Long read

The Chef Who Cooked For Winston Churchill

On the night of 14 October 1940, a Luftwaffe bomb destroyed the old Treasury Building in Whitehall. What Hitler had come close to achieving with that lucky strike was the elimination of Britain's wartime leader, Winston Churchill, who had been dining in Number 10 Downing Street when the air raid happened. He instructed his chef, Mrs Landemare, who had been reluctant to leave a pudding she was making, to go down to the basement for shelter. Blast from the explosion took out the back wall of the building, destroying the kitchen and finally forcing Churchill to use the marginally better protected Cabinet War Rooms as shelter in future. Churchill had, that night, one of the many brushes with death that he experienced throughout his long life. Just three minutes later, as he recounts in his memoirs, the very spot where they had both been standing became a scene of complete devastation.

The loss of his cook would most certainly have been a tragedy for Churchill, who was a legendary bon vivant. He dined at the best restaurants and was very particular about his food. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the already widely feted chef, Georgina Landemare, renowned for her culinary skills at such high society occasions as the races at Newmarket, weekends at Cowes and debutante balls, offered her services as chef to the Churchills for the duration of the war. It was, as Mrs Landemare later divulged in a BBC interview with Joan Bakewell, her 'war work'.

She had known the Churchill family since the 1930s, when Churchill's wife Clementine employed her occasionally to cook for house parties at Chartwell. At these she had impressed Churchill and his eminent guests with her often deceptively simple, but exacting recipes. Clementine later recalled that when Mrs Landemare made her offer to cook for the Churchills, she was 'enchanted, because I knew she would be able to make the best out of rations and that everyone in the household would be happy and contented'. An arrangement that should have lasted for just six years of war went on until 1954 when, at the age of 72, she finally retired – a year before Winston Churchill himself resigned as prime minister.

The details of Georgina Landemare's life are sketchy, but we do know she was the daughter of a coachman and entered service at the age of 14, working as a scullery maid to a wealthy gentleman in Kensington Palace Gardens. In 1909, by now a kitchen maid working for a wealthy family at their home in Gloucester Square, Paddington, she married the distinguished French chef of the Ritz, Paul Landemare, 25 years her senior and a recently widowed father of five. Georgina appears to have had no formal training as a chef, but to have acquired her culinary skills from husband Paul. His expertise in French cuisine undoubtedly influenced her own style of cooking but it still retained a distinctive English flavour. This suited Winston Churchill's traditional yet sophisticated palate.

The Churchills were in the happy position of owning their Chartwell estate, which included a farm that furnished them with many of the ingredients that ordinary mortals could only rarely find in war-torn Britain and then usually in only small amounts: eggs, milk, cream, chicken, pork and most vegetables. Mrs Landemare's recipes, despite her being attentive to the exigencies of the times, reflect the availability of these ingredients and Churchill's table must have been one to which an invitation would be keenly welcomed. At one small luncheon that Churchill hosted for King George VI at 10 Downing Street on 6 March 1941 - which Georgina Landemare almost certainly prepared - the menu comprised of ‘Fish patty, tournedos with mushrooms on top and braised celery and chipped potatoes, peaches and cheese to follow’. While perhaps not an especially large or rich repast, when taken in the context of wartime austerity and severe rationing, it suddenly takes on the scale of a feast.

Georgina Landemare was certainly kept busy by her charge and would meet daily with Clementine Churchill to discuss menus. Georgina's granddaughter recalled her grandmother telling her that she 'never went to bed till after Mr Churchill's last whiskey, and she was always up ready to cook him breakfast every morning'. Churchill would often change his mind about where he wanted to eat, and this entailed Georgina having to move her cooking equipment, ingredients and even complete meals between the Cabinet War Rooms, the upstairs Annexe and 10 Downing Street.

Despite all the challenges, stresses and strains in working for him, Georgina remained an ardent and faithful supporter of Winston and a lifelong friend of the Churchill family. She was with him on the day he was cast out of office in 1945 and stayed with him after the war, through the ups and downs of his political fortunes. Georgina was eventually encouraged by Lady Churchill, always a staunch devotee of her cooking, and by her own daughter, to write down the recipes of the food she cooked for the prime minister. It was no easy task, as Georgina had never recorded the weights of her ingredients, nor, as she had never seen them written down, the French names of the recipes. The resultant book, Recipes From No. 10, was published in 1958 and was for a long time a best-seller, before going out of print and becoming a collector's item.

Georgina outlived Churchill by 13 years and attended his state funeral on 30 January 1965. She died at the age of 96 in 1978, a year after Clementine passed away. For Churchill good food and a chef to prepare it were quintessential to his leading Britain at war. In Georgina Landemare, Churchill found someone who, by sustaining him for six long years of conflict, played her own vital part in helping him to defeat his arch foe and antithesis, the vegetarian and teetotaller Adolf Hitler. Georgina Landemare's importance to Churchill was nicely and neatly illustrated on VE Day, when after giving his rousing speech to the massed crowds in Whitehall, he made a point of turning to his faithful chef and thanking her 'most cordially', saying he could not have managed all the way through the war without her.