Johnny Apple – 2006
The news that Johnny Apple, one of America’s most authoritative food writers with whom I had shared many unforgettable meals round the world, passed away at the age of 71 last week prompted several immediate responses as well as the inevitable tears.
I went ahead and booked a table at St John in Clerkenwell, one of his favourite restaurants, for the following week. I put extra garlic in the chicken I was roasting to imbue it with the strong flavours he always enjoyed and I decided to cook some sweet corn, so totemic of the Southern cooking he loved. And I turned the Mozart on the CD even louder.
I first met Apple, as he liked to be known, about a decade ago in the house of wine merchant Bill Baker with whom he shared the same gargantuan appetite for life, food and wine and, consequently, almost the same girth (Baker surely weighs around 20 stone, Apple perhaps somewhat less but not much). Watching them finish an iced jug of extra-strong, extra-dry Martini before we sat down for dinner was an eye-opener.
There was at that stage a certain serendipity in our careers. I was just moving somewhat more confidently into the job of writing about restaurants round the world while he was also moving in a new direction, from a world hitherto dominated by politics and international affairs into one that was soon to be preoccupied with food, chefs and restaurants.
Although we became friends quickly I realised that initially it was because of my role as Mr Robinson. While Apple was an authority on many topics from food to Venice, architecture to opera he also knew the limits of his knowledge and when it came to wine he was always prepared to defer to those he considered experts.
But as our time sitting in and discussing restaurants evolved I began to realise that there was a part of my past Apple yearned for. I had been a restaurateur. While I could not help but look at him and see the man who had reported so bravely from Vietnam, Biafra and Tehran as well as interviewing every President of the US over the past 40 years he, I came to realise, looked at me as someone who had survived the daily, albeit much less fatal, crossfire of a busy restaurant.
It was just as well that Apple never applied for a job in the restaurant industry because I fear he would have been hopeless. It was not just that he was far from lithe enough to move inconspicuously around a restaurant, he would also have been too intolerant of customers who could not make up their minds and certainly not conciliatory enough to adjudicate in any dispute between the kitchen and the waiting staff.
That, however, only seemed to make him appreciate what restaurateurs do even more. What attracted him to restaurants was not just his formidable appetite but also the realisation that restaurants combine that sense of occasion which also attracted him so much to opera. There was here too a parallel with his career as a journalist. While he viewed his role as explaining the world’s more complex issues or how to get the best from the street vendors of Singapore to his readers he looked on those restaurateurs he admired so much - Ross Eirich of Galatoire's in his beloved New Orleans, Jean-Claude Vrinat at Taillevent in Paris and Danny Meyer in New York – as fulfilling a similar role in converting the talents of their kitchen brigade to the pleasure of their customers.
But Apple’s move from politics to the world of food and restaurants was, in my opinion, far more important on two levels than even he appreciated. The first was that it undoubtedly bestowed upon the whole profession of writing about food and restaurants a sense of importance and prestige that both had lacked hitherto. We mortals were now joined by one of the world’s great journalists. And while we will all have envied not just his expense account but also the space he was allowed (not to mention the obligatory reference to his invaluable wife, Betsey, in every column), anyone writing about food or restaurants over the past decade knew to whom they had to try and come close. He was also the one to turn to for information. Apple brought to his food writings the enormous international contacts he had acquired as a political correspondent and this, in the true spirit of hospitality, he was always willing to share.
But while all his many ambitious trips (Betsey uncomplainingly lived out of a suitcase) were planned with an enviable military efficiency there is no doubt that what gave Apple the greatest satisfaction was being in a position to write about food and restaurants at a time when so many talented American chefs, restaurateurs and food producers were coming to the fore. Here was one part of a movement to which he felt continually proud to give his strong voice, and even stronger fingers on the keyboard. The other part was his desire to bring to everyone’s attention the risks that so many traditional foodstuffs, and their producers, face in the early years of this century.
My last meal with Apple was last May in New York, a couple of weeks before Jancis’s in Washington, when he was due to be the final speaker at the James Beard Awards. Very sadly, he had to cancel at the very last moment to the bitter regret of the entire audience but even more to his own professional chagrin as he hated to let anyone down, particularly as this event was to support the chefs and restaurateurs of beleaguered New Orleans. But my penultimate email contact with him only a few days before he died demonstrated just how on the ball he remained to the end. I emailed to tell him how good my meal had been at The Old Spot in Wells, Somerset where Ian Bates is now cooking and his response asked, quite rightly, whether Bates was still known by his nickname of ‘the fish filleter’, a moniker he had acquired several years ago as a result of preparing so much sushi.