The softer side of celebrity was on display Wednesday night, when British actor and new cookbook author Robin Ellis was feted at the Georgetown home of Nancy Taylor-Bubes. Once Washington nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge learned that his book tour included a D.C. stop, she summoned forces in short order that co-sponsored and catered the intimate event, including the American Institute of Wine and Food, Le Zinc executive chef Janis Mclean and a corps of volunteers.
Elegant and lean at 70, with stylish glasses, grayish-white hair and the accent that melts Anglophiles’ hearts, Ellis did not need to be introduced to the mostly female, mostly middle-aged crowd of 80 or so. They came with memories of him as the lead character of the BBC series “Poldark,” which has just been re-released on DVD by Acorn Media. That he turns out to be a handy man in the kitchen and a devoted husband made them swoon a bit more as they formed a flatteringly long receiving line.
Ellis’s updated memoirs will be available as a book-on-demand through Amazon later this month, but here are highlights: Born in Ipswich, he enjoyed family dinners and took note of his mother’s good cooking. He began acting at age 17. Went to Cambridge, where he met and befriended the likes of John Cleese and Derek Jacobi; performed 21 plays in three years’ time there. Earned his chops in English repertory theater after that.
(Fun fact: Ellis’s appearance on the pilot of Cleese’s later “Fawlty Towers” series has earned him more in residual money than any other acting gig, says wife Meredith Wheeler, who is touring with Ellis and working as photographer and unofficial press agent.)
He hadn’t read the “Poldark” books of Winston Graham before the call came to audition for the BBC series based on a swashbuckling, brooding British army captain who returns to 18th-century Cornwall with a chip on his shoulder and a limp from his wounds sustained at the Battle of Yorktown. (The actor put a matchbox in one boot for verisimilitude.) Over 29 episodes, social and political intrigue ensue, with heaving bosoms and rugged landscapes and a soaring musical score.
Casting seemed a stroke of genius. A ponytail and some copper highlights were all Ellis needed. The series first aired in the U.K. in the 1970s and hit the States in the early ’80s. “Poldark” inspired a British appreciation society that met for annual lunches for a decade, and it provided him with a lifetime of what he calls “Poldark perks” — the greatest being his wife, he said Wednesday night as he reached over to squeeze Wheeler’s shoulder.
She was an American television producer and news writer, dispatched to cover an event Ellis was attending in New York. A “heart-fluttery” fan, she recalls. Wheeler is 10 years his junior; he was 48 when they married in 1990, his first and her second time at the altar. The couple lived in London as he continued to act, appearing in the “Wallender” detective series and in the films “The Europeans” and “Elizabeth R.”
They looked for a vacation house in southwestern France. When Ellis found out the village of Lautrec celebrates its native pink garlic with an annual festival, that sealed the deal. They bought an ancient presbyter, which, in time, became their home base. Photos taken by Wheeler, some of which appear on Ellis’s blog, confirm an enviable culinary life: Ellis beaming with his arms wrapped around a basket of walnuts he has collected; sniffing morels gifted by a neighbor; garnishing a platter of his signature salmon fish cakes.
“ ‘Poldark’ never ran in France,” Wheeler says, so her husband moved about the farmers markets undetected, shopping four days a week. He had been the kind of long-practiced single cook who relished his creative time in the kitchen: “I would take an hour to make a meal for myself and five minutes to eat it,” he says. Ellis made the food, leaving a swath for Wheeler to clean up. Each dish had intention: “I’d come down for breakfast and Robin would have five cookbooks strewn about, planning,” she says. He drew inspiration from the works of Elizabeth David and Nigel Slater yet never took a cooking class.
The friends who came to visit, always admiring at the table, suggested he write a cookbook. The effort became more of a mission due to Ellis’s discovery 12 years ago that he had Type 2 diabetes. His mother had type 1 and died of related causes, which underscored the shock of his own diagnosis.
Already following a Mediterranean way of eating — lots of fresh produce, not much red meat — Ellis had little trouble adjusting the way he cooked. He says he lost weight as a result but admits he’s never had major problems in that area. He taught himself to write recipes and spent about two years working on the tidy paperback collection published in 2011 called “Delicious Dishes for Diabetics: Eating Well With Type 2 Diabetes” (Skyhorse; $12.95). The title lacks Poldarkian sex appeal but speaks to its intended audience. Ellis’s personal charm and hands-on experience come through, without a trace of celebrity-I-don’t-really-cook-itis.
So the book tour brought him and Wheeler to New York last week, and to Washington, a place they’re fairly familiar with, on Wednesday night; Chicago’s next, and after that is Los Angeles, where Ellis — “Poldark” fan alert! — also plans to see Jill Townsend, a.k.a. “Poldark’s” Elizabeth, for the first time since the original series’s hoopla ended.
Nutritionist Tallmadge’s corps of home-cook caterers brought in at least 15 dishes from the book.Chef Mclean demonstrated the fish cakes after a brief talk by Ellis.
“I couldn’t help throwing in a few fried capers for presentation,” Mclean noted, to which the author graciously replied, “And I shall from now on do the same.”
The crowd ate it all up: the food, the setting, the obvious affection Ellis and Wheeler have for each other, the empowerment of eating well while managing a diet-critical disease. They baited him with smack talk of “Downton Abbey,” but he remained an Englishman. To the audible surprise of the audience, Ellis credited the recent swirl of diabetes news concerning Paula Deen, whom he has never met, for bringing the cause to light.
Nina Witzenburg, a 57-year-old Chevy Chase resident and unabashed “Poldark” fan, learned she had Type 2 diabetes two years ago. She left the event more than satisified.
“There’s a gazillion cookbooks out now about diabetes that cover everything. This one is personalized . . . it’s the difference between a Walmart and a boutique,” she says. “I love Mediterranean. And I love Robin Ellis.”