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The marchioness's choice

Published 2 June 1996
Style Magazine
152nd article

French flair: Michael Winner with Monsieur Moreau, proprietor of Chez Gerard (Vanessa Perry)

Being a poor boy from Willesden, I'm always greatly impressed by aristocracy. So when a marchioness at the Mamounia pool recommended some Marrakesh restaurants, I gratefully doffed my peaked Yankees' cap. The marchioness even sent a handwritten card to my suite confirming her choices, the card topped by embossed black letters giving her full title and a Belgravia address. I was all a-quiver. Top of the list was Chez Alee, which was "great fun". When the aristocracy say something is great fun they could be referring to a public hanging, a day out in Harrods or pulling a Christmas cracker. I phoned Mohammed Chab, the assistant general manager of La Mamounia and asked him to make a booking for the next night. Later that day, I was in the lobby and the chief concierge, Abdelkrim Temsamani (he who had messed up my limo on arrival) said: "Don't worry, Mr Winner, I've booked Chez Alee. I've told them you're from the Mamounia, so you'll be up in the VIP tent."

The day of my visit, I accosted Mr Temsamani in the lobby. "Something you said yesterday filled me with terror," I said. "You, Mr Winner?" replied Abdelkrim. "I can't imagine you afraid of anything!" "You, I am afraid of," I responded. I like my entry into restaurants to make the state visit of a medieval pope look positively anonymous. Not for me the Fay Maschler "book under another name" thing. I want them to know what they're getting. "Mr Temsamani," I said patiently, "l am not a hotel. I do not wish to be received at Chez Alee as a tourist from the Mamounia. I trust you will see they know exactly who I am." "Of course," said Mr Temsamani, "I will call them again."

That evening we took a taxi and drove some 20 minutes out of town, and saw coloured lights outlining a circus tent. It disappeared from view for at few minutes and then - there it was! A large tent indeed, with a huge parking area in front and two lines of Arab horsemen in flowing robes, 15 in each line, making an avenue into the tent itself. Behind them, ominously, were tourist buses. My driver ran up to a severe-looking woman at the door. He muttered the words "La Mamounia". The woman faced me. "Do you have your ticket?" she asked. "What ticket!" I replied indignantly, "You were telephoned, I'm Michael . . ." "Follow me," she said. We followed her up some stone steps as she indicated an appalling tableau of wax dummies getting married, the steps curved up and two or three more weddings appeared, all in different Moroccan costumes. Then we found ourselves back in the same entrance hall. We were led into another area. On our right was a large, sawdust arena. As we strolled up a long carpet, also on our right, groups of girls and men, some with instruments, all in costume, waved and gyrated. At the top, on the far side of the arena, were tents full of tourists. I was shown to one at the back obviously reserved for the mentally infirm. Before getting too close, I turned, the lady ahead now indicating a table. "Pas pour moi," I said with great dignity, and walked back past the gently gyrating girls (now on my left) and out into the taxi.

I decided to try another of the marchioness's choices, Chez Gerard. "Is the proprietor here?" I asked imperiously as I entered. "Table for two?" said the head waiter. I nodded. He showed us a nice table by the door with a view of the room and the bar. As soon as we'd sat. I got up and checked out the room. There was no better table, so I settled down. Chez Gerard looks like the Casablanca set of an old Paramount movie. That's good. Tiled floor, red-checked tablecloths, pink walls, ornate mirrors. An excellent taram to start, eggs of cod mashed into a pate. Followed by a local stingray fish (most tasty) with Vanessa knocking back a goat's cheese salad and then tagliatelli with mushrooms and garlic. All good. I had strawberry tart for dessert, nice but the custard was odd. Monsieur Gerard Moreau made himself known to us, an avuncular Frenchman who had come two years ago from Paris where he had a restaurant of the same name in Neuilly-sur-Seine. I'm glad he moved. As a result, a disastrous evening turned out very well.

  • PS: A few days later, the marchioness said she and her family had been to Chez Alee for a second time and hated it. "We kept saying, 'Thank goodness Michael Winner didn't stay!' " What a sweet lady. It's fun mixing with the nobs.


    So Michael Winner thinks that St Christopher's school vegetarian food was "horrible"? Well, no greedy schoolboy will ever admit that school food is anything but despicable, but I must have been there at about the same time as Mr Winner, and compared with the standard school stew and prunes of that time, we were very well fed. We had an expert Austrian refugee dietitian in charge of catering, and the meals were varied and appetising. Even a gluttonous carnivore like Mr Winner can hardly say that muesli with fresh raspberries, savoury lentil roast and really sticky jam tarts are horrible. Perhaps he always got the rather jam-less corner?
    Catharine Fortlage, Croydon, Surrey

    In response to Simon Franklin's letter (May 19) regarding cancellation charges, he does not seem to appreciate that a contract is created when a telephone booking is accepted by a hotel, which binds the hotelier to keep the rooms and the guest to pay for those rooms. The terms of the contract can only be varied by mutual agreement. If someone cancels at the last minute, the chance of reletting the rooms is small. Our cancellation fee is only payable if we are unable to relet the bedrooms. Many guests are covered by credit-card insurance, which will reimburse the cost of any cancellation fees they incur due to illness, etc. We are not able to insure for losses if guests cancel.
    Peter Marks, Lower Slaughter Manor, Gloucestershire