Onscreen, Charlie cooks his boot with all the finesse and care of a five-star chef. But believe it or not, he also enjoyed cooking in real life, and with the same meticulousness that he put into to his films.
Here Lillian Ross and Eric James share their remembrances of “Charlie the chef”:
“A number of moments from Chaplin’s life remained fixed in my memory. There was a moment in 1950 when I found Chaplin and Oona in their kitchen fussing over a leg of lamb that they were roasting, while a couple of small children stood by watching. Food was always important to Chaplin, because, he used to explain, he had been so often deprived of it when he was a child. On this day, he was in charge of the oven, a chef’s big white apron tied around his waist, a big spoon in his left hand, and he was giving the lamb his full concentration, with a Charlie Chaplin pursing of the lips, a Charlie Chaplin frown, a Charlie Chaplin raising of the spoon at his wide-eyed, frozen onlookers, to keep them at their distance.
‘It’s done now,’ he reported, rather nervously. ‘It’s just right. Tender and succulent.’
‘Charlie did the basting while I fed the baby,’ his wife said.
‘I baste and baste,’ Chaplin said to me, with authority.
‘Baste and baste and baste.'” (Lillian Ross, Moments With Chaplin)
Eric James was Charlie’s musical associate from 1956 to 1976. He was no stranger to Charlie’s mood swings and bad temper. During one particular session, tempers flared and things quickly went downhill. Charlie eventually slammed down the lid on the piano, called off work for the day, and stormed out of the room. Eric was sure his days working for Charlie Chaplin were over. But after about ten or fifteen minutes, Charlie opened the door and with “the wistful smile of the ‘little fellow'” asked, “Have you ever eaten a barbecue steak?” Taken aback, Eric replied the he had not. “Well, you are going to tonight,” said Charlie.
“At 6:00 p.m. the butler entered the salon to ask what I would like to drink and I was shortly joined afterward by Mrs. Chaplin. We both sat by the roaring fire enjoying our aperitifs when it occurred to me that Mr. Chaplin was late in joining us for his predinner gin and tonic. I asked Oona if she knew what had happened to delay him. She grinned and said, “Take a look out of the window.” I got up and was quite unprepared for the sight that met my eyes. There, on a spot close to the staff quarters, stood a large portable barbecue they had brought from their home in California. Mr. Chaplin was garbed in a very heavy Crombie overcoat with its collar turned up to meet the rim of the black Homburg that had been pulled down well over his ears. He was gently turning the steaks and large jacket potatoes in between bouts of foot stamping and hand slapping, which, because of the extreme cold of this November evening, was so necessary in spite of the heat from the barbecue fire.
I felt deeply concerned that he should be exposed to such conditions and asked Mrs. Chaplin if I could go and help him. Mrs. Chaplin immediately replied, ‘No, Eric, don’t go outside. Just leave him alone. This is his way of saying he’s sorry for being such a pig to you today.’ I was deeply touched and felt that however difficult or unreasonable he would undoubtedly be in the future, this indication of a real and sensitive human being lurking within would help me to weather the storms and accept that this was part of the job.
I might add that the meal was excellent. I have never had a better one and when at the end of it I was told that all the family would find it agreeable if from thence on I referred to them by their first names, I felt that I had really arrived. It had been a bittersweet day but it was the beginning of our long and mainly happy association. (Eric James, Making Music With Charlie Chaplin)
On that note, I’d like to wish everyone in the U.S a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope it’s full good food and good cheer. –Jess