Published 28 February 1999 Style Magazine 294th article
In the saddle: Michael Winner and Karim Bon Fellah, left, the proprietor of Chez Ali, Marrakesh
My friend Willie de Bruyn, the only amusing Belgian in the world, provided Mustapha. I'd given up on Abdelkrim Temsamani, the charming but somewhat flaky concierge at La Mamounia in Marrakesh. As well as owning the Royal Riviera Hotel in St Jean Cap Ferrat, Willie also has the Casino at La Mamounia. Mustapha Hssaine is the meeter and greeter who looks after high-rolling visitors. He always wears a neat suit and drives a dark blue, very clean Ford Escort. When I rang him to check this important point a few days ago, he assured me the sun was shining, the Atlas mountains were clear in the background and I should be in Marrakesh. He wasn't wrong.
When I'd been hooked into Chez Ali a couple of years earlier by Mr Temsamani, a surly lady greeted me with: "You from Mamounia?" So I walked out. With Mustapha, the owner Karim Bon Fellah was there with assorted relations and executives to show me in. Chez Ali is a spectacular, enormous Moroccan restaurant and show palace. There are rows of Arab horsemen either side of a fake castle entrance. Once inside, hundreds of Arabs in different Moroccan tribal costumes blow some instruments and bang others. It's highly labour intensive. There are camels, tents everywhere with people eating in them, a large, outdoor sawdust ring, more fake castles. It is the human row of extras that impresses. As you pass they come to life, dancing and playing music until you move to the next tribe and the old group relaxes waiting for new guests.
You recline luxuriously on rich cushions, dining off specialities described as harira, pastilla, tagine, mechoui, couscous, pastries, mint tea. An endless supply of tribespeople enter the tent bashing, blowing and dancing. Some of the Moroccan guests get up and jiggle around with them. It took some while before we were served a beef broth with beans and rice. Then an enormous plate of lamb with beef on skewers. The lamb was very good. Suddenly it was a quarter past ten and we were alone. All the other diners had left to take their seats for the show. I looked around. Our guide, Mustapha, who had so grandly introduced us to everyone, was nowhere to be seen.
I got up and took Vanessa to the arena, where all the best seats, in a small raised area, had been taken. We stood at the back of three rows of benches. The show started with a great display of stunt horsemen, guns going off and general pageant-type things. Mustapha appeared. "How dare you leave us!" I said. "We should've had seats reserved there." I indicated the front row ahead. "I suppose you were too busy drinking with the bosses!" "We were talking about you," said a very agitated Mustapha."Mr Winner ,look, that's the best place." He pointed to a first-floor balcony some way away, too distant to get a good view. "The king sits there," said Mustapha. "We've reserved it just for you." "Ridiculous," I responded. "I'll stay here."
Mustapha commenced an energetic, shouted wail. "But Mr Winner, I beg of you. Please go there." "It's bad enough you leave us. Shut up!" I replied. Our voices were raised. A few people looked round. Mustapha, still shouting, tried to pull me physically off the stand. The word "Citroen" lit up with fireworks at the other end of the arena. "I'm the president of Citroen," said a distinguished man seated next to Vanessa, who was trying to pretend she knew neither me nor Mustapha. "I'm with the president of Citroen," I dictated into my tape.
Mustapha and I continued to shout. "I'm the president of all the car dealers in France," corrected the ex-boss. "Not of Citroen-France." I duly dictated that. A few more seconds of shouting and the man changed that to some of the car dealerships in France. "In a moment he'll be a junior salesman," I dictated, hoping the man wouldn't hear.
It wasn't long before Mustapha was out of breath so he could no longer yell or cajole me to move. He relaxed and lit a cigarette. A bit later, a man on a flying carpet appeared above one end of the arena, and all the stuntmen, camel-riders, horsemen and varied assorted tribes came forward and waved. The show was over. The boss and his henchmen kindly arrived to see me out. Past the lines of chanting tribesmen, back to the waiting horsemen and into Mustapha's Ford Escort. "Once in a lifetime, everyone comes to Chez Ali," said Mustapha cheerfully as we headed back to Marrakesh. "All the Moroccans. Once in a lifetime." "Very nice for them, too," I said. And I meant it.
In his letter to this page (Style, February 14), Seamus Donnelly questions whether the three young ladies, who courteously ensured that their babies were fed, just as they were, in Novelli, were "well-educated". They certainly were. The ignorant diner was Mr Donnelly, who took umbrage at this perfectly natural behaviour.
Ken Lake, Loughton, Essex
Does a revolution in restaurant hospitality lie around the corner? Good food and wine, taken in company, can be a joy, so why don't restaurants offer "party tables" at which sociable singles and couples can eat in the company of like-minded strangers? Most people seem to enjoy communal dining at colleges, annual dinners, on cruises, ski, golf and sailing trips and other activity holidays. Fame and fortune could await the first imaginative restaurateur to introduce such dinner parties to their restaurant.
RS Kent, Cobham, Surrey
Poor Mr Winner, having to stay at all those dreadful luxury hotels. I stay at a hotel in Switzerland where the views from the large garden are stunning, the rooms spacious and comfortable, the outdoor heated swimming pool never crowded, the food superb, the service faultless. What's more, the prices are extremely reasonable. So am I going to tell him where it is? Not on your nelly. By the way, there are 3,500 hotels in Switzerland.
ESW, London W11