Len Deighton: The Ipcress File Author & Chef Who Put the 'Spy' in Crispy Duck

“Dump Caine’s spectacles and make the girl cook the meal,” ran one furious cable from Hollywood execs after seeing The Ipcress File’s daily rushes.


“You’re quite the gourmet, aren’t you Palmer?” Colonel Ross sneers as Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) drops flavorful French champignons into his supermarket cart instead of less-expensive button mushrooms. 

There’s no pretense in Palmer’s choice. Simply good taste. The creator of The Ipcress File’s iconic character is Len Deighton, once a 17-year-old photographer for the Royal Air Force Special Investigations Branch who became a chef in some of the best kitchens of London and Paris. Deighton eventually combined his two interests - espionage and food - but it was a pairing that confounded Hollywood movie executives in the 1960s.

Deighton (left) single-handedly cracked eggs for The Ipcress File


Spies & Sole

Deighton - who likes to remind journalists he was born in a London ‘workhouse’ in 1929 - started his culinary career as a post-war art school student mopping the floor at the Festival Hall restaurant during the 1951 Festival of Britain. When the fish chef's assistant became ill, Deighton stepped up and learned how to fillet sole and make pastry.

He couldn’t afford expensive cookbooks so Deighton used his art training to draw ‘cookstrip’ recipes and streamline the prepping process.

Deighton liked to throw large dinner parties at home as well, mainly for journalists and artist friends who’d jump at the opportunity to see Deighton’s WWII memorabilia, handle his old machine gun, and savor his Chicken à la Kyiv and Baked Alaska.



A Spy in the Pantry

Deighton's cookstrips were eventually published in London’s Observer newspaper, a stunning revelation to a generation of 1960s macho men looking for someone who could demystify Boeuf Bourguignon and Osso Bucco in ‘Boy’s Own’ language. Recipes were presented as black-and-white strips, adding dashes of brandy and Burgundy alongside instructions like BROWN or COVER in bold caps for beginners.

The cookstrips formed the basis of Ou est le Garlic?, one of Deighton’s five celebrated cookbooks. Deighton’s Action Cook Book, a ‘60s classic reissued in 2009, draws most of the culinary headlines, however, possibly because of its cheeky, ready-for-action cover model intent on making Italian pasta.

And why not? Deighton’s Cappellacci di zucca recipe dates back to 1584.


Deighton’s Action Cook Book was re-released in 2009

Len Deighton’s 14 Favorite Cookbooks

  • The Oxford Companion to Food - Alan Davidson
  • Memories of Gascony - Pierre Koffman
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2 vols) - Julia Child & Simone Black
  • All About Meat - Leon and Stanley Label
  • Cutting Up in the Kitchen - Merle Ellis
  • Keys to Good Cooking - Harold McGee
  • Larousse Gastronomique - Editions Larousse
  • Great Chefs of France - Quentin Crewe and A. Blake
  • The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen - Jacques Pepin
  • Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Cookery - Anne Willan
  • Cookwise - Shirley O. Corriher
  • The DIY Cook - Tim Hayward
  • Mosimann's World - Anton Mosimann
  • The Complete Techniques - Jacques Pepin, a condensed version of Pepin's The Technique (2 vols) and The Method (2 vols)

List compiled by the Deighton Dossier Website

Len Deighton: The Ipcress File Author & Chef Who Put the 'Spy' in Crispy Duck

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“Dump Caine’s spectacles and make the girl cook the meal,” ran one furious cable from Hollywood execs after seeing The Ipcress File’s daily rushes.


“You’re quite the gourmet, aren’t you Palmer?” Colonel Ross sneers as Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) drops flavorful French champignons into his supermarket cart instead of less-expensive button mushrooms. 

There’s no pretense in Palmer’s choice. Simply good taste. The creator of The Ipcress File’s iconic character is Len Deighton, once a 17-year-old photographer for the Royal Air Force Special Investigations Branch who became a chef in some of the best kitchens of London and Paris. Deighton eventually combined his two interests - espionage and food - but it was a pairing that confounded Hollywood movie executives in the 1960s.

Deighton (left) single-handedly cracked eggs for The Ipcress File


Spies & Sole

Deighton - who likes to remind journalists he was born in a London ‘workhouse’ in 1929 - started his culinary career as a post-war art school student mopping the floor at the Festival Hall restaurant during the 1951 Festival of Britain. When the fish chef's assistant became ill, Deighton stepped up and learned how to fillet sole and make pastry.

He couldn’t afford expensive cookbooks so Deighton used his art training to draw ‘cookstrip’ recipes and streamline the prepping process.

Deighton liked to throw large dinner parties at home as well, mainly for journalists and artist friends who’d jump at the opportunity to see Deighton’s WWII memorabilia, handle his old machine gun, and savor his Chicken à la Kyiv and Baked Alaska.



A Spy in the Pantry

Deighton's cookstrips were eventually published in London’s Observer newspaper, a stunning revelation to a generation of 1960s macho men looking for someone who could demystify Boeuf Bourguignon and Osso Bucco in ‘Boy’s Own’ language. Recipes were presented as black-and-white strips, adding dashes of brandy and Burgundy alongside instructions like BROWN or COVER in bold caps for beginners.

The cookstrips formed the basis of Ou est le Garlic?, one of Deighton’s five celebrated cookbooks. Deighton’s Action Cook Book, a ‘60s classic reissued in 2009, draws most of the culinary headlines, however, possibly because of its cheeky, ready-for-action cover model intent on making Italian pasta.

And why not? Deighton’s Cappellacci di zucca recipe dates back to 1584.


Deighton’s Action Cook Book was re-released in 2009

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A Gourmand in the Great Game

When Deighton wasn’t conjuring in the kitchen, he was writing military history books and espionage fiction. Spy novels saw a resurgence during the 1960s Cold War, turning John le Carre, Ian Fleming, and Len Deighton into household names. Deighton’s The Ipcress File novel (1962) and its sequel Funeral in Berlin (1964), helped shape the genre.

The author’s modest upbringing gave his fictional spooks a different perspective than their well-heeled colleagues in Aston Martin DB5s. Characters like Harry Palmer reflected an air of post-war cynicism. "There's no such thing as truth,” Deighton once said. “There's just a universally acceptable lie."

Initially, US movie studio executives were unnerved by Palmer, an omelet-flipping spy surrounded by copper pans and garlic instead of fast cars and beautiful women. “Dump Caine’s spectacles and make the girl cook the meal,” ran one furious cable after Hollywood execs saw the daily rushes.

“They said… 'Cooking? John Wayne wouldn’t cook anything for anybody!’' Caine recalled in an interview with Uncut.

Hollywood was understandably nervous. The Ipcress File was the first time Michael Caine had been cast as a lead in a movie but Deighton stood his ground, even cracking eggs with one hand in a cutaway shot - a skill Caine couldn’t quite master. Their take on a working-class London spy with a penchant for champignons clicked with audiences. Viewers could relate to an operative with a Cockney accent slogging into work from Shepherd's Bush to a Foreign Office front company each day. Deighton's espionage tradecraft gave his Harry Palmer film trilogy - The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain - an air of authenticity alongside the scent of Palmer’s freshly ground coffee beans pressed in a cafetière.

“In the 1960s, making proper coffee singled you out as a dangerous maverick,” writer Henry Jeffreys recalled. Deighton was both.

Food as a battlefield

Deighton’s cookstrips were so popular Britain’s Guardian newspaper revived the idea 50 years after the original series, allowing Deighton to bring Mexican Pipian rojo duck sauce and Aguachile to a new generation of foodies and Instagrammers.

On the Deighton Dossier website, Deighton said his two sons - both accomplished cooks - helped with his latter-era cookstrips.

As for the author's favorite recipes: “My own tastes are simple; I enjoy the dishes that my mother made so perfectly: Lancashire hot-pot, stewed eels, steak and kidney pudding, bread and butter pudding, and my mother’s wonderful sherry trifle.”

Len Deighton’s 14 Favorite Cookbooks

  • The Oxford Companion to Food - Alan Davidson
  • Memories of Gascony - Pierre Koffman
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2 vols) - Julia Child & Simone Black
  • All About Meat - Leon and Stanley Label
  • Cutting Up in the Kitchen - Merle Ellis
  • Keys to Good Cooking - Harold McGee
  • Larousse Gastronomique - Editions Larousse
  • Great Chefs of France - Quentin Crewe and A. Blake
  • The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen - Jacques Pepin
  • Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Cookery - Anne Willan
  • Cookwise - Shirley O. Corriher
  • The DIY Cook - Tim Hayward
  • Mosimann's World - Anton Mosimann
  • The Complete Techniques - Jacques Pepin, a condensed version of Pepin's The Technique (2 vols) and The Method (2 vols)

List compiled by the Deighton Dossier Website

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