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At the Emperor's Table

Valentino Discusses His Lavish New Cookbook With Tim Blanks.

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October 31, 2014

By Tim Blanks

“If they had told me once that I’d be putting recipes in a book, I would have said, ‘No, this is too much,’” Valentino Garavani declares, as he contemplates  Valentino at the Emperor’s Table, surely one of the most lavish recipe books in publishing history.


He claims he’s just as discerning with his food as he has been with his fashion. “I always check if the vegetables are organic. No sugar or milk in the cakes…all of these things make your body better. So I decided, ‘Why not collect the recipes I like?’” But, instantly edible though they look in Oberto Gili’s ravishing photos, the selected dishes are surprisingly straightforward, basic almost. Which is why the book is a masterwork of incongruity, spaghetti in tomato sauce served against a backdrop of all the sumptuous stuff Valentino likes to decorate his tables with: Meissen swans and Moretti crystal, Porcelaine de Paris and tsarist saltcellars, the provenance of every object carefully listed in the photo captions. There’s an especially entertaining education in the art of the tureen. Valentino’s collection of these centerpieces is as epic as Andy Warhol’s 175 cookie jars. 


“Just recipes was ridiculous,” he concedes, “especially when all the  ta-da is the table settings. When I saw the first pages of the book, I thought, My gosh, I put together so many things that people are maybe going to think I’m showing off. But I use these things all the time, even when I am alone. I love to grab objects to put on the table; it’s an amusement for me.”


His passion for tabletops began decades ago with a vermeil saltcellar in the shape of a throne that a dinner guest brought as a gift. “I fell so deeply in love with that object that when I saw something similar in a sale, I immediately bought it.” Après ca, le déluge. But if it’s an amusement, it’s also an obsession. Valentino agrees. “People don’t want to break their brain to think about setting a table like this. Who’s going to wash all those plates? It’s complicated.” Still, he can’t help himself. “I’ve always said I love beautiful things, and beautiful things have followed me since I was 10 years old and I was the only little boy in Voghera who went to a shoemaker to have his shoes custom-made.”


But Valentino is undergoing a sea change in his ninth decade. The getting and having has lost its lure. “I have desires much more serious than to buy stupid things, china or silver or things like this. I am not able to discuss politics, but I have my ideas, and I am very concerned and sad when I read what is happening in the world. Automatically, the joy that you had for what you did is compromised. So I have no desire to go round and buy things for the house. I go to Frieze, I admire lots of things, but I’ve stopped buying. People are more important to me now…my life, my friends.” This year, Valentino spent enough time in Château de Wideville, his home outside Paris, to see his garden change from spring to summer. “I have a huge thing of peonies and I never saw them in flower because I was always in Rome preparing the collection to show in Paris.” For the first time, Valentino literally stopped to smell the flowers.


Age tends to encourage reflection, especially in a life as full as Valentino’s. But he’s no nostalgist. “I think about some things I did in the past, but I am not somebody who cries about something when I leave. I was never emotional with my collections. I never felt the anguish. Of course, I had to care about every detail, but when it was ready to go out, I said, ‘Bye-bye.’ If people didn’t like it, I couldn’t care less. I always have joy that I became what I am because I did nice things, not ugly things. But nostalgia is not something happy. So I try not to disturb my thinking when I’m lying in bed at night.” 


Valentino does a lot of thinking in bed, because, for many years, he has been awake till all hours. “My mind’s always go-go-go, but I really enjoy the moment at night when I’m comfortable in my bed and I start to think about something.” Like meditation? “No, not really, I am not capable to meditate. When I tried to do yoga, the yoga people told you to think about your foot or this or that, and I thought about a dress.” One problem with being a night owl is that Mary, his 5-year-old pug, sleeps with him and she’s an early riser. That’s been making him sorry to miss the morning. “Maybe it’s too late, but I decided I have to see somebody, and they gave me something to induce sleep.” 


I’m sitting with Valentino late one afternoon in his London home under two massive Warhol dollar signs. In the adjacent drawing room, there are equally oversized Basquiats. An exquisitely pastel Picasso from 1945 surveys the orientalist blue and white dining room. When we step out onto the velvety lawn, with its illuminated Lalanne  Toro at the end of the garden, the weather gods have obliged with a freakishly perfect summer evening in late fall. Assouline, the new book’s publisher, has invited us to “the Emperor’s Table,” just as the documentary that introduced Valentino to a wider world was called  The Last Emperor. The man himself blanches at the imperial tag. For one thing, he’s convinced that “Valentino” scarcely sounds like an emperor’s name. But such graceful living on such a scale in all those houses (and don’t forget the yacht) surely qualifies as “imperial” in our own somewhat diminished times. And maintaining it intact for posterity would surely be instructive for future generations. In other words, what happens next? “My dear, this is a big thing,” Valentino demurs. “One day I’m going to think about it. Now I don’t want to. I say I’m much too young, it’s impossible.” 


Much more pleasant to shake off the shadows and wander the museum he has built on the grounds of Wideville. “I see my dresses and all the collections I did, and I say to myself, ‘You did a really good job,’” Valentino says emphatically. “I was a happy man to do my work. Happy, happy, happy.” And there’s a thought to send him happily to sleep at night. 


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