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Too Many Cooks

Published 28 May 2000
Style Magazine
359th article



Pudding club: Michael Winner with Donata and her pear-and-almond tart (Miss Lid the Third)

Ive been having a bit of trouble with cook-housekeepers. For many years I had Mrs Hickey as cook and Mrs Bawden as maid. "You'll realise how good I was when I go," Mrs Hickey used to lilt in her Irish voice. Boy, was she right. Her roast duck was immaculate. Her hot chocolate sponge with chocolate sauce and whipped cream had Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando in ecstasy. Her large meringue cake with whipped cream and fresh fruit was historic-plus.

Mrs Bawden, a tiny Welsh lady, would come over indignantly when I increased her pay. "I've done nothing to deserve it," she'd say. "I don't know why you give it to me."

After Mrs Hickey, some stayed, some went. One Scots lady kept her own area of luxurious accommodation so dirty, we ended up telling her that either she paid one of the maids to clean it, or she had to go. She was the only housekeeper in London paying maids to do her personal cleaning.

Ping was lovely. We got her from The Lady magazine. She was a superb Thai cook, but insisted on trying European recipes from a book. Whenever I saw her looking at the text, I thought: "Oh dear." She left after a year to return to her own house and her Siamese cats. Lily stayed quite a long time, then left to have a baby in the house she bought on my magnificent pay.

We advertised like mad, in The Lady, The Times, The Daily Telegraph. Most applicants from The Lady seemed to start: "I'm currently a legal secretary, but I ran my own home and need a change." My ads appeared so often that The Express diary ran stories on how impossible I must be because nobody stayed. I thought one housekeeper was very good. Then Mrs Lagoudakos, my chief receptionist, said: "She's screaming at us all. She accused Maria of being a spy. Then she shouted at me for 10 minutes." I told Serena le Maistre, the very posh Belgravia agency chief who provided her. "She mustn't scream at the staff," said Serena. "That's your job." Very funny. Even funnier when I ended up paying a £1,700 agency fee for a 12-week housekeeper. Mrs Chamberlayne of London Couples was sympathetic. "I can't find anyone myself," she said. And she runs a very good agency.

In the meantime, I was not suffering. Dear Marco Pierre White arranged for a chef from the then three-Michelin-star Oak Room to come every day at lunch. Prepared by Marco's protege Robert Reid, we'd have grilled veal fillet and roast sweetbread deglazed in balsamic vinegar one day; venison with chocolate and cinnamon, with roast butternut puree, brussel sprouts, celery fondant the next; and sometimes cod with prawns and Alsace bacon, brandade and roast peppers Andalusian. Mr Fraser, my able assistant, would say, "Very tasty this," then keep eating. Mr Reid is shortly to introduce his own menu at The Oak Room at cheaper prices. When it comes, go get it.

One housekeeper came from a long stint with a very famous royal princess. On her first day I came for a modest dinner at 7pm in the kitchen. She produced from a closed hotplate - an omelette. "How long has that been in the hotplate?" I asked, seeing the edges curling. "About five minutes," was the reply. She didn't last.

I had applicants trying to get away from Ted Heath, Princess Michael, and endless television stars. Then the solution came in a flash. The Jews! No respectable Jewish household would put up with leathery omelettes from the hotplate. Who did I know in Golders Green? Only Sir Harry and Lady Solomon. I called Judith. "Where do you get your staff from?" I asked. She recommended Diana Graham in St John's Wood. Much lower commission charges than the Belgravia bunch.

Diana lost interest after I refused to see her Italian chef because he was 20 minutes late. Then a fetching photograph of me and my PA, Margaret, appeared on the cover of the Creme de la Creme section of The Times. Diana sent in Donata. Donata smiled a lot. She was a Filipino. I liked her. She's been cooking away for many weeks now. A triumph! Her beef wellington is superb, her turbot with hollandaise sauce excellent, her roast chicken stuffing and bread sauce remarkable. But it's her pear-and-almond tart that has bowled me over. This is a cataclysmic taste experience. "Get the camera!" I called excitedly to Miss Lid the Third. "This must be recorded for posterity." So here we are. Donata, me and the tart at my dining table. The search is over. The Express diary will just have to find something else to write about.



Letters

The multilingual "Please do not smoke" signs at De Snippe (Style, May 14) are rendered utterly pointless by the presence of ashtrays on the tables. When will restaurant owners realise that the time and effort taken by a good chef is negated by tobacco smoke? If this is self- inflicted, the customers only have themselves to blame; but if it is forced upon innocent eaters by inconsiderate neighbours, then surely a serious complaint is warranted. I doubt that anyone would suffer someone talking though an opera or West End play. Why, then, should we allow the inconsiderate behaviour of others to detract from our enjoyment of an expensive meal?
Stephen Power, Limerick, Eire

Michael Winner's report on Den Gouden Harynck in Bruges (Style, May 14) came out two days after our visit, so we did not know at the time that it had Michelin status, nor that he was about either to bless or blight its future. The owner, Philippe Serruys, came out of the kitchen late in the evening to tour the tables and, finding that we were English, proceeded to describe his Winner experience. He felt that the outcome should not be too bad since Winner had phoned earlier that week to advise that he would be able to double his prices after Sunday. The report was spot-on: the service was indeed attentive, the pace of dinner was excellent, and our various courses were "historic", particularly the crab millefeuille and the langoustine starters. Driving in Bruges is a nightmare: it took 40 minutes of one-way and wrong-way streets to get to our hotel. Nevertheless, we look forward to a return visit - particularly to Den Gouden Harynck.
Michael and Barbara Durham, and Christine Pyne, by e-mail

My wife and I recently had supper at Rudland & Stubbs, a fish restaurant in Smithfield, east London. When the bill came, it was headed by an item labelled "cover charge". "What's this for?" I asked the waiter. "It's for bread and butter," he answered. "But you never brought us any bread and butter." Short pause. "Well, it's for, er ... your cutlery and, er ... the place mats." The bill also added a service charge, hilariously described as being "for your convenience". I can't wait for our next visit to see what other surreal amusements they have in store for us.
John Franklin, London