Victory in the Kitchen

Annie Gray

Profile, £16.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Had she been a man, Georgina Landemare could have been head chef at the Ritz. She was recognised as being that good. But, although the most prestigious hotels and, for much of her life, the grandest of country houses were closed off to her, this “round little woman who could have rather a rough manner and tongue” carved out a great career, culminating in a 14-year stint as Winston Churchill’s cook.

By the time she went to work full-time for the Churchills, she had nearly 40 years of kitchen experience. Born in 1882 in rural Hertfordshire, she entered domestic service as a scullery maid before setting her sights on cooking. From the start, she was canny, selecting her employers carefully, and had established herself as a leading society chef who could pick and choose her jobs by the time she started working for Winston and Clemmie Churchill. It was February 1940, shortly after the outbreak of war and four months before her boss became Prime Minister.

Hundreds of books have been written about Churchill, but Gray views him from the perspective of the kitchen: as an exasperating employer, a bon viveur, a man who lived permanently beyond his means and believed that entertaining was essential to politics.

In retrospect, his and Georgina’s paths seem fated to cross. She cooked at Number 10, Chequers, the Cabinet War Rooms and wherever else he wanted, satisfying his palate and working magic with rationing allocations. Churchill later claimed that he couldn’t have won the war without her, a debt repaid when he saved her life during an air raid, insisting she leave a mousseline pudding to its fate seconds before a bomb wrecked the Downing Street kitchen.

We could have had a Georgina Landemare autobiography had her daughter and son-in-law not convinced her that no one would be interested in her life and Georgina not responded by destroying all but 26 pages of it.

Whatever they may have thought, her life is interesting in its own right. But Gray also uses her as a lens through which to view the changing faces of both dining and domestic service over the course of almost a century, enlightening her readers on the competition between different styles of cuisine on the tables of the great country houses, writing with barely suppressed amazement at the ornate culinary creations of the Edwardian era and turning a chapter about Georgina’s French husband, Paul, into a potted history of dining in post-Revolutionary France and the restaurant scene in London in the early 20th Century.

The cookbook Georgina wrote in retirement, 1958’s Recipes from No 10, was well-received, but barely had time to make an impression before it fell from favour. The country-house lifestyle, along with the elaborate, labour-intensive cuisine that went with it, was becoming unfashionable in a more streamlined, informal and convenience-oriented Britain, and Georgina Landemare’s period of fame was perhaps more short-lived than she deserved. Annie Gray’s sumptuous and well-stuffed biography goes a long way towards setting that right.