to the source. That’s one of the reasons that the farm in southwest France, just north of Toulouse, is so wonderful because it’s a part of France and part of the world where independent, peasant-scale agriculture persists. It’s le verger de France — the orchard of France. Whether it’s in France or whether it’s in England or America or wherever, I try and go to the source. And so that’s what I’m looking for, I’m looking for the natural quality, independently produced produce.

How specific is your market-going? Do you have a peach guy and a…

Yeah, yes. So I have a peach guy then I have a foie gras guy and then I’ll have the cheese girl and then I’ll have the honey lady. You know what I mean? And then there’s a guy that’s amazing for potatoes and onions and that’s all he does. And there’s a guy called Émile who is actually Dutch to start with but he’s been down there for about thirty years and he is just a meticulous control freak when it comes to just, I mean, pears, he’s got the best red currents, he’s got the finest young carrots. He is the king of the broad bean and the sweet pea in the season.

So I’ve got my little specialists. I’ve got my little go-to characters for the produce that is going through the roller coaster of the seasons, the whole cast of characters of the wonderful produce that we have across the year.

Vogue Paris has called you “the most stylish chef in the industry.” Are aesthetics and a feeling of surrounding yourself with beauty important to you and to your work?

Yeah. In the sense that to me beauty is nature — or things that are natural — there is nothing more beautiful than something in its pure form. I mean there is nothing more beautiful than a ripe fruit or an unfurling flower or the sweet smell of hay in the summer wind or the sound of wind rustling through poplar trees. A lot of the work I do is in, I suppose one could say, the luxury market and to me there is no better luxury than really distilled simplicity. And so that’s the silver bullet that I try to bring to my clientele.

I can do an intimate dinner for fancy folk during a fancy season — fashion week, or whatever it may be — but what I’m going to bring to that is I am going to bring peaches that were picked at dawn the day before that are perfectly ripe in a way that unless you have your own peach tree in your garden you’re never going to experience yourself because they haven’t changed hands from carpet dealer to carpet dealer and been through Rungis and etcetera, etcetera and been exposed to refrigeration.

So that’s what I’m able to do: source these very simple but absolutely perfect products and compose menus which tip their hat at the season and take into account the quality or the energy or the emotion or the spirit of the people I’m cooking for. And just bring these things together very, very simply.

Is your work exclusively the private parties?

We have a small line of products too. So flavored olive oils and then chili oil. We transport vinegars and select honeys and select wines. And I’ve worked in close association with a friend of mine who is a master distiller. And he has biodynamic orchards and so he distills herbs to use to treat his trees.

Can you tell me about the private caterings? Obviously they’re private but what can you…

So I’ve got clients, which are based on word of mouth from Long Date, which I’ve cooked for, private individuals but also within the fashion industry, for events, much bigger events. And when they are huge I’ll collaborate with catering companies wherever that be, whether it’s in Milan or Paris or in London or even further afield.

Can you tell me some recent private caterings?

I mean private clients are private clients by definition but about a month ago we did a sit down dinner at Château de Courances for the fashion brand The Row, which is the Olsen twins thing, and that was a lot of fun. I had to suddenly build a tent and build a kitchen and seat a hundred and twenty five people in a French castle.

What is it that you specifically offer? Is it a high quality of cooking that draws people, do you interact with the guests a lot…

A little bit, to a degree I’ll interact. I compose a menu bespoke to the client and to the event and follow it from sourcing the ingredients to executing every last bit. I assume responsibility for the situation and compose and then execute.

Can you tell me a menu you had at a recent high profile catering?

For example, for the Olsen girls… we did saffron risotto, which is quite a feat unto itself because to cook risotto for a hundred and twenty five people incurs having like five huge pans going on at once. And it’s a dance.

It changes. At the moment — what am I using at the moment? I’m using pomegranate at the moment and I’m using persimmon at the moment. Persimmon is just heaven. The apples are still really good this season. So for dessert we just served a lightly spiced apple compote. So you make an apple compote but you make it with bay leaves and a hint of ginger and a hint of chili and then you chop that up like a nice cut tartar, like a nice cut steak tartar, and that’s served with persimmon, perfect persimmon.

And what I like to do oftentimes with fruit is season it or spice it. So like persimmon with extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of fleur de sel garnished with just a little summit of crème fraîche, acacia honey, and mint.

I am not a fan of sugar. I’m going to go to something which is — the stewed fruit is the best thing for digestion; it’s like a spiced apple compote with a seasoned persimmon with a little bit of chili, a little thing under it. And then the sweetness of the persimmon but just confused with oil and salt and then something neutral, which is the cream and then acacia honey or chestnut honey, depending on the season, just lifts it.

It’s very simple: there is very little transformation. What I like to do is I like to underscore the inherent value of different ingredients but then also celebrate the natural synergies that occur between them. There’s a whole bunch of love affairs that occur between the different realms of vegetables and fruit.

Is there an eroticism to food then for you? A sexuality?

Yeah it’s a very sensual thing. It’s a very sensual, sensual thing.

Can you unpack that a little?

I don’t really believe in recipes. To me cookery is really like a structured improvisation. And what is leading you is your mind’s eye and palette. So there are two worlds: the internal world of if you know what a persimmon tastes like when it’s at the top of its game or what a carrot lifted from the ground tastes like, all these things that you have got as a sensory flavor bank of sorts. That’s why I feel so grateful for the reference that I had as a child is because that’s from whence all this comes, at least to me that’s the foundation of all that.

What you want is this: there is a whole array of ways of tasting the same thing just by who you match them with, the way that you organize the texture to be, the way you cut it, the hand upon it, the different seasoning. And so it’s a kind of dance, it’s a sensory dance in which there is no one way. There’s what you aspire to taste and so if I am working with the same ingredients — if I’m working for a child or a lover or an employer or whatever it is — you’re going to work the same things in different ways. And so that energy, the energy that you approach food with, the context informs the way that you will cook something.

Have you ever had it go awry where you think that something will match well and then it doesn’t work? Is it trial and error?

I work very intuitively with that kind of stuff and then also just grazing as you go. I’m a great fan of grazing as I talk all about in my book, which is what we did when we were kids often times, just going through a vegetable garden. And when you go through a vegetable garden as a child you graze like a naughty rabbit or like a blackbird.

Early April, for instance, the first asparagus comes up and just by some miracle tarragon starts emerging — the perennial tarragon starts coming out of the ground at the same time. So the asparagus snapped out of the ground with a pinch of tarragon — match made in heaven. And so as you carve a road through life these are things you pick up. You have a toolbox of sorts — party tricks.

But then there’s always new things. The wonderful thing about cooking is you learn something new every time. So there is always that curiosity, there is always a curious and joyful quest of sorts.

It’s all very sophisticated. What would you say to someone who might think that this sort of very high-level, healthy, from-the-ground cooking is the trade of the affluent?

It’s much more expensive to buy something transformed than it is something raw. I mean you can make a feast out of a potato if you treat the potato properly. All you need is potato and a bay leaf and a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt and maybe a bunch of parsley and you’ve got a feast fit for a king and that’s not gonna set you back more than a couple of bucks.

Nature's Larder by Daniel De La Falaise Photo © dlF 2016

Nature’s Larder by Daniel De La Falaise Photo © dlF 2016

Let’s talk about your book, Nature’s Larder. What made it time to write it? Why did you want to get this out there?

That’s just something that happened really. There was an opportunity to write a book which I grasped with—

Did Rizzoli come to you?

Yeah. Rizzoli came to me and said that they had been aware of me for a period of time and did I have a book. And so I said well let me think about that. And so I thought about it rather quickly and grasped the opportunity. And it took me a bit of time. It took me about three years from the first meeting to it being published. But that was a wonderful journey for me. I found that a very rewarding journey and a wonderful opportunity to try and distill my philosophy of food and also learn how to use a camera properly.

And you took your own photos?

Yeah.

What would you want the reader to take from the book if you could impart one lasting thing?

I would like the reader to feel empowered. I mean oftentimes I find that recipe books, they dictate one line and I think that the unfortunate thing often that happens is people will do the recipe for chocolate cake or whatever it is and they’ll say, ‘Well I did what the recipe did but it doesn’t work.’ They stand outside it.

Is that something that’s important to you? To contextualize the recipes?

Yeah it is. I mean what I’m trying to do is I’m just trying to empower the reader to have the confidence to, or have the curiosity or just sort of prod them with a stick and say, ‘Are you curious enough to go out and garner for yourself the sensory references to the ingredients that you’re attracted to?’ And if you are, once you’ve done that the next step is to ask yourself what are you going to do with them? And to be able to do that to any kind of standard you’re gonna need a little bit of discipline and you’re gonna need to equip yourself with some basic skills. And once you have that basic skill set then you can improvise and the world is your oyster.

We talked about sugar briefly before, how you said you won’t use sugar if you can help it. Is food psychological to you? Is it more than just the biological effects it has on people?

Good food lifts you. It’s like good wine lifts you. Food to me is not about eating a quantity of food. It’s about tasting things. It depends very much what you’ve done. If you’ve been digging a garden all day you’re gonna be hungry and you’re gonna eat different things. But once I feel full I stop eating. A lot of people don’t stop eating when they feel full. They carry on eating and they eat for — it’s doing something else to them.

I find food stimulating and I get great joy in sharing stimulating food with other people and seeing that effect. I always say that even the vilest of creatures, if you put something delicious in their mouths you glimpse just for an instant the inner child flirting within, you know? It disarms and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a wonderful way to communicate.

What then is the highest compliment to you from someone who is eating your food? To say that it made them feel vulnerable, feel young again, feel in a different world? What are you aiming for?

Nothing really beyond sharing. Sharing. Because I am not really doing anything, I’m just sharing. I’m not inventing anything, I am celebrating a product. I am celebrating Monsieur Pigot’s peach or the other chap’s oil and the other chap’s salt or I’m celebrating such and such. So what I am really doing is I’m sharing those things. I am just trying to communicate a product and doing it with a lot of joy because I happen to be interested in the product and I happen to love people too, you know?

If I were catering a party for you, what would you want?

I would want spaghetti alle vongole, I guess. [laughter]

That’s what you always say.

I love spaghetti alle vongole. I love, love spaghetti alle vongole.

Is your inner child still brought out by cooking?

Yeah. For sure, yeah. For sure. And I love the theater of it and I love the arc of it from sourcing to converging, you know? I love the state of concentration it requires. I love the sense of vitality that it gives me. It squeezes a heightened sense of awareness. It’s thrilling to be landing dinner for thirty or a hundred.

I bet it’s a bit stressful too.

It’s a thrilling sensation. It’s a thrilling sensation walking through a wall of the seemingly impossible to land plates to table. I find that thrilling.

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Cody Delistraty is a writer, producer, and historian based in Paris and New York. He writes for The Paris Review and The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.