I have invited guests to a villa in the back-country of the craggy bit of Provence. It is somewhere with a charming hyphenated name like La Garde-Freinet. Think of the villa in Jacques Deray’s 1968 film La Piscine — a large stone and terracotta house with high ceilings and big windows, and a vast patio with a view of the Mediterranean — that’s where we’ll be having dinner.
A car turns up the gravel drive at 8pm and I practically skip out of the house, wearing a vintage Saint Laurent kaftan of colourful chiffon, to greet my first arrivals. Hopping out of the back seat is Henry Kissinger, all dressed up too, in white linen — it is late June. I have invited the Kissinger from the early 1980s, just after his years as secretary of state, when he seemed equally at ease at the Council on Foreign Relations and Studio 54. I’ve always been a little bit attracted to Kissinger, intrigued by his mix of controversial politics and glitz — the perfect dinner party guest. (Later I’ll tell Henry about this guy named Trump that he may have seen around New York.)
Kissinger graciously helps Joan Didion out of the car; they have driven up together. It is the Didion of the same period, around the publication of Salvador, her book about the civil war in El Salvador and many of the US-funded depredations that occurred. Joan is rather a cool mix, an unrivalled chronicler of her times who has also been a star and style icon practically since her start as a writer in the 1960s. I am a bit star-struck.
Egon Schiele and Michaela Coel arrive arm in arm, guffawing complicitly. Schiele was the bad-boy artist of Vienna at the turn of the century — a time and place I would have loved to experience — who chased after the taboo and produced gorgeous, sexually charged art before dying of the Spanish flu aged 28. I was pretty sure that he and Coel, the British writer, director, actress and icon of the current zeitgeist, would hit it off. Her laughter is infectious.
Aperitifs are being served by the pool, which is glittering in the sunlight. Trays of champagne flutes await. It is Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. With its velvety effervescence and hints of citrus and minerality, it is my God’s nectar and I will drink it heretically throughout the meal. But I know that Didion enjoys a mixed drink, so Margot Lecarpentier, owner of my favourite Paris cocktail bar, Combat Belleville, is on hand to mix her clementine gimlet.
My chef is Alain Passard of Paris’s L’Arpège, who revolutionised vegetable-based cuisine in France. His signature amuse-bouche, chaud-froid d’oeuf, is a mind-blowing contrast of runny egg yolk and chilled crème fraîche whipped with sherry vinegar, with a surprising touch of maple syrup puddling at the bottom of the eggshell. He is about to serve it when the final guest, New York art dealer Gavin Brown, comes bounding up.
We settle around a table set up on the lawn with a view of the Provençal hills veiled in dusk. The first dish is a carpaccio of summer turnips with mint oil, bergamot and a dusting of grapefruit-inflected Timut pepper. It’s like eating a garden. Arguably, it’s not eating very much though and I confess to being worried about what Gavin Brown will think. He looks hungry and has staged more than a few food-based art happenings in his career.
He opened his first gallery on the rough fringes of the Meatpacking District in mid-1990s New York and has remained one of the most provocative art dealers in Manhattan even as his success has grown. But his business has also become one of the art world’s highest-profile casualties in the financial fallout of the pandemic — this summer, he closed after 26 years. I’m keen to ask him if there will still be space to be a fine art provocateur in our rattled post-pandemic world.
But when I look over, he, Schiele and Kissinger seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, clinking glasses of wine — it’s a 2009 Puligny-Montrachet cru from the Domaine Leflaive Les Folatières — as Brown, who is originally British, tells them how Schiele’s nudes were still considered too racy for a recent ad campaign on the London Tube. That’s better than my time, says Egon, when they were considered porn.
Small bowls of delicate garden vegetable-filled ravioli floating in an amber consommé arrive and we slurp them down practically whole, before tucking into the next signature Passard dish, roast chicken slow-cooked in fragrant smoked hay, the skin crackling with salted butter. For those who want to go red, I thought we’d go big, with a 2009 Château Lynch-Bages.
Didion is listening, absorbed, to Coel talking about her hit TV series I May Destroy You. I have been curious to see what Didion, so consistently gimlet-eyed in her view of the world, will make of this young star, who has made such successful material from her own sexual assault.
Dessert and more champagne arrive. The mood is merry. To the deafening night-sound of crickets chirping, we tear into an airy Meyer lemon and vanilla soufflé. Coel, Schiele and Kissinger make plans to pop down to Saint-Tropez for a nightcap. By the time the petits fours and espressos arrive, they’ve grabbed a bottle of the Ruinart and dashed.
Renée Kaplan is the FT’s head of digital editorial development
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