Food and fashion would not seem a natural pairing. The need to present a svelte form on the runway and red carpet would appear to preclude five-star dining.
Unless, of course, your name happens to be Valentino. Then all things are possible – goddess couture, elegant homes and gardens, sleek yachts and, perhaps most important, exquisitely appointed tables laden with sensuous meals that satisfy the palate (and palette) without necessarily fattening the waist line.
They speak to what André Leon Talley, writing in the introduction to the sumptuous new “Valentino: At the Emperor’s Table” (Assouline Publishing, $150, 191 pages) calls his “unbridled passion … for surface, color and form.”
And taste, too, guided by a fresh, organic, vegetarian cuisine.
“After a certain age, one can’t eat red meat,” Valentino tells Talley as they settle in after lunch in the drawing room of Valentino’s Fifth Avenue apartment, with its plush Euro accents, sculpted Rouen lions and views of Central Park and The Frick Collection. “(Red meat is) not healthy, and my chef cooks everything now with no butter, no fat. And desserts – including a cheesecake that is decorated with strawberries cut and mounted on the sides of the cake to create a frieze – are made with Xyla, a sugar-free sweetener.”
Whether he’s at his New York apartment; his London residence in Holland Park, with its rapturous, Orientalist ode to the Whistler room at the Smithsonian Institution; his winter chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland; his château outside Paris, once the home of Louis XIV mistress Louise de la Vallière, where riotous blooms spill over into a pretty pink and blue Mottahedeh Tobacco Leaf tea service; or aboard the sunny T.M. Blue One – all blue, white and teak with nautical motifs, Valentino always begins his day the same way. He meditates alone in his bedroom. Then he and his chef, Jonathan, go over the meals of the day, including, Talley writes, “which silver and crystal will be used, which embroidered tablecloth will provide a background, and which silver tureen will become a centerpiece, perhaps filled with fresh dark grapes and pomegranates cut open to show the rich inside of the fruit.”
Then it’s on to a light breakfast – yogurt, tea with agave nectar and two biscuits made with kamut, a high-protein, nutrient-rich wheat grain. (Valentino – who does Pilates with trainers daily regardless of where he is – eschews traditional wheat.)
We may not all be able to live like Valentino (although the Mottahedeh Tobacco Leaf dinner service is available at Bloomingdale’s for $560 a place setting). But judging from the recipes (essentially a Mediterranean diet), we can eat like Valentino. Such engaging dishes as Tuna Mousse and Greek-style Vegetables, Eggplant Parmesan, King Crab With Fish and Kamut Pasta With Pesto are well within the culinary aspirations of the reader. Even those recipes that are more challenging – like the Frozen Chestnut Soufflé – entice the reader to don a chef’s apron and take up a whisk and spatula, or, at the very least, dive in with a spoon.
The food is only one part of the story. The settings and presentation are the other. From the clean lines of the Russian porcelain dinner service by the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory, St. Petersburg to the botanical profusion of the Chinese export black ground Famille Rose Millefleurs design, circa 1870, the dinnerware is an orgy for the eye. And it is just the beginning. Here’s Talley on a memorable lunch at Château de Wideville, Valentino’s suburban Parisian home:
“The last time I was a guest at Wideville, it was on a drizzly spring day for a small lunch (Valentino) hosted to celebrate the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Valentino’s sense of harmony and proportion was an incredible poem of the juxtaposition of his great saltcellars, beautiful crystal, and white chargers, with swans from a dinner service of Empress Catherine II of Russia. The climax was the wondrous serving of a homemade peach and lychee sorbet in a green and red handblown and spun sugar bowl, created in the shape of a Venini glass bowl from Venice.”
Black Meissen swans are a particular obsession. Indeed, Meissen in all forms, including two huge 18th-century Meissen monkeys mounted as candelabra, with vermeil details, that are arranged on either side of the fireplace in the library of Wideville.
“I love them so much,” Valentino tells Talley, “sometimes when I am at Wideville I sit down in the library alone, close to a glowing fire with the monkeys, just looking at them.”
The aesthetic drive that led to Meissen monkeys was nurtured in his native Lombardy, where the child Valentino Garavani dreamed of beauty and had his own special silverware. In 1950s Paris, he was part of a “class” that included Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, apprenticing with Jean Dessès and Guy Laroche. In 1959, he opened his first fashion boutique in Rome and three years later had his first big show at the Pitti Palace in Florence. What helped make his career early on was his championing by three New York goddesses – hostess Babe Paley, philanthropist and fashion editor Nan Kempner and, of course, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“It’s just me,” Valentino says. “I cannot change my love of beauty at my age. I have all these beautiful things, and I am happy because I worked hard to get them. Sometimes I have a little doubt: I say to myself, ‘Do I deserve all this happiness and these beautiful things?’ And then I say to myself, simply: ‘Why not?’”
Goat Cheese Flan
- 7 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 2 1/4 cups goat milk
- 1/2 cup plus two tablespoons heavy cream
- 10.6 ounces fresh goat cheese
- Salt, freshly ground black pepper
- Ground nutmeg
- Preheat the oven to 300° F. Butter an 8-inch soufflé mold.
- Beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer for 10 minutes. Add the cornstarch and beat until incorporated.
- Warm the milk and cream in a saucepan, then slowly stir in the beaten egg yolk mixture. Cook as you would pastry cream, beating by hand over medium-low heat until the consistency is creamy.
- When the mixture bubbles, whisk in the fresh goat cheese and return to a boil. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg, then put through a fine strainer. Transfer to the buttered soufflé mold.
- Place the mold in a roasting pan and fill the roasting pan with simmering water until it comes halfway up the side of the soufflé mold. Place in the oven and bake for an hour.
- Transfer to a rack to cool slightly, 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the mold to loosen. Place a platter over the top of the mold, then invert to unmold flan onto the platter. Decorate with Tomato Petals (below) and serve immediately.
- 4 tomatoes
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 175° F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Cut off the stem ends of the tomatoes and make a shallow incision in the bottom of each tomato. Lower the tomatoes into boiling water; blanch for 10 seconds. Remove them to an ice-water bath to cool, and remove their skins.
- Cut each tomato vertically into 4 or 6 wedges. Use a sharp knife to cut out the seeds of each tomato, keeping the outer flesh only.
- Place the tomato “petals” on the prepared baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and salt lightly.
- Dry in the oven, about 2 hours.