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No pain on a plate

Published 8 January 1995
Style Magazine
79th article



Michael Winner with Paul and Linda Mecanney and Carla Lane, right (Vanessa Perry)

I was brought up a reluctant vegetarian at my Quaker school in Hertfordshire. It was wartime so meat was rationed, but we'd go to the comer post office and buy fish and meat paste, scoop it out of the little glass jars and eat it as a delicacy. At the cafe in Letchworth I would have sausages, gravy and chips and considered this a taste sensation so unbeatable that it was what I would eat, when grown up, every day for the rest of my life.

For years thereafter the sight of a salad made me slightly queasy. I would delight as blood oozed from my meat at Charco's, in the 1950s a fashionable steak house, or mixed like liquid watercolour paint with the gravy and potatoes at Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street, which did a smashing roast beef and Yorkshire.

All this would be deeply offensive to Linda McCartney, well-known vegetarian cookbook writer, veggie food-provider, photographer and wife. They say as old age approaches we return to our childhood state, so perhaps that explains my turning, more and more, away from meat to salads and other health-giving nutrients. It was at a vegetarian birthday party, given by the writer Carla Lane in her Sussex mansion and animal sanctuary, that I met up with Paul and Linda again. I've known Paul for many years, but I didn't meet him when I wanted to, in 1963. Then I offered my childhood friend Brian Epstein £40,000 for The Beatles to be in a film. But he told me that he was too close to signing with United Artists for £5,000.

When I said that this didn't seem very much, he replied "Cliff Richard only got £2,000 for his first film!" I keep forgetting to ask Paul if that £5,000 figure is true!

Anyway, Linda kindly sent me her Home Cooking book, with the inscription "Go veggie!", where all the recipes are vegetarian and it has brightened up my home-eating no end. Because when I’m not out at a restaurant, and other than Sunday lunch, salads are all I eat. Vegetarianism is another world for most people, so when Linda started talking to me about macaroni turkey and Swiss steaklets made with veggie burgers one side of me said "Oh dear" and the other thought "I'd like to try that." Linda has some wonderful phrases to describe meat-eating, like "pain on the plate".

And her description of skewering a fish was tremble-making, even for me. "Most vegetarian food is bland," said Linda as Carla Lane came over with a tray of what looked like Chinese dumplings, And very good they were too. Both she and Carla, who luckily stayed so I could grab some more of whatever it was, agreed that vegetarian restaurants on the whole were very boring, although Linda said she'd heard Food For Thought in Covent Garden was worth a visit.

She herself had her best vegetarian meal ever at Oustau de Bauman-iere in Les Baux-de-Provence. That was on her 50th birthday. "I'm 53, my age is no secret," she said bravely. Carla Lane, the birthday girl, kept very quiet. There was also a good Chinese veggie one in New York, Linda thought it was called Zen Palate. "Lots of wheat protein and stuff that tastes like duck without any animal having to suffer."

It’s all along way from the macaroni cheese and ghastly salads featuring grass from the cricket pitch that I was served at St Christopher's. And I certainly agreed with Linda about all this spraying horrible chemicals on our food. Linda and Paul live on an organic farm, I wondered if they set up a roadside trestle selling things? If so I really ought to go along. "I'm thinking of picketing," said Linda as a tortilla of something excellent, but not meat, got just within my reach, "Maybe slaughterhouses, or perhaps big companies that sell arms. I see all this footage of new tanks in Bosnia and wonder where they’re getting them from."

I was only asked to picket once, that was when the Writers Guild West went on strike in Los Angeles. But luckily they settled it before my appearance outside Universal Studios was confirmed. I wished Linda luck on the new vegetarian restaurant she‘s opening in Paul's School for the Performing Arts in Liverpool. Maybe it’ll tum into a chain and rival McDonald's?

Stranger things have happened!



Letters

As a student, I had often wanted to go to The Elizabeth in Oxford it seemed to have an unquestioned reputation as one of the city's best restaurants. But, since my love of restaurants has never been shared by my parents, and since their wallet stood between me and dinner, I never got to visit. When a colleague asked me recently to go there, I jumped at the chance. Sadly, I was extremely disappointed at the standard of the meal we eventually ate. The food was dull. Avocado and prawns as a starter showed a dazzling lack of imagination, even a hint of 1970s kitsch. To boot, the avocados were not even ripe. The main-course menu was dominated by steaks. No attempt was made to find our preferences as to how these should be cooked and when the restaurant was told, no attempt was made to implement the request. During pudding the standard of service shifted downwards from mediocre to comical. Attempts to attract the waiter's attention were pointedly snubbed. Everybody had to be quiet to listen out for the announcement of their dish, since the waiters had not bothered to note who had ordered what. Mistakes in our order were an irritation which I was made to feel rude for commenting on. The Elizabeth reminded me of a dubious local trattoria which is not how the Good Food Guide describes it at all. The bill must have been over £30 per head before any drinks enough to visit your local Italian three times over.
Giles Hanley, London

I recently hosted a large business lunch at Joe Allen in Covent Garden, London. We were told that we would be seated at a large oval table and we produced a seating plan accordingly. However, on our arrival we found that the table was a long rectangle that was too small for the number of people. We were also disappointed that we had been placed next to the bar, which meant serving was awkward and my clients were constantly jostled and bumped. Service throughout the meal was poor. We had asked to be kept supplied with wine but on several occasions we found that it had run out; we had to ask two or three times before more arrived. When the main course was served it took 20 minutes from the first to the last dish to reach us; several orders had to be returned to the kitchen because they were wrong, and as a result some clients were left waiting for their meal while everybody else had to eat before the food got cold. I was particularly upset when one of our clients found that he had chewing gum all over his trousers from the chair he was sitting on. These matters were not issues I wanted to raise when my clients were there, which is why I paid the bill without complaint. However, when I wrote to complain, the reply said, basically, that they were sorry but Thanksgiving, the day of our visit, is the busiest day of the year at their restaurant.
Tim Williams,Guildford, Surrey

Your readers may be interested to hear of our visit to Chinon in Shepherds Bush, London, shortly before Christmas. We had booked a table for four and arrived about 8.15pm to a half-empty restaurant. It was a cold evening and we all fancied soup. Two of us ordered crab soup and the other two celeriac. The waitress came back after five minutes and told us that there was only one portion of crab soup. Politely and quietly we remonstrated with her, telling her that we did not expect a restaurant of Chinon's standard to have only one portion of soup available, especially so early in the evening and that, in any event, she ought to have told us of this when she handed out the menus. End of subject or so we thought. A couple of minutes later, a lady presumably the owner materialised and, in a manner I can only assume is not dissimilar to that of Michael Winner's favourite chef, told us not to spoil her waitress's evening, not to spoil her evening, and that her restaurant offered more choice than Clarke's in Kensington. Furthermore, the restaurant usually offered only one kind of soup, she said as if we should have known. Her outburst quite spoilt a meal that from a culinary point of view was outstanding. Why do restaurateurs have to be so arrogant? Have they all forgotten the maxim that the customer is always right? For once, we wished Michael Winner had been there.
Andrew and Susie Kaufman, Stanmore, Middlesex