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The strange case of the chef and the newspaper critic

What  I am about to relate to you is one of the strangest stories I encountered during my time as a journalist of more than 30 years. In that period I encountered many strange people and events. I have been chased by Rottweilers owned by the Yorkshire Ripper’s psychiatrist, cursed by a witch, assaulted in a courtroom and once had dinner at the home of Nasser Hindawi –  an outwardly pleasant chap who later planted a bomb on his pregnant Irish wife in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane.

I often related these various amusing tales at speaking engagements at writers’ forums and women’s institute gatherings. On one occasion I was invited to address a meeting of aspiring crime writers.

As was unusual, I moulded the audience, leading them through the creative processes, adding a pinch of anecdote and ended by inviting a sprinkling of questions.

I told them I had just a few minutes because there was a train to catch but one query stopped that planned journey in its tracks. A bespectacled man in his early fifties asked me what was the strangest crime story I had ever come across. I had numerous tales to tell and was reminded of my old chum Will, a crime correspondent at the Liverpool Echo who was so terrorised by the gangsters he wrote about that he ended up in an asylum. But there was another event, that although I never wrote about, was something that, to this day, fills me with dread. I told the audience about the chef.

I had met Jean-Paul in my early twenties when I spent six months on a short term contract working for a newspaper in London. One day a colleague asked me to a dinner party; persuasively he said I might find the chef for the evening quite entertaining. Jean-Paul was taking his first steps in the profession under a famously brash and flamboyant Michelin star cook.

Already some of his mentor’s less sociable habits had begun to influence him. As we slipped sauvignon blanc in the dining room we could hear a string of expletives from the kitchen, apparently aimed at an unfortunate assistant.

Those gathered around the table found it amusing enough but I was less comfortable with the situation. However the food was as good as had been promised.

Later in the evening I was speaking to the fiery Frenchman himself and mentioned to him my interest in cooking. His returning look said pah but he was kind enough to humour me. Our paths didn’t cross again and I moved back to the North West.

It must have been a decade later that I was invited to a new restaurant opening close to my home in Liverpool. It was with some surprise that I discovered Jean-Paul was running what was a trendy waterside eaterie. Clearly he had progressed from those early days in London and when I introduced myself he remained puzzled. However he was all Gallic charm and extended an invitation to return for a meal. I gave him my business card which contained my number and address,

Under deadline pressure I was unable to take up his offer immediately and months drifted by. Then, one evening, I was working late in my study listening to the wind howling outside and watching rain drumming a beat on the patio doors.

It was December so the coal-effect fire was casting shadows in the corners of the book-lined room. I was swirling a glass of wine and was ready to call it a night when the solitude and silence was interrupted by a knock at the door. I answered it to find Jean-Paul, dripping wet, edgy, with hands as if in prayer in classic latin imploring pose. I let him into the house and led him into the study where he began babbling. I told him to calm down and offered a brandy.

Jean-Paul’s breath was wheezy as if he has been exerting himself and he spoke quickly, too quickly, so I asked him to slow down and collect his thoughts.

It transpired that all those years ago while working for the famously belligerent chef he had eventually worked his way up to become his close assistant, although both being rather volatile they had threatened to part on numerous occasions.

One evening he was left in charge of the kitchen and unknown to himself a well known and influential food critic had been served while something of a crisis had taken place. It was one of those things that do happen in the best of kitchens but some weeks later the critic delighted in panning the restaurant and it’s staff. Naturally the head chef was furious and naturally Jean-Paul got the blame and resigned.

This turned into a difficult period because when it comes to the restaurant industry London is very much like a village with gossip and tittle-tattle helping to make or break reputations. He decided to remove himself from the goldfish bowl of the capital and moved to the West country. where he found a benefactor in the form of a wealthy builder’s merchant who desperately wanted his own successful eating house.

This was an opportunity Jean-Paul relished and he shaped and formed the new restaurant just how he wanted it. It was a great hit and not only for the food; our friend had developed his furious-genius approach into something akin to cabaret. Diners would gather to hear his tirades of abuse towards staff echoing from the kitchen.

Business was good and although he was pleased to be recognised as a creative chef his burning desire was to own his own restaurant. He campaigned relentlessly with the owner of the restaurant for the chance to open a second outlet on a shared partnership basis. There was a certain reluctance but eventually Jean-Paul won the day and began searching for the location he wanted.

He borrowed heavily from the bank and other investors to match the money being provided by his partner. This was a real risk but also exciting as he imagined finding a city or town to match his aspirations and talents. That city turned out to be Liverpool and the location was the waterfront. The ingredients were just right as Jean-Paul set about creating a restaurant unique to the region and one that would command respect and recognition.

Jean-Paul was fired with enthusiasm but conscious that this was also a business with his own livelihood as stake. Nevertheless he did not play it safe but created an exciting concept that captured the imagination of visitors.

The response following that opening night that I attended was very enthusiastic not least because the city did not have the greatest reputation for fine food. Everything seemed to be going well until a familiar face returned to the scene.

This is what Jean-Paul told me in his own words. The reader must imagine his broken English: “I was very happy with the restaurant, of course it was a dream come true, everything I had wished for. You know I had gone through a very dark period after leaving monsieur Vincent and truthfully it could have finished me. Luck and hard work made life worth living again and branching out on my own was very special. We soon built a good clientele and I discovered Liverpool took to something new and exciting even though people had mocked my plan to come here at first.

“Saturday night was very busy, we had a number of large parties in. I didn’t disappoint them of course and let them hear my screams of frustration from the kitchen but really I had never felt better. I went out into the restaurant to ask customers if they were enjoying the food when a face caught my eye. I knew him vaguely but couldn’t quite place him.

“ He saw me staring at him and smiled broadly. I continued doing my round when suddenly I realised who it was, I felt a surge of panic. It was the critic Mr White. After he had ruined my reputation I found things out about him and had seen him on food programmes. I did not feel good, I thought he had come to do it again to me.

“My mind was turmoil, my plans and desires rushed through my mind as I saw them crumbling in rolled newsprint.  You must understand this went beyond anxiety, I was struggling to breathe and open a bottle of wine in the kitchen. This is something I absolutely forbid so you can imagine how puzzled my staff were. I quickly swallowed a few mouthfuls to try and gain some control but I felt my heart beating fast and my hands were becoming moist with sweat.

“ I asked the waiter how Mr White’s meal was and before he could answer I found myself screaming abuse at him and told him not to make any effing mistakes. He looked a bit ashamed and admitted he taken the wrong first course. My heart sank and my legs nearly buckled and I knew it was all over.

“I then found my mind racing. How could I get out of this situation? I knew there could only be one solution; I had to do anything I could to prevent his review devastating my business. I asked one of the waiters to ask him if he was enjoying his meal and to try and find out some information about his movements.

“The waiter asked if he required a taxi at the end of the meal but he said his hotel was within walking distance. It could only have been the Plaza so I rang them and asked to be put through to Mr White in room 105. I was told he was in 326 but was not in at the moment. I waited until after he had left and took a knife from the kitchen and made my way to the hotel.”

Jean-Paul was still agitated and I noticed for the first time that his right hand was clutching something tightly in his coat pocket. He then continued his narration as I too became anxious, realising that I did not like where this particular story was going. Sure enough he went to the hotel and to the critic’s room where Jean-Paul, unsure of what to do, had accused the critic of trying to ruin him. He tells me that, as White tried to bundle him out of the room, the knife suddenly lodged itself in his chest. The poor man apparently lay dying as Jean-Paul fled the scene.

I was unsure of how to react. It seemed to be something farcical, as if from a TV comedy drama. Jean-Paul slowly  brought his hand out of his pocket and held both the weapon and a crumpled piece of newsprint. It was from the morning newspaper:

Panoramic Restaurant review

By Michael White

“Rarely have I been to such a badly organised restaurant; a kitchen occupied by a foul mouthed dervish, waiting staff who seem to revel in spilling food and meals of such dull greyness that it rather spoiled my appetite. The whole business seemed to be based on Fawlty Towers.

“Actually that was what I wrote about a restaurant many years ago. The chef, Jean-Paul Blanchard, was clearly in the early part of a drastic learning curve. “Now he has clearly completed his culinary education. His new restaurant in Liverpool is a delight and the food cooked by hands touched by angels….”

I looked at Jean-Paul and he said; ” Yes he had already written and sent his review praising me from his room by computer by  the time I reached him.”

Of course Jean-Paul was locked away but anytime I think of acting in haste over something serious or even trivial,  I remember the strange case of Jean-Paul Blanchard.

 

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