Published 1 April 2001 Style Magazine 403rd article
Party animals: front row, from left, Rolline Frewen of the Admirable Crichton, Michael Winner, Georgina Hristova and Johnny Robertson Roxborough (Dinah Lagoudakos)
I'm not a frequent party giver. Visitors wander round my listed (Grade II*) Victorian house with its six reception rooms, seven bathrooms, 11 toilets, enormous terrace and garden, and say: "This must be wonderful for entertaining." To which I reply: "I don't." I've only hosted three small lunch parties in five years. My last real party was for Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he visited London in 1993 after a long absence. There were 95 guests. After my speech of welcome, Arnold responded: "Michael Winner is more than a good friend to me, he is a complete stranger." He then spilled the pear schnapps we'd got for him. The mark is still on my antique Georgian dining table. Later Arnold and I got to know each other better.
I remain considerably nervous if people are in proximity to my antiques. But in a moment of rashness, I recently threw a birthday party for Georgina's 30th. She's getting a bit old for me, but she's a great girl. I decided to use as caterers The Admirable Crichton, a firm run by Johnny Robertson Roxburgh. Johnny looks exactly as his name suggests. He did a good job for my 60th birthday, when we took over the nearby Leighton House museum. He chipped in and donated a freebie reception for the home secretary, police and officials at one of my charity ceremonies honouring a police officer slain on duty.
When I rang him, Johnny was at the hotel Palais Maeterlinck, near Nice. "I'm in a room with mirrors on all the walls and on the ceiling," he told me. I knew that, because I stayed there briefly with Miss Lid the First, who was the glamorous national kickboxing champion of a smallish country.
When he returned from admiring himself in the mirrors and enjoying the whirlpool bath on the terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, Johnny reported to my house. He said: "We'll give them bread."
"Why?" I asked.
"They like bread, don't they?" said Johnny.
"They're not getting it," I replied. "For drinks, we'll start off with a cosmopolitan," recommended Johnny. "That's cranberry juice, vodka, Grand Marnier and lime juice."
I said: "Look, I'm a poor boy from Willesden. Dom Perignon 1985 is very exciting for us."
"You're not trying to reinvent the Wheel, are you?" said Johnny, somewhat deflated. Although not half as deflated as when I told him he looked very well preserved.
"How old do you think I am?" asked Johnny proudly. "Fifty-eight," I said. "I'm 51," said Johnny. I returned hastily to the catering arrangements.
Later, a menu was suggested. There were five main courses, seven desserts; it was all indescribably lavish. And unbelievably expensive. "Johnny," I said, "this is an informal evening for 40 people. You've quoted for a banquet for the president of the United States. I've got news for you, the president's not coming." Things were then put in a more practical frame. In case you think I was being chintzy, we ended up - with me providing the wine at restaurant-trade prices - at £350 per couple. I think that's pretty reasonable.
It went very well, really. Marco Pierre White was upset we didn't have a printed menu. "Nobody will know what they're eating," he said. "Well, you will, Marco," I said. "You'll know every ingredient."
We had grilled aubergines with courgettes, tomatoes, basil-roasted halloumi and hummus to start. Then sirloin of roast beef and/or goujons of chicken, new potatoes, basmati rice with pan-fried mushrooms and marjoram, three very original, glamorous salads, followed by "decadent" chocolate cake, orange-marmalade ice cream, pot-roasted pears with a saffron syrup and strawberry meringues with crushed raspberries. There were superb canapes and lots of other stuff. Marco thought the food excellent.
The next day, Robert Earl rang me from America to report: "Marco said you should have had a menu."
I rarely disagree with the mercurial Marco on such matters. But if you've got some guests at tables and others on sofas, I don't think you have to scatter menus all over the place. It's pretentious for a casual event. Even though menus would have listed the amazing quality of the wines.
I won't mention any of the other glitterati guests, because you'd accuse me of name-dropping. Suffice it say that on their invitations was printed: "Please rehearse saying on a daily basis until the event, 'I will not put down my glass on any furniture unless there's a mat under it. I'll be careful with my cigarettes.' Thank you."
I thought I'd got away unscathed, until Georgina pointed to the carpet the following weekend. "There's a stain," she said. "And there's another . . ."
That's it. My last party. Anyone know a good stain remover?
Michael Winner described his Harry's Bar dessert (March 18) as "deeply memorable". Would he kindly let me know how this compares with "truly historic", so that I may file his recommendations in order of merit?
Joseph Sinclair, London
In a world full of compromises and political correctness, it's a relief to read Mr Winner's column. If everybody was like him, the world would, frankly, be a horrible place. But until that day comes, I can only applaud Mr Winner for finding the formula for enjoying life to the fullest.
Marcus Dunberg, Copenhagen
Mr K Maddox's letter (March 4) reminded me of the possibly apocryphal tale of the Chinese restaurant offering a traditional English Christmas meal. When asked what the turkey was like, the waiter replied: "It's like a big chicken."
A Crowest, by e-mail
George Orwell theorised that waiters are waiters because they like being waiters and enjoy being consulted by those they deem to be their betters. The reality, these days, is somewhat different. Waiters are waiters because they need the money, and if they could find better-paid employment, I am sure they would. Some of your correspondents, such as Mr Maddox and Mrs Belcher (March 18), seem to live on another planet. Why do they expect that a waiter, who is there to take orders and carry plates, will know anything about food and drink? On their wages, they probably don't spend much time eating in other restaurants.
William Fisher, London
I completely agree with David Gerrard (March 18): complain at the time. I find that being extremely polite makes the complaint more effective, but better still is to let them know even more directly, as I did a few years ago at Chez Gerard in Dover Street, London. Some friends and I had been at the nearby Mayfair Club and we just wanted "steak-frites", washed down with some decent red. Chez Gerard seemed ideal. Everything that can possibly go wrong in a restaurant did, including intervention from an overly pompous head waiter. On receiving my credit-card slip, I wrote "minus £15" in the "gratuities" section, totalled and signed the print-out. The next morning, I called American Express to ensure that I was charged the net amount I had signed for.
Bharat Jashanmal, by e-mail