Jackie Collins’ kitchen is exactly how you’d expect it to be – exotic, efficient, ultra modern, luxurious, vast. What you don’t expect is that she is in it so much.
It is bright white, two double refrigerators, two double ovens, endless hobs. And a collection of brightly coloured cows line the windowsill.
She is preparing lunch for me with some of the recipes from the Lucky Santangelo Cookbook, inspired by the life and loves of her fictional heroine. She has always determined that Lucky ‘is the woman I would like to be in another life.’ And they are of course inextricably linked.
Lucky is the feisty heroine of her best selling Santangelo novels. A powerhouse woman, daughter of a former mafia boss who now runs his empire and enjoys dangerous passions and sun drenched sex in exotic locations where she/Collins have picked up many signature dishes from destination restaurants.
The recipes have actually featured in the books. Sometimes as celebration dishes or as seductions. The cookbook is also inspired by Collins’ own British childhood and life in California.
In Los Angeles she eats out 50 per cent of the time. At 76 she looks svelte, womanly, and just like you expect her fictional character to look – dramatic dark eyes, statement jewellery, ageless with long lustrous chestnut hair. ‘Extensions,’ she whispers as she sautés mushrooms for her meatball sauce.
‘I have never been on a diet. I eat what I like. Food is one of life’s great enjoyments. There are so many books coming out now, don’t eat this, don’t eat that, be gluten free, I think **** it, I just want to enjoy myself and eat delicious things. Not over indulge but just eat what I love. I know I’m the odd woman out in this town but I’ve never gone on a diet and I’ve never had a facial. Which is why I can write about women in this town with an amused eye because I’m not one of them.’
Collins is of course queen of the stories about Hollywood wives, Hollywood divorces and Hollywood sex lives. The relationships in her books have more twists and turns than an alpine road. Does she believe that relationships would be more stable if there was more home cooking? ‘I do actually. Not just the wife cooking, but the husband too. Just paying attention to what each other likes. That’s what happens in these celebrity marriages. They are so surrounded by gofers, go for this, go for that, laugh at my jokes, tell me I’m wonderful. Real life gets lost in the shuffle.
‘When my husband (club impresario Oscar Lerman, who died in 1992) was alive and my kids were little I would cook a lot and every meal he would say “that was the best meal I’ve ever had, it was delicious”. It wasn’t true but he said it night after night. And my fiancé Frank (Calcagnini – they became engaged in 1994 but he died in 1998 from a brain tumour) loved all my pasta dishes and all the Italian dishes – he was Italian American.
‘I love cooking for men.’ Does she think the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? ‘All men are little boys and what do little boys like to do, eat and play with themselves. Big boys like to eat and have sex.
‘I am an experimental cook. I look at recipes but then I add something, or I try to make something that I’ve had in restaurants that I like. The meatballs are in the cookbook (with veal), but I’ve adapted them to turkey today.’
She stirs her delicious smelling tomato sauce. ‘I always use extra virgin olive oil,’ she says spicily. ‘I always like to deal with extra virgins.’
Has cooking always been important to her? You imagine her on a leopard skin chaise longue surrounded by her collection of panthers sipping a cocktail while writing a sex scene in longhand. You don’t imagine her hard at work in the kitchen, even if she does have a kitchen as large as most people’s entire apartments.
‘Cooking says that you can do anything you set your mind to. People say oh I can’t boil an egg. That’s stupid. That’s like people who say I don’t’ understand social media. Also stupid. If you want to survive in this world you have to be able to cook. If you can’t cook you are going to depend on restaurants or other people and that’s ridiculous. I can make food out of anything. I can take out a packet of rice, chop up a pepper, an onion and a tomato, and there’ll be a fabulous rice dish out of nothing. You don’t have to go to the supermarket every ten minutes. I usually freeze pasta sauce, or meatballs or meatloaf, things like that.’
Jackie Collins and Lucky Santangelo have much in common. They are independent, they are capable. Although Jackie points out, ‘I have had cooking disasters. One Christmas the oven failed. I never look at the turkey. I wrap it up in foil and take it out five hours later. The oven had malfunctioned so it was raw and we ended up ordering pizza.’
The whole family were waiting, including her sister Joan. ‘Joan can cook. Spaghetti Bolognese. That’s all she cooks.’
What is Joan’s favourite dish? ‘Her Spaghetti Bolognese. She likes my chilli a lot. She has a seafood allergy. She can’t eat seafood. I feel so bad for her because I love seafood.’
We sidle over to a bowl of lemons, or rather a small fishing boatload picked from her garden earlier that morning. She uses them amply in her cooking and also to make cocktails, including the Jackie Collins – vodka, fresh lemonade, lime, raspberries, simple syrup – named after her by LA celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. And Lucky’s Killer Margaritas – lime zest and juice, lemon zest and juice, grapefruit juice, sugar, tequila, Triple Sec, salt optional.
Collins likes to cook with music and mixes her margaritas to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Enrique Iglesias’ Hero. There is an ever-present TV on in the kitchen and appliances line the room – several blenders, sandwich maker, orange juice squeezer, coffee makers.
‘I entertain a lot. Sometimes if it’s more than 20 people I have a caterer. Otherwise I love to do it.’
She lets me look in her cupboards, which are immensely clean and tidy. One houses several varieties of virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Another teriyaki glazes, jams and marmalades. Another different teas and coffees. And another for spices and Bisto. There is a note that says do not put anything on the top shelf. ‘That’s because I can’t reach it.’ Jackie Collins would never ask for help in the kitchen, not even to pull down a spice or a bottle of olive oil. One of her fridges, which is the size of a walk-in closet, is stocked fully with ice creams and frozen yoghurts.
‘I picked these lemons this morning. All off the tree. That’s what happens when you live in California and have a lemon tree in your back yard. I like to slice the lemons very thin, cover them in Cointreau, add some sugar, and then you have the most incredible lemon zest.’
What made her decide she wanted to do a cookbook? ‘I thought I’d like to give something back to my fans who kept asking me about all the moments that have been punctuated by a specific meal in my Lucky Santangelo books.’
Some of the recipes are accompanied by excerpts from the book in which they first appeared along with the music they would have listened to while they were preparing and eating them.
The recipes are old school exotica. No opportunity to lace with alcohol or plump up with cream is missed. Champagne and lobster feature in sauces. The desserts are an interesting mix of sumptuous and homely, like Jackie herself.
What recipes did her mother give her that have inspired her? ‘She would make cakes from scratch and I would wait for her to get a phone call and go out the kitchen and eat the raw cake mix. That’s when I first started hanging out in the kitchen. Then I would watch her cook chicken, not in the traditional way. She would put it in a pan, cover it in oil, then butter, then paprika and herbs and leave it for two hours. She wouldn’t even open the oven to poke at it.
‘I realise you have to be an instinctive cook. I prefer electric ovens so I know exactly what’s going on with my food. My mother would make mostly cakes and roasts when there was my older sister Joan, my younger brother Bill and me at home.’
Joan didn’t pick up the cooking gene then? ‘No. Joan does a fantastic spaghetti bolognaise and that’s more or less it. ‘
She has a recipe for cherry pie. ‘It’s very virginal, isn’t it. I love pie. I love cheesecake and I love making it very very creamy and very very soft. I don’t like New York cheesecake because it’s very dense. I like so you can taste the creams and the different flavours. I got the cheesecake recipe from a very old cookbook that I found in my mother’s kitchen. I changed some of the ingredients, like I’d add orange zest or lemon zest or chocolate to make it different. And that’s what you can do. You can take a recipe from this book and you can experiment.
‘I’ve always loved food right from when I tasted cake mix. When I was a child in England if you had a can of peaches it had to be eked out because there were food shortages. Back then if you wanted cream you had to put your finger in the top of the milk to get the cream out. Sometimes for dinner I’ll just have a whole can of peaches and cream. It reminds me of my childhood. I also love shrimp, caviar, smoked salmon. White fish is too boring.’
Does she think she gravitated towards these luxury items because of growing up with food deprivation? ‘Probably. But I eat things because I like them. If you give me broccoli with a fabulous sauce I would eat it. But plain broccoli? I don’t think so. I do love peas, there’s a recipe for them in the book with onions, garlic and cream.’
The kitchen is filled with the tantalising aroma of tomato sauce and mushrooms. I taste the sauce that I’ve watched her make and it is entirely delicious.
‘I cooked for 38 people for last Christmas lunch. Three turkeys, a ham, seven different vegetables, roast, mash and sweet potatoes, gravy and bread sauce. That’s why I have four ovens.
‘Most of the family were here in including Joan with her daughter Katie and her husband Percy. I love Percy. My brother Bill with his gorgeous wife Hazel. And lots of friends. Percy and David Niven Jnr always do my carving. Joan is always trying to help. You don’t want a lot of people in the kitchen, you want to put a notice on the door saying: I know you want to help but please keep out.’
Does she think she’s a good cook because she loves food or because she loves entertaining? ‘Both. I started to cook because I picked it up from my mother – delicious English roast potatoes. Michael Caine taught me how to make Yorkshire pudding, he’s a fabulous cook. I had a birthday party for him a while ago, I cooked him meatloaf.
‘If I go to restaurants I sample what they have and then I might do a version of it. Or sometimes I will give them recipes. For instance Craig’s, my favourite restaurant (every time I’ve been there I’ve seen Jackie along with Elton John and George Clooney) now make me scampi. I told them how to do it.
‘I also love Mr Chow’s and Trader Vic’s who do fabulous hors d’oeuvres and spare ribs and Rock Sugar who do an amazing pear martini and caramel chicken and princess shrimp.
‘I’ve collected dishes from restaurants all over the world and tried to recreate them. I don’t know the exact ingredients but I know what I’d like it to taste like in the end.
‘I don’t go out every night. If I’m at home by myself I might have a bar of chocolate and ice cream because I might have gone out for lunch.
‘Yesterday I ate a whole pear pie. So delicious. That’s all I had all day until the evening. I never eat breakfast unless I’m in a hotel where I’ll order has browns, eggs and bacon.
‘I usually write in the morning. I just have green tea and maybe some crackers until dinner usually. I’m not that interested in food unless it’s something I love.
‘Food has always been important to me. My philosophy is eat what you enjoy. Don’t eat for the sake of eating. Eat only what you love and you’ll never put weight on.’
Collins’ MO is to eat what she wants when she wants and if it’s delicious she’s always satisfied. Against all odds she turns out to be a do it yourself kind of person.
‘I’m a quick cook. I like to take short cuts. I wanted to make recipes that were simple but delicious. I love pasta and I love lobster and I love cream sauces. I think it’s quite a sexy book.’
There are lots of sexy scenes between Lucky and her husband Lenny. ‘They are almost making out when they are eating and Enrique Iglesias is playing in the background.
‘I wanted to write a fun book. This is my 31st book and these recipes have been around for a long time. Food is a seduction when you think about it. The most seductive meal I’ve ever had, I was a young girl in London and I had a blind date with a prince. He arrived in this Mercedes where you open the door and it lifted right up. A fantastic car, but I didn’t like him much. He said he wanted to cook for me. I went to his apartment and he had a jug of champagne filled with white peaches. He cooked mash potatoes that were so creamy with delicious teeny-weeny fried onions and an incredible steak. It was the most seductive meal ever. I didn’t end up with him but I ended up with the car for a couple of days. He almost got me with that meal and I’ll always remember the champagne and white peaches.’
What would be her most romantic meal? ‘A small portion of lobster rigatoni is very sexy followed by perhaps a steak or a beef stroganoff. I picked that one up when I was in Russia. This fabulous restaurant that I was in served it and I asked them for the recipe. I don’t think I would want to go there now. I
‘I have this friend who is a very famous singer, like the Madonna of Russia. I was there with her and her husband. Bodyguards surrounded them at all times. Bodyguards just shoved people out of the way. Russian men are very rough. I’ve watched a few of them with their women. There was one famous ballet dancer who was going out with a famous actress here. He would march into parties in Hollywood and go up to women (deep Russian accent) I want to furck you, I want to furck you [NB I know we can’t say furck but I thought it was funny, maybe we should say sleep]. The actress would just laugh because she knew he didn’t mean it. They stayed together for a while, a couple of years. I like writing about Russian men. Sometimes they are powerful. Sometimes they have a sexy thing about them. And that’s what I put into the stroganoff. A bit of sex and power in a dish.’
I think she loves excess and luxury because of the simplicity and food shortages of her childhood in 1940s Britain. The recipes all seem to embrace the celebration of a life well lived and are surprisingly simple to execute.
What does she feel would be her most celebratory dish? ‘I would like to start off with teeny baked potatoes with black caviar in them followed by a fabulous shrimp cocktail with pink sauce, then a thin sliced steak, incredible mashed potatoes and peas with onion accompanied by the Jackie Collins or a pear martini. I’m not a wine drinker, I do like sangria because it’s sweeter.
‘For family suppers I would make shepherds pies. I like to use Bisto. I like them to have a crispy top and I serve with Heinz Baked Beans. Then I might make some ice cream with my ice cream machine.
‘I used to have big parties where we’d play charades. I’d make a shepherds pie for those. I would do everything myself and serve Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Dudley Moore, Michael Caine and their assorted wives and sometimes Angie Dickinson. I’ve got wonderful pictures of those parties. I’ve always taken lots of pictures. I’m going to do a picture book next.
‘I am a Nigella fan. I don’t really watch cookery shows but I did see her show because she is very sexual when she cooks dipping her finger into the cake mix and sucking it. I would never let anyone dip their fingers into my food. I like to use a spoon,’ she says as she hands one to me for the final sampling of her meatballs and tomato sauce accompanied by brightly coloured salad. Simple, delicious, with a touch of exotic.
· Jackie Collins’ The Lucky Santangelo Cookbook (Simon & Schuster) is published on April 8.