Published 12 April 1998 Style Magazine 248th article
Plane fare: Michael Winner and Vanessa Perry on board Chauffair's Citation II
The pastries looked fairly revolting. They sat on the seat behind me covered in plastic. The large bowl of fruit was all right. The drawer under the seat in front was full of crisps, nuts, biscuits and choccy bars. There was a fair selection of drinks. As an air hostess costs extra and is not exactly essential on a flight of one and a half hours, you serve yourself or the co-pilot lends a hand. The world of private-jet catering is not as exciting as wandering into a hut at Northolt, walking a few paces to a small jet, getting in - and off you go. At the other end you're met by some smiling foreign official and taken quickly through a distant part of the airport and straight out again. On this flight to Switzerland, Vanessa had lost her passport. Nobody cared.
The best catered flight I had was to Venice with Gama Aviation. Marwan Khalek had read an article in which I slaughtered a private plane company for offering a sandwich so curled and hard that it resembled a piece of steel piping. Thus inspired, or terrified, he produced a first-rate selection of fresh sandwiches - cheese and apple, egg and tomato, sausage, smoked salmon, fish paste - some nice biscuits, and an enormous mound of papers and magazines. Nicholas Probett, he of the revolting pastries, assures me that his firm, Chauffair, are about to have their own kitchens at Farnborough to stock the private jets with really scrumptious stuff. Nice chap, Nick, but I'll believe it when I see it.
You don't expect culinary excitement on an aeroplane. It's a different matter at a luxury hotel. "People are deserting the Palace and going now to the Park Hotel, Gstaad," my occasionally omnipotent Swiss friend Dieter Abt told me. "I'll book you a table." There are moments when you arrive for an evening out and know it will be a disaster. But something propels you onward. A voice says, "Run, get out!", but a second voice, which you know is stupidity incarnate, says: "Don't be silly, you've made a booking. Stay, it'll be all right."
That conversation ran in my head as I walked through the appalling lobby of the highly rated Park Hotel. It's a modern version of an overblown Swiss chalet gone madly wrong, full of unsuccessful attempts to retain Swiss charm in an ersatz, airport-anywhere interior.
In the restaurant we were given a table facing the door, near a central log fire largely blocked by two serving trolleys. Why not pile a few crates of Coca-Cola there as well, I thought. I went to look at their other restaurant featuring a cruise-liner buffet, which was horrible. That night, the Palace, where we were staying, had a buffet. They are always historic. Foolishly, I soldiered on.
The waiter objected to me saying I wanted to write on the menu. When I told him rather tartly that hotels from the Paris to the Splendido in Portofino and all places in between and around were delighted when I wrote on their menus, he changed and said: "We're very happy for you to write on the menu." "No you're not," I said. "You made that very clear."
There was a little terrine of cheese as a freebie starter. Vanessa pulled a face and left hers. I thought it bland. The maitre d' came over. "Did you make your choice, gentlemen?" he asked. I pointed out that one of the two people facing him was a lady. The Swiss are usually good at dignified, old-style service: this proved there are exceptions. The foie gras and the pigeon were both tasteless and odd, the atmosphere sterile. Vanessa's turbot had no texture; it had obviously been in the deep freeze far too long. "Did you enjoy your meal?" asked the maitre d'. "No, the fish was definitely old," I said. "It's fresh," said the maitre d'. "No, it's not fresh, it's frozen and it has been frozen for a very long time," I replied. It's rare that I am less than gracious, but this place brought out the worst in me. They said they had a wonderful selection of cheeses and produced a trolley with eight - all uninteresting. About the dessert, I wrote: "No special taste anywhere."
The other diners were seriously anonymous. Some absurd pretend windows of chalet design gave it a basement air, even though we were on the first floor. If I had not been knocking back a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild 1985, I might have considered suicide. When I got the bill, I noticed they didn't charge for Vanessa's fish. "Is the service on?" I asked. The maitre d' said: "The service is on, but the tip is up to you." I've got a tip for them. Close the place down.
Having recently experienced excruciatingly loud evenings at both Langan's and L'Escargot in London, might I suggest that Michael Winner does his readers an additional favour by adding a new criterion to his list? Equipped with a decibel meter, he would strike terror into the heart of management as never before. Having weighed up the price-quality coefficient, the tolerance-amusement level and the time-noise factor, he could then award each restaurant a Winner (Winner's Incidental Noise, Nutrition and Entertainment Rating).
Rex Thompson, Monaco
I would be interested to know at which pub in Bray Howard Easton (Style, March 22) was able to eat his lunch and "watch cricket being played on the adjoining green". I live in Bray and have yet to find a pub in such a location.
Barbara Page, Bray, Berkshire
I cannot fathom why people write to Michael Winner suggesting he visit their favourite restaurant. Why spoil a good thing? They should keep it to themselves, enjoy it, share it with their closest friends. To desire a visit from a man who made his name directing revenge movies is the ultimate death wish.
Martin Donovan, Hilderstone, Staffs
My son's school recently booked a Gourmet Meal evening in the Brunel restaurant at the City of Bristol College, where the kitchen and waiting staff are students on the catering course. The five-course meal was £12 a head. It was an exciting menu, beautifully cooked and served by friendly, enthusiastic youngsters. Michael Winner should try it.
H Roberts, Bristol