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Chineese whispers

Published 10 March 2002
Style Magazine
452nd article



Zen again: Michael Winner and Georgina Hristova with Peter Lam

Peter Lam is the funniest restaurant manager I've ever met. I knew him 20 years ago when he was a waiter at Fu Tong in Kensington. He went on to run I Ching in Earls Court Road for Laurence Leung, who later opened the Zen restaurant chain. I once took Charles Bronson and his late wife, Jill, to I Ching. They sat facing the room. I looked at them and the wall. After a while Charlie said, "This isn't a very popular place, is it?" "It's always very busy," I responded. "There's nobody here," said Charlie. I looked round. The place was empty. I was confused, as I'd seen people entering. I called Peter over. "Where is everyone?" I asked. "I put them upstairs," said Peter. "None of them important enough to sit in same room as Charles Bronson."

I Ching closed and Peter relocated to distant places. He recently returned to central London and Zen Chelsea. He sent a letter asking me to go. The restaurant looked exceptionally tired. There were hardly any customers. But Peter, looking unbelievably young, was on splendid form. He spoke at hyperspeed in a difficult-to-understand Chinese accent. Words came tumbling out. Peter told, absolutely seriously, a story of how some old man had fallen down the stairs in his north London restaurant and been killed. It's inappropriate, I know, but I wept with laughter at the tale. "Terrible, terrible," said Peter. "He go to take coat and suddenly whooo . . ." and Peter did a marvellous, limp forward hand movement indicating the man had fallen, followed by an immediate expression of shock and horror as he looked down imaginary stairs at the tumbling customer. I was hysterical with laughter. Georgina was too. "He should be in movies," she kept saying.

Put Peter in any TV series as a restaurant manager and the show would be a wow. Everything Peter says is hilarious. It all comes out at unbelievable speed, missing words here and there. He's a gem, as well as being a highly professional manager, now faced with the task of making Zen Chelsea hit.

Apparently, the Zen chain founder, Laurence Leung, has gone to Hong Kong, and the Chelsea branch is leased to a friend of Peter's. The food is old-fashioned Chinese, little different from what I used to eat at Fu Tong in the 1960s. Since then, we've become more sophisticated and far better cooking is on offer, particularly from Kam Po But at Memories of China in Pimlico.

We started with Cantonese pork and prawn dumplings. They were all right. Then some lobster cooked in ginger and spring onions with noodles. That was nice, the noodles being particularly good.

Peter said: "I'm very happy to see you here tonight, Michael Winner." "Not tonight, Peter, it's lunchtime," I said, but Peter had already thrown in, "I watch how they're cooking," and run off to the kitchen. Some sweet and sour chicken appeared in half a pineapple; then a sizzling dish, which we were too full to eat. Dessert was a typical Chinese selection: toffee apples and toffee bananas, ice cream and mixed fruit.

An Australian group at the next table assured me they were regular customers and loved it. Peter explained he'd been doing rather well until another Chinese restaurant opened nearby. We drove past. It's called Mao Tai. It looks fresh, bright and modern. It was full. You could see why.

I remembered two film-premiere dinners Peter did for me at home. I told him everything had to be ready at 10.30pm as the guests would arrive from the movie by 11pm. No food or staff appeared. I kept ringing I Ching. They put the phone down on me. With still no sign of food, my 120 guests started appearing. "I hope you like toast," I said. Friends laughed, thinking I was joking. About 20 minutes after my first guests had appeared, the pathway was suddenly full of Chinese men carrying huge cardboard boxes. They elbowed arriving guests aside.

For my next premiere, I said to Peter: "I'll have dinner with Faye Dunaway at 9 o'clock. I want all the staff and food in my house well before that." Faysie and I enjoyed a quiet Chinese dinner, then, at 11pm, the bell rang and the first people arrived from the cinema. I opened the kitchen door and said: "Okay fellows, serve the canapes." Nothing was ready. Chinese waiters were playing cards, smoking, talking. They looked on me as an intruder. But they made a quick recovery.

So, please, never mind the food (adequate) or the decor (horrible), go to Zen Chelsea to support Peter. He's worth it.



Letters

I must question the great man for using the words "exemplary", "charm" and "attentiveness" when describing BA staff (February 24). I'm sure that passengers are treated with great courtesy when flying Concorde or in in first class. But how can Michael Winner generalise about how wonderful BA are when I doubt he has ever experienced the service sitting in cattle class?
Malcolm Davis, Nantwich

I have found that if the design of a restaurant's book of matches is good, the service and food is also up to scratch. Has Michael Winner noticed this?
Jack Tuckwood, Plan de la Tour, France

On Michael Winner's advice (February 10), I booked Sunday lunch at The Grill Room at The Dorchester for my wife and me. The soup was superb, the roast beef was spellbinding and the dessert the best I'd ever tasted. The service was first-class in every way. At £32.50 each to dine at one of the best hotels in the world, it is value for money indeed.
Stuart Matthews, East Leake, Leics

Now I know Michael Winner is bonkers. At the Dorchester Grill Room, my parents were seated in a double armchair covered in disgusting red material in a room that looked like an Aberdeen Steak House with gold leaf. The food was 1950s London - I could have done better at home.
Laura Wallace, by e-mail

My wife and I were sorry to read that Michael Winner has been tormented by a rickety table (February 3). Having suffered similarly in the past, we now carry a slim wedge, cut from a wine cork, which can be slid beneath the offending leg. We were introduced to this inexpensive and immediately effective remedy at a well-loved Parisian restaurant. Since our first encounter with this secondary benefit of a bottle of wine, we can sit at any table in the world with our personal guarantee of secure and steady food and drink.
Aubrey Woods, London

As an avid reader of Michael Winner's column, I know that he is a chum of Marco Pierre White. Could he therefore please have a word in his ear about getting things together at the Parisienne Chophouse? On a recent visit, my veal Holstein was swimming in oil and my guest's pheasant was burnt to a cinder. We were bitterly disappointed. It seems Marco may have taken his eye off the ball since the opening.
Martin Rogers, London