Across the carpeted dining room of Roux at Parliament Square, an elderly man with a large belly and a walking stick slowly advances. He stops at the next table, where a couple congratulate him on the food and say he’s looking well. Albert Roux gives his stomach an indulgent pat.
I am waiting for another grey-haired Frenchman who has made a living from food. But while the restaurateur has got people to eat foie gras in a puff pastry shell with truffle sauce, my guest has fed them on a regime of nothing but lean meat for breakfast, lunch and tea.
Dr Pierre Dukan’s diet has been big in France for a decade but is now advancing around the world. Five million French people can’t be wrong, it says on the cover for the UK edition of the diet book; but even more of a clincher, for an Anglo-Saxon audience, is that Carole Middleton can’t be wrong. Since Prince William’s mother-in-law told a journalist that she followed this high-protein diet, sales of Dukan’s book have soared in the UK and the US, and even in China.
Yet a couple of days before we meet, the British Dietetic Association called the Dukan diet the most dangerous of all celebrity diets: worse even than Alcorexia, which is favoured by models as you can use up calories on booze and forget food.
After a few minutes, Dukan himself enters the room and skips over to my table. He looks younger than 70 and is clad entirely in stripes: on his suit, his shirt and his tie. On seeing me, he gives an enormous smile, displaying two semi-circular decks of teeth, the effect is a bit like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“You look so seen!” he exclaims, eyeing what he can see of me above the white tablecloth. “What is your secret? Is it family janes?”
I nod, playing for time. I haven’t yet got the hang of his French English.
The waiter asks what we would like to drink. At the next table, two tall glasses of champagne fizz temptingly but the Dukan diet takes a dim view of alcohol. Its creator orders water, as I’d feared he would.
“Why is Financial Times interested in diet?” he asks.
I explain that diets are one of the enduring mysteries of human nature. Everyone knows perfectly well how to lose weight – eat less and move more. Yet, instead of doing this, we go on swallowing miracle diet books and, far from getting thin, are actually getting fatter and fatter.
“It is gross,” he says.
This seems a bit harsh from a man who has made a fortune from obesity. But then I realise I’ve misunderstood.
“Economic gross is making us fat,” he goes on. “You know, before the last war, there was no epidemic of overweight. Now 22m people overweight in France. It is correlated with the growth.”
The waiter hovers, and we study the menu. “I have brill,” he says. “It’s beef?”
I say no, it’s fish.
“There is no meat? He studies the dishes further and finally sees something he likes.
“Ah I have rabbit! And a big salad.”
For lunch, Dukan tells me, he usually eats a pound of raw vegetables, cottage cheese and two apples. “It’s ritual. I have it with a special sauce balsamic. No oil, only balsamic and water, and a special mustard. I make myself. It is secret.”
Not an especially well-guarded secret, as the recipe is in his new book, The Dukan Diet Life Plan. But what is more of a puzzle is that the man who bans vegetables and fruit during the first phase of his diet – the “attack” phase – chooses to gorge on them himself. “But I don’t want to lose weight,” he protests. “I eat this because I like. I like to be clean in the day.”
A waiter extends a tray of different sorts of bread from the Roux kitchen. Dukan gingerly takes a slice and drops it on to his plate, where it remains untouched for the rest of the meal. As he does so, he tells me he’s just finished writing a book called Open Letter to the Future President, which contains his political solution to the obesity problem. “For the first 50 years of your life the food industry is trying to make you fat. Then, the second 50 years, the pharmaceutical industry is treating you for everything.” The answer, he says, is to invest in industries that have a vested interest in a svelter shape: fashion, tourism and beauty. “That’s my analysis and meta-analysis,” he declares.
My analysis is different. People must take responsibility for their own waistlines.
“Ah yes,” he agrees. “But we are all in a boot. Together.”
I ponder this for a bit.
“We travel all in the same boot. If everyone else is eating, it is difficult to say I don’t want it.”
He then gives another explanation for the obesity epidemic: it’s due to unhappiness and boredom. “I see my secretary, when she has no passion, she is saying, ‘Take a chocolate.’ They eat when they have nothing to do.”
I ask if he has raised the matter of her eating habits with her. “No,” he replies, but then adds hastily: “I give her work. Usually she is busy.”
As he talks, I find I’ve eaten not only my own amuse-gueules – fancy, tasty concoctions of unrecognisable foodstuffs – but his as well.
To get people out of the boot, Dukan tells them exactly what to eat every day.
“The precision is important. It’s like Ramadan. It starts on a particular day … ”
When it comes to losing weight, he says, we are like children. We need instruction, not just while we are dieting, but for ever. The fourth stage of his diet – stabilisation – tells people what to eat for the rest of their lives and this means that people who lose weight are more likely to keep it off.
I raise the matter of the BDA’s damning verdict; for the only time during the meal his cheerful demeanour darkens. “They rank me with the Baby Food Diet. With Cabbage Soup Diet. With Alcorexia. It’s ridiculous. Me, it’s quite different. D’abord, I am physician. To be nutritionist in France, you must be a doctor, seven years studies, and then three more years in nutrition.”
I protest that I could write a diet book without 10 years’ heavy training. Chapter one would say: eat less of everything. Chapter two: exercise more. “You can,” he says doubtfully. “But I’m not sure you understand that pathology. The third phase of my diet,” he says referring to the “consolidation” stage – “is my favourite phase – very complicated.”
At this point our food, which is also very complicated, arrives. For him, rabbit, black pudding, and a tiny little grid of macaroni cheese the size of an After Eight mint.
For me, fish on a bed of potato with funny grey bubbles on top, which turn out to be a mushroom foam.
“This third phase is very technical,” he continues. “You have seven stages of food and you must understand, step by step, the importance of the food, from the ultra-necessary to the pur plaisir.”
Dukan seems to be finding little of the latter on his plate. He has taken a tiny morsel of rabbit into his mouth, and taken a long time to swallow it. Does he actually like food?
“No. I like the quantity. I like to feel occupied. My passion tells me it’s not just the mouth. It’s the sensation to feel something coming in and filling you.”
He takes another miniature mouthful of rabbit and I ask how many people round the world are gorging themselves on protein on his instruction.
“In the world, 28 millions,” he declares. “With the publisher we make this calcul. We sell exactly 4m of book in France in 10 years. We know that each buyer make three readers. Two million people in the UK are on the diet, he says, three million in the US.”
The numbers sounds rather high, I think, even given the Carole Middleton effect. When I say her name he gives another of his extraordinarily full smiles and holds his hands together as if in prayer. “Every morning I say thank you for the Middleton. Not for me, but for the cause. I have not met her but she is a nice lady, you feel it. She lose weight, and so many people get the trigger from her. In China, they talk of Carole Middleton. In American, I am invited to ABC because of Carole Middleton.”
Has the world gone mad? She is only one woman.
“But no. She’s the future queen.”
I point out that she is the possible future queen’s mother and ask if the possible future queen herself – or her sister with the famous behind – have been following his diet too.
“Kate, she lose so quickly, I recognise my diet.”
But does he think the diet has been a bit too successful in her case? Is the future queen too thin? “Yeah. She is. For myself. I like women who have a little bit of…” He makes an hourglass shape with his hands. “I like women with curves. When a woman comes on the earth she has more fatty cells than a man. Two reason. First reason – she has to be pregnant one day. Second – a sexual attraction. If you want to be woman, you must have chest.”
Returning to the royals, he then tells me that the previous day he had a visit from the Queen’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson, who planned the wedding. “She lost three stones with my diet. We become friends. Yesterday she brings me bread with oatbran. She makes it for me.”
When Dukan started out as a doctor 40 years ago, it didn’t seem likely that he’d end up assisting minor British royals to shed a few pounds; his chosen speciality was neurology. Does he ever regret, I wonder, going for diets over nerves, given that nerves are surely more interesting?
“No. I had a bad experience as neurologist,” he says. “I am too empathique. When I am working with people who are dying I felt unhappy. Sometimes I am crying. People arrive in helicopter after big accident. You see them. They are like this” – he does a grotesque imitation of someone disabled – “That was pitiful. So when I discover this new possibility for me, I change immediately.”
That new possibility came more than 30 years ago, when a fat patient arrived asking for a diet, but warned he wasn’t prepared to give up meat. So Dukan told him to eat only meat for five days, and he returned having shed five kilos. He discovered that this pure protein diet works because your body has to work so hard to digest it that you lose weight almost as quickly as if you ate nothing at all. Alas, such a regime also gives you halitosis, and deprives your body of vital nutrients. When I put this to him, he shrugs. You can always chew gum. And the first phase doesn’t last long.
He is making heavy weather of his food. The rabbit has gone but left on his plate is a bit of foie gras, some fried bread and a lump of congealed yellow stuff. He hasn’t even touched the elegant arrangement of green herbs in a bowl at his side. “For me, it’s too much,” he says.
I ask if he fears the day when someone else will come along with a diet that overtakes his. “I shall be pleased. It’s like a philosophe; I put my feet on the shoulders of other mathematicians, and I can see farther.”
Such generosity to his peers was not in evidence last summer when he took a fellow diet writer, Dr Jean-Michel Cohen, to court after the latter said the Dukan diet was dangerous. The judge wasn’t impressed and Dukan lost.
He explains that Cohen used to be one of his students, who became well known in France for his calorie-counting diet. Despite the bitterness of the legal battle, Dukan smiles broadly as he discusses the case.
As he has eaten so slowly there is no time for dessert or coffee, and time only for one more question: does he ever get fed up with discussing food? He gives a little smile and then says, “I am a great reader of philosophy. I love Spinoza. I have a passion for Spinoza.”
The great 17th-century rationalist avoided fame, and lived a quiet life grinding lenses but his disciple has taken a different, more public, route. “In France, people stop me in the street, it could turn my mind, but I don’t let it. My daughter and wife say I never change. I am still just the same.”
Dukan says a friendly goodbye, instructs me to kiss my children from him, and trips off. I pay the bill and trudge out feeling slightly indisposed. Maybe it’s the rich stuff that sits in my stomach. Or maybe it’s the slabs of plain, halitosis-inducing meat that sit in my mind.
Lucy Kellaway is the FT’s management columnist and author of ‘In Office Hours’ (Fig Tree)
Roux Parliament Sq
12 Great George Street, London SW1P 3AD
Stone bass £22.00
Open food x2 £10.00
Total (including service) £65.25
Pioneering heavyweight: Lessons from a 16th-century dieting bestseller
One of the most successful diet books, The Art of Living Long by a Venetian merchant named Luigi Cornaro (1464-1566), is still in print more than 450 years after it was first published in Padua in 1558.
It was an instant success, went through many editions, and was translated into many languages. Contemporaries such as Elyot, Boorde, Vaughan and Markham, concerned with what they perceived to be the problem of excessive eating and drinking, had read Cornaro’s “admirable diet”, a diet not far removed from the simple peasant food they all advocated.
A 1903 edition of The Art of Living Long was still advising its readers to take good heed of Cornaro’s work, and recommending the spirit of his approach, if not his life-and-death method, the strictness of which could, as today’s neurobehaviourists recognise, sometimes backfire.
Cornaro’s story is one of sin and redemption, and it begins with a no-holds-barred confession about his first 40 years that were spent in dissipated, gluttonous overindulgence. This way of life had deprived him of many of his excellent friends, so he employed the best physicians to help him undo the self-inflicted damage before he, too, went to an early grave. Eventually the conclusion was reached that only one thing would save him – a sober and regular life. It was diet or die for Cornaro, so he worked out a personal regimen and saved his own life.
The first rule of Cornaro’s diet is to regain self-control. Gluttony, he believed, was not merely a personal sin but also a killer. He saw it as an almost apocalyptic force: it “kills every year … as great a number as would perish during the time of a most dreadful pestilence, or by the sword or fire of many bloody wars”.
Citing the ancients, Galen, Hippocrates, Plato and Cicero, he insisted, with the zeal of a convert, on living a regular life of moderation. All passions had to be restrained if not denied, and one should cease to be a slave to pleasure and appetites because they were nothing but fatal delusions.
Taste was one such pleasure. The idea that “what delights the palate, cannot but be good for the heart” was false, he wrote, and only served the sensualists who would suffer in the long run and provide business for the “apothecary [who] is perpetually employed in countermining the cook and the vintner”. Physic, or medicine, was, for the most part, nothing but a substitute for the actual weight loss necessities of exercise and temperance.
People should eat little and frugally (today’s calorie restrictors are Cornaro’s direct dieting descendants) he advised, and he recommended a diet consisting of 12oz a day in bread, soups, yolks of new-laid eggs, meat, plus about 14oz of wine.
Extracted from ‘Calories and Corsets’ by Louise Foxcroft, published this week by Profile Books, £14.99