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Winner takes all

It's the book you've been waiting for. In an exclusive extract from Winner's Dinners, your favourite food critic reveals how the column began, and nominates the highs (and lows) of his eating career

Published 17 October 1999
Style Magazine
327th article

Hall of fame: top row, from left, Michael Winner at the Guy Pizzeria in Venice; with Marco Pierre White, 'the brightest and best person to hit British catering'; and with Joan Collins and the Prime Minister of Barbados at Sandy Lane. Bottom row, from left, Winner with Christopher Corbin of the Ivy; at Delfino in Portofino, the best view from a restaurant; with the best concierge in the world, Fausto Allegri of the Hotel Splendido, Portofino; Winner and James Coburn with Sophia Loren and her famous spaghetti with meat sauce (Terry O'Neill, Vanessa Perry, cartoons by Michael Winner)

My writing about food was motivated by a perfectly respectable desire for revenge. I'd had, in the company of eight others, a ghastly meal experience at Le Pont de la Tour. When I wrote to Terence Conran, he replied with deep sarcasm, saying: "I will investigate your film script." That was seven years ago and I haven't heard from him since. It makes the Kenneth Starr investigation into Clinton look minuscule by comparison.

So when The Sunday Times said: "Will you do something?", I said: "Yes, I'll do a single piece on my life in restaurants." It caused such uproar that it became a weekly column. All this time later it still causes uproar. I sit somewhat bemused by it.

Millions of people go out every night for a meal. Usually, things are okay. Sometimes they are not. Everyone has a right to complain if they aren't. I wish people did it more. But the British have a habit of saying nothing and then going home and seething. I've been like that. Round comes the maitre d'. "Everything all right?" he says, and we all grin and say: "Yes" - even if it's been ghastly. I don't do that now.

The catering trade is also, laughingly, called the hospitality industry. That's a joke. Any less hospitable industry would be hard to find. The front line, the receptionist, often greets you with a stony: "Have you got a reservation?" The management often seems to think that measuring the portions and decorating the plate with radishes is an end in itself. But the ambience created by the front-line staff is vastly important. Alter all, you meet the staff before you meet the food. Sometimes a very long time indeed before you meet the food.

After "Have you got a reservation?", the five words that fill me with most dread are: "Don't worry sir, I'll remember." That's when the waiter turns up without a pad. I get quite enough things served incorrectly and missed out when they use a pad. It's not a memory test for them, it's a food order. You are not degraded if you write it down.

The greatest piece of management I saw in the hospitality industry was at the London Hilton, Park Lane. I peered over the reception desk. On the other side was a large cardboard sign facing the receptionists. It said: "Smile". A smile to many restaurant employees is like a silver cross to a vampire. Contrary to the fictitious character created by the press - and sometimes encouraged by me - I am a very quiet, reserved person. I do not go around shouting at waiters. About twice a year I become agitated when faced with utter idiocy and incompetence.

It is said that English cooking has improved and that we lead the world. I totally disagree. I think the golden period of English cooking was the 1950s. The food you ate tasted like what it was meant to be. Different meats tasted like different meats. Different vegetables tasted like different vegetables. The food had not been purified, chemicalised and messed about. Packaged, preserved and deep-frozen. There was a far greater variety of traditional English dishes available, which are superb, but which people today consider too simplistic or common to serve. When did you last see Lancashire hotpot or Irish stew? They've been replaced by glorified plate decoration.

In the 1950s, you could sit in comfort. You could hear what the person you were with was saying and they could hear you. In those days many restaurants had orchestras. Lyons, a chain organisation, had a restaurant in the Trocadero in Piccadilly, with a 10-piece string orchestra in evening dress, even at lunch. No point in musicians playing in restaurants today: you can't hear the person 1ft away, let alone musicians the other end of the room.

We live with what we have. There are still many good places. I go basically to the same dozen restaurants in rota. I'm highly unadventurous. It's amazing, really, that I can find 52 places a year to write about, because I visit only places where I want to go in my normal life. And unlike all other critics, it's me that pays not the paper. But I've enjoyed learning more about the business and meeting people who otherwise would have stayed distant - chefs, maitre d's, hotel owners. People often say to me: "Wouldn't you like to own a restaurant?" I can think of nothing worse. I like to walk in, eat, give my view and walk out. Let someone else worry about the staff, the profit ratio, the thieving, the hysteria in the kitchen. I'm a hello and goodbye fellow.

I thought, having lived my life in the movies, I'd seen all there was to see by way of ego and tantrums. Boy, was I wrong. Chefs and restaurant owners are the most bitchy, nutty, consumed, bad-mouthing people ever. But I like them (well, most of them) and on the whole they provide a great service.

I'm reminded of a story told me by the real restaurant critic of The Sunday Times, A A Gill, who, by strange coincidence, was at the same school as me - odd, Quaker and vegetarian - and was also, for a while, my gardener. Someone came up to him and said: "You know what the best thing in The Sunday Times is?"

"I was preening myself," said Gill, "thinking they'd say my articles. Instead, they said the letters on Winner's page."

You can't beat that. I'm just a passing accompaniment. I don't mind. I'm known for being self-effacing.

The Winner's Dinners column and letters return next week