IF someone told you a story about a man who was a member of the French resistance, became a chef and mixed with English aristocracy you may wonder if it was fact or fiction.
But French chef Raymond Lempereur survived the German occupation and moved to London from Vichy in 1948 to work for the French Ambassador in Kensington Palace Gardens.
After a year at the Ambassador’s residence, he was recruited as head chef to the Earl of Sefton at Croxteth Hall near Liverpool.
The extraordinary tale of Raymond’s life from his childhood days to his work in the kitchens of a stately home are the subject of a documentary film, Croxteth Hall and the French Connection, which is due out next year.
In it the story of how Raymond and his wife Elda worked for Lord and Lady Sefton until the Earl’s death in 1972, is told.
Alongside how Raymond and Elda became an active part of the local community, and continue to live in the grounds of Croxteth Hall.
Here Raymond tells the story of his life and gives his thoughts on English cooking…
When I first came to England, I couldn’t speak the language. I had been working at a large hotel in Vichy after the war, and my boss there offered me a job at the Embassy in London.
At the Embassy we had everything we wanted, most of our goods came from France. The British however, still had ration books until 1950. My English didn’t improve much, because everybody I worked with at the Embassy spoke French.
I enjoyed London, but wanted to move on. One of the chefs at the Embassy sensed this. He was a close friend of Lord and Lady Sefton and knew that Lady Sefton had specifically requested a French cook.
There was also a tradition of having French cooks at Croxteth Hall. So I moved to Liverpool, still hardly speaking any English, and Lord Sefton sorted out my work permit.
I was 24 at the time, and suddenly I was the head chef at this great old English mansion. Luckily Lady Sefton, an American, spoke French. I got on extremely well with them both.
It could be quite challenging managing such a big estate at times – sometimes when the Seftons were having a big party, we didn’t have enough help. But we had to deal with it.
Lady Sefton was without pretense. When her husband Lord Sefton died, she moved to London and wrote to us that she would never find a chef like me. But when I was new in the job, I had to assert my role.
She once came into the kitchen while I had my back to her and called out my name “Lempereur”, she said. I pretended not to hear her until she said “Chef?”
She got the message – after that she always called me Chef. It’s a mark of respect, you see. As a chef you are the master in the kitchen.
My wife and I never expected to stay in England for this long. We thought that when our son was about five years old, we would go back to France, so he could go to a French school.
But the weeks went by – months, years. We were comfortable at Croxteth Hall and we had a very good boss. That makes you think twice before you change your job. You don’t know what the next job could be.
Contemporary chefs seem to have become icons. Delia Smith is excellent because she used to go to France years ago, and learn the specialties of that particular region. And she would redo it on television exactly as it was done in France. Jamie Oliver is a comedian – he is a bit too flamboyant.
I belong to the old school. I learned from Escoffier, the old French master chef (1846 –1935) whose cookbook became a bible in French cuisine. Claridges and The Savoy in London are still influenced by him. To me, he is the King.
There’s nothing wrong with English food if it’s well prepared. But if you go to a restaurant where they serve British food, it is often quite bland. They can’t seem to get away from preparing vegetables in quite a dull way.
Their Brussels sprouts, their carrots, and peas – they are not adventurous enough. I think when a baby is born in England, the first tool the parents give them is a tin opener.
They have some good basic recipes, but if they were a bit more daring, for example by putting some port in their steak and kidney pudding – it would be a lot better.
I enjoy living in the U.K, but I find the British a bit self-centered. If you watch British television, they hardly talk about France, but a great number of British people still end up buying holiday homes in France.
I think it’s because the French are a bit more lenient. Having said that, I don’t regret for one second that we settled in England. I would do it all over again!
If I had stayed in France, I wouldn’t have got such a wonderful home like this through my employer.
The film is supported by Geraud Markets Liverpool Limited, L'Alouette Restaurant, Liverpool City Council (NRF) and Liverpool Capital of Culture Company.
For further details of “Croxteth Hall –the French Connection”, please contact Dave Cotterill of Souled Out Productions. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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