THE TRADITIONAL fictional super spy -- the James Bond of 20 years ago, for instance -- lives on champagne, with maybe a little blowfish (the culinary equivalent of Russian roulette) to balance his diet. But author Len Deighton, whose first spy novel, "The Ipcress File," was published 19 years ago and whose 14th, "XPD" (Expedient Demise), is just hitting the stands, has never been a traditionalist. Deighton's CIA agents drink Coke and 7-Up. Michael Caine as Harry Parker in the film of "The Ipcress File," opened with brewing coffee (in a coffee maker called the Insta-Brewer, which one of the producers invented). And Boyd Stuart, Deighton's newest spy, eats chick pea casserole and eggplant dip, albeit reluctantly and only to please his girl friend.
You would expect a spy novelist with a track record like Deighton's to know a lot about bugging and conspiracy and assassination. This one also knows a lot about food. His self-illustrated cooking lessons, called "Cookstrips", ran in the London Observer for five years, until it became too complicated to combine life as a successful spy novelist with a successful weekly cooking column. ("All those calls from Japan.")
One of his two "Cookstrip" cookbooks was published twice in England and once in the U.S., in 1977 by Harper and Row as "French Cooking in 50 Lessons, or Ou Est Le Garlic?" It is now out of print, which Deighton attributes to being outsized: "Bookstores hate it," he leaked to the press. "It's a rotten shelf-space book." Nevertheless, the Village Voice chose it as one of the 30 best books on French cooking in English.
If you spot a 52-year-old Englishman who looks like a spy novelist, you can be sure it is not Len Deighton, who looks more like a member of the Vegetarian Society of England, which he is. His beige jacket accents his mild-mannered working-class-boy look, the most flamboyant part of it being the navy blue handkerchief in his pocket. His smile is far too impish to hide all those assassinations he's invented. And the "no kidding!" and "that's marvelous!" that punctuate his conversation -- which has a habit of being nonstop -- hardly indicate holding one's cards close to the chest.
As if he cannot express himself fast enough (one would think 20 books, two children, a wife, an ex-wife who remains a family friend and a vegetable garden would be enough) Deighton is frequently busy drawing as he talks. In fact, the London Sunday Times asked him to write a series on the three-star restaurants of France based on his 20 years of notes that are drawings of his meals -- the flowers, the tableware, the food -- which he sketches on a sheet of restaurant letterhead at the side of his plate as he dines.
Deighton also looks in the kitchens of the restaurants he visits, as much as a novelist as a cook. "I can see the drama -- who's giving trouble and who is not giving trouble," he confided, as he slipped through the kitchen of New York's newest nouvelle cuisine restaurant, the Maurice in the Parker Meridian Hotel. "This is the most unusual kitchen I've ever been in." It is smaller than its French equivalent would be, and it has no island for stoves; it is "a production line kitchen," was Deighton's analysis. "This kitchen is designed for cuisine nouvelle, which is not a compliment as far as I'm concerned."
Deighton debriefed his companions, though he admitted that it smelled wonderful, and hesitated not a moment over relishing the meal that followed. Deighton makes no secret of disapproving of nouvelle cuisine. "A great kitchen must include the skills of the waiter in the dining room," allowing him to personally serve the food, to tailor the portion and arrangement to the diner's personal requirements. With new-style kitchens arranging the food on plates in the kitchen, the waiter becomes just "a plate carrier." His favorite restaurant anywhere is Pere Bise in Talloires, France, which he calls "the only restaurant outside of Paris with those Parisian standards."
Deighton's inside information on restaurant kitchens developed during his seven years as an art student in London, where he was raised. While he was a student, he worked in kitchens because, "It was warm and they fed me." But his background in food started much earlier; his father was a chauffeur, his mother a cook in private homes and restaurants. "She wasn't a spectacular cook; she didn't know anything about French cooking," was his story. But she was a clever cook who knew a lot of tricks of the trade. The secret of her light batters, he eventually discovered, was that she put the jug of batter in the refrigerator with the beater left in it, and gave it another beating just before she used it.
His mother also, unwittingly, gave him his start in spy writing. In the middle of a night in London in 1940, 11-year-old Deighton heard noise outside, only to find that it was the arrest of Anna Wolkoff, who turned out to be a rather important spy for the Nazis, and whom the Deightons knew quite well in an upstairs-downstairs sort of way because his mother had cooked Wolkoff's dinner parties.
Lavish dinner parties, however, are rarely the scene for Deighton's spy novels. And his spies are hardly super spies; he even refuses to call them heroes, because they are such "nasty guys," In fact, his characters tend to appear as pretty plain folk who just happen to also be killers and victims. Charles Stein, the intended victim of nearly everybody in "XPD," eats baos and paper-wrapped chicken in Chinatown, dripping it down his shirt as any decent law-abiding non-hero would, and dines with his poker club on corned beef hash (a favorite of Deighton's, along with American barbeque) and fried onion rings. Right before being bumped off, blackmailer Paul Bock gives the reader a lesson in frying eggs. Even the villains have modest tastes; ex-Nazi Max Breslow hates food processors and the "machine-mashed baby foods" they produce under the titles of vichyssoise, quenelles and bavarian creams he is served at nearly every dinner party in Los Angeles.
Deighton, who is now finishing a book about American airmen in Britain in World War II, lives in Los Angeles, at least for the two months a year he is not living in semi-rural Ireland. He grows all his own herbs in California and Ireland. He grows all his own herbs in California and Ireland. Each house -- not to mention his in-laws' house in London -- has a yogurt maker, a stockpot and a Ramdom House Encyclopedia, his household staples. The stockpot, stainless steel with a spigot at the bottom to draw off the broth without the fat, provides a cup of broth for every meal; the yogurt maker provides dessert (his children, ages 6 and 8, are never served sweets at home) and the encyclopedia is required reading for the children every day. In fact, all their education is at home -- with a tutor, though physics is taught as cooking classes by Deighton. He buys his children no toys (though he did relent last week in New York with a model fire engine); their mud pies are the pates and breads they make themselves, and their continuing fantasy game is the restaurant they plan to run someday. Visits to Alain Chapel's and Paul Bocuse's restaurant in France have fueled their dreams.
Conversation by Deighton is stuffed with background information. If you admire the chocolate-covered orange peel, he tells you how to make it.If you have trouble with your tape recorder or camera, he has it working in a minute. He is a walking Random House Encyclopedia. He can tell you the best kitchen knife (Henckel) and the best coffeemaker (he hasn't invented it yet, but it would be an electric drip machine that would saturate all the coffee grounds, then pause for them to soak and expand before dripping in the rest of the water). He holds a whisk like a chef and a gun like a secret agent, at least like the ones we've seen in films. He has been a graphics artist, a waiter, a cook, a journalist ("Every newspaper I worked for is now dead"), an airline steward and a railroad clerk, in order to see the world. And the meal he remembers longest and best ran thus:
At that time, the war had only been over for a few months . . . In Paris in 1945, it was all black markets -- I mean incredible. It was all full of deserters and war criminals, and it was really an amazing place to be as a 16-year-old innocent. . . I knew the one thing I wanted to do was to go to the Tour D'Argent. I'd heard that that was one of the great places, and I had saved up all my money. I remember going up there and I said to the waiter I wanted the pressed duck.
And he said, "I'm very sorry, sir. But you cannot have a pressed duck."
All I knew about the Tour d'Argent was that it was one of the greatest restaurants in the world, and it had this pressed duck.
"Why can't I?" I said.
"We only do it for two people. We cut the duck in half, and press the breast of it and serve the wings, and the other person has the other breast and the other wing."
And I said, "No matter. Well, I'll tell you what we'll do. I'll have it for two."
And he served me this whole thing. And then he brought up the salad, with the wing on it. . . And then he started all over again.