Published 20 February 1994 Style Magazine 34th article
Climb every mountain: Winner in the Alps
The Mercedes 300 SE looked really stupid with two flat tyres. "You're no use to anyone," I murmured rather unkindly, as it was me who had hit a low bollard in the Geneva lakeside town of Vevey and written it off.
I was determined to get to lunch on the terrace of the Palace Hotel, Gstaad, so I'd kept driving, tyres burning, until I found a garage. I was going to give the car back to Europcar anyway, as soon as I reached the hotel. After waiting far too long at their airport desk, complaining madly of course, they'd handed me the keys, only for me to find when I turned on the radio a sign saying "Code". No-one at Europcar knew the code! For £200 a day you should surely get a working radio.
Anyway, it was irrelevant now. A very nice garage man accepted the keys, called a taxi, and we set off on the scenic route into the snow-covered, pine-tree clad mountains, while the jolly driver expounded on the beauties of every passing village. Vanessa wanted to roll down the windows to get the full value of the mountain air. I was not dressed for such a moment, but you must let youth have its way, so she breathed and I suffered.
We reached Gstaad in splendid time, and there, towering on a hill, looking down on the little chalets, was the Palace Hotel, one of my favourites. But drama was not over. "This is not what I asked for," I said as a lady showed me the suite. "We're full, it's all we've got, I'm afraid," was the answer. I at once rang the excellent Resident Manager. "Mr Ferrari," I said. "You told my assistant I would have the same suite I always have." "You do, sir," said Mr Ferrari. "I am looking at a flat roof, a chimney and a floodlight," I responded. "I have never seen these items before. If I want to look at chimneys I can stay in London. The second floor, Mr Ferrari, is unacceptable." A suite on the sixth floor miraculously became available.
Another hire car, a more modest Ford Mondeo but with working radio, was parked outside. It was time for lunch!
The terrace of the Palace, Gstaad, is one of the great eating places of the world. You sit, in summer or in snow, facing a range of high mountains, some now dotted with skiers, with a buffet of exquisitely cooked food or a large a la carte menu to choose from. The maitre d', Gildo Bocchini, has been there 25 years and dealt, skilfully, with nearly every multi-millionaire or celebrity you could mention. He's even good with the common folk, if any can afford the prices! My bill was £3,000 for three nights. Gazing at the deep snow facing me, and sipping a buck's fizz, I settled for terrine de garbure au foie gras d'oie et blanc de volaille a la vinaigrette followed by bollito misto con salsa verde, pommes nature, legumes preferes. They were as perfect as you could ask for. All the food that followed over the next days, even curried chicken, not a notoriously Swiss speciality, was of an extraordinary standard.
The hotel itself, a sort of odd, extended, fake castle, was built in 1913 and has for years been owned by the same family who obviously care deeply for its excellence. There aren't many of those sort of places about. You can imagine Maurice Chevalier, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald singing with that majestic mountain backdrop, as at times they did. I am extremely picky about service and here it is unsurpassed.
As I watched Vanessa finish her lunch-time turbot croustillant aux legumes et thym, I wondered on the delights of breakfasting in London, telling off Europcar at Geneva airport, writing off their Mercedes, getting briefly lost in a housing estate in the taxi, switching hotel suites, changing cars and now sitting among the mountains all before 2.30pm! A typical Winner weekend break, actually. I shall tell you about the rest of it, including my being arrested, next week!
The following letter was written in response to the comments of Mr Barry Ziff, whose letter complaining about his unsatisfactory treatment at Quaglino's was printed in this column last week.
Unfortunately, it is simply the law of averages that accounts for the occasional mistake occurring in a well-run restaurant, and our business is no exception. When something does go wrong, as inevitably it will from time to time, we try our very best to put it right, even if it is not our fault. It is also the law of averages that brings us the occasional arrogant customer who behaves to our staff much as Attila the Hun behaved to his servants. Nothing in life ever goes right for these spoilt people; they like to show off to their friends by bullying the staff and whingeing and Winnering to everybody within earshot which, of course, escalates the situation. Every restaurateur has horror stories to tell of the appalling behaviour of their clients, but unlike the aggrieved customer, they usually bite their tongues and keep quiet and get on with their work. My advice is to calmly tell the head waiter or maitre d' of the problem and you will find in 99.9% of cases it gets courteously resolved.
Terence Conran, Quaglino's Restaurant
In case Michael Winner, Craig Brown and AA Gill go totally insane one week and decide to visit hotels and restaurants to see who would qualify for the most badly cooked vegetables, instead of the enviable chore they do have, I can save them the money on a possible trip to Dublin. On a recent visit to Blakes Restaurant on the Swords Road in Dublin, when I complained of the hard carrots and cauliflower, the maitre d' agreed they were hard and half-cooked but, as a lot of people liked hard and half-cooked veggies, it was very hard to please everyone.
Pat Tobin, Dublin