Bristol Voice Features: Keith Floyd remembered – the chef, his life, his Bristol connections and burning the candle at both ends

French food was his first love

An original, charismatic presenter that revolutionised how cooking was presented on television. With his bow tie, his glass of wine and enjoyably chaotic style Keith Floyd was a smash hit with viewers making him a global celebrity in the late 1980s and 1990s. Sadly there was another side to the charm brought on by too much booze.

Those with long memories may recall Keith Floyd’s restaurant in Chandos Road in Redland, not so much for his fame (as this was before his TV days) – but for the way he would come and chat with customers at the end of the evening – often with a bottle of brandy in hand.

And that was Floyd: a brilliant chef and a bubbling personality that was to make him a television ratings gold mine – and despite his untimely death at 65 the videos of his cooking continue to appear on the likes of BBC’s Saturday Kitchen years later. And few will disagree with Jamie Oliver’s opinion that he was the ‘most brilliant food presenter in history.’

Born in Berkshire in 1943, he spent his childhood and youth in Wiveliscombe near Taunton where his parents lived in a council house. Nevertheless, they saved enough to send the young Keith to Wellington School from the age of 10 to 16. Initially an outsider in the school he soon came to love life there and was devastated when his parents stopped paying the fees at the age of 16. He had seen reporters in the movies and fancied becoming one and so wrote a letter to the editor of the Bristol Evening Post. He wore a bow tie and a trilby to the interview, charming the editor Eric Price and started the following week as a reporter.

There he worked alongside the likes of Tom Stoppard and Roger Bennett who wrote the children’s column. Roger was married to the women’s editor Paddy who would ask him to babysit their children on occasion. On his own admission he wasn’t the best reporter, but it did introduce him to worlds far beyond Wiveliscombe. He met Peter O’Toole who was at the Bristol Old Vic – remaining friends for life – and he discovered food at the Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath. And dining there with one of the paper’s executives (as he couldn’t afford the prices on his salary) was a transforming experience. It was as he described: “…just amazing food that most British adults, let alone teenagers, would never have seen. It was exotic.”

He burnt the candle at both ends

After a short stint on the paper, he left to join the army becoming a second lieutenant, but after a nervous breakdown he decided to leave the tank regiment and become a cook taking a job in the Royal Hotel in Bristol in the 1960s. It was not quite what he expected after the experience of the Hole in the Wall. The soup for instance was all from tins and the meat was overcooked along with the vegetables. He decided to move on and took work in France to discover real cuisine.

Although not a born and bred Bristolian the bon viveur and celebrity chef (before celebrity chefs were two a penny) Keith Floyd remains inextricably linked to the city due the restaurants he opened (and then closed.) There was the one in Redland, the aforementioned Floyd’s Restaurant in Chandos Road with a second restaurant with the same name in Alma Vale Road and the celebrated Floyd’s Bistro in Clifton’s Princess Victoria Street.

The book that made his name

In 1984 his parents were living in Sea Mills in Bristol, and he had just made a pilot TV programme which when screened would make him famous. At the time he was working in Chandos Road as he explained: “It was a busy place and I was the chef, the boss, the restaurateur. At two in the morning, I was usually in the restaurant, by the kitchen’s back door, putting out the bins.”

He was married to Jesmond Ruttledge, and had a son, Patrick, but then separated, sold up and sailed in his yacht to the Mediterranean but soon returned, this time with a new squeeze in Dolores. That didn’t work out but he did open a new bistro in Bristol funded by friends. The word soon got around about the bumbling bon viveur full of good humour, great character and fabulous food. He published a book with an introduction by Leonard Rossiter and soon BBC producer David Pritchard got in touch with an idea for a blokey cookery slot on TV. The rest is history.

Married four times, with a daughter Poppy and son Patrick, it is fair to say Keith Floyd was not a good dad, not good at marriage and not good at business. But he was a brilliant chef who could improvised and make jokes as he went along live on TV.

An alcoholic who grew worse as the years went on ending with an early death brought on by too many cigarettes and too much booze. That was one side of him which he never denied in his autobiography Stirred But Not Shaken. The side we all recall is that of someone who could communicate and cook at the same time without all the props of today’s TV chefs, often on a boat or on a beach, with the most basic of equipment. And make it look fun.

Harry Mottram

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