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Better never than late

Published 14 April 2002
Style Magazine
457th article

No-pudding club: Michael Winner with Oxford students at La Gousse d'Ail (Richard Hanlon)

If my dinner at Cambridge was memorable for the awfulness of the rabbit I was served at Michel's, my dinner in Oxford, with students from their Union, was historic because of the grossly bizarre behaviour of the chef. I'd accepted an offer to speak at the Oxford Union. Jemma Withers, a very nice girl and the Union librarian, chose La Gousse d'Ail in Woodstock Road. When I told my friend Richard Hanlon, an interior designer who lives in nearby Burford and always comes to my Oxford talks, he said: "Ooo-er. That'll be interesting." He was right.

The evening started quite normally. They'd asked me to be in the restaurant at 6.30pm. My talk was at 8.30pm. I got there early, at 6.15pm. These times are important, so don't lose the plot. I was the first to arrive. Jayne Wright, co-owner and wife of the chef, Jonathan, greeted me with considerable charm. She invited me to inspect my table. It worried me. I checked another one, which I thought could take seven people, but Jayne disagreed. "I don't want you here while we're moving furniture," she said. She started to move her original table to a better location.

I adjourned to the bar, via the kitchen, saying "hello" to Jonathan, who was making some potato chips. After a while, excellent canapes arrived in the bar and so did the other guests. It was pouring with rain, so a couple of them were a tiny bit late. By 6.45pm we were all seated at the table.

I can sense danger in a restaurant. Rather like a great white hunter knows whether a twig breaking in the jungle indicates a leopard or a gazelle. So I said very clearly, almost hypnotically, to Jayne: "I understand your husband is a very brilliant chef and wants to do his best [bit of flattery there], but I absolutely have to be out of here at 8.15pm. So please ask him to get a move on and do the twice-nightly version." ("Twice nightly" is an old theatrical term. When they did the show twice in one evening, they used to cut it down a bit.)

We ordered. I wondered why we weren't asked to order when we were in the bar. A freebie starter of pumpkin veloute with roasted cep and cream of truffle arrived. It was fine. My first course was strange. I'd misread the menu. I thought I was ordering a cep risotto. I got a row of little things including a scallop, black pudding, a lemon verbena ice cream and, not on the menu, but there anyway, a cockscomb: the serrated thing on top of a cockerel's head. It was quite revolting. The rest was okay.

Next to me sat Francesca Segal, a student whose father, Erich, wrote the script of my Twentieth Century Fox movie The Games 33 years ago. He also wrote the book and screenplay of Love Story. Francesca had been with us in Barbados. She's studying psychology. Francesca thought her foie gras tasted glutinous. I tried it. It was not good. Before the main course arrived, Jayne asked us to order our desserts. "Very efficient," I thought.

My main course was poached free-range chicken, roast Chicken and foie gras ravioli, with morel veloute and baby leeks. It lay on the dreaded bed of spinach, although that wasn't mentioned on the menu. It was adequate. It didn't sing to me. Most of the others had fish and liked it.

After the main course, we took our photo. At 8.15pm, with no sign of dessert, I said to David Watson, the president elect of the Union: "What should we do?"

"Leave," he said. It was a long way to the Union. We couldn't keep an audience waiting. So we got up and walked out. As we passed the kitchen door, on the way to the bar and the exit, waiters came out carrying our desserts. I regretted not having time to eat my tarte tartin, but that's life. I got into the Rolls, taking David and his girlfriend with me. Three other students and Richard Hanlon were putting on their coats.

Suddenly, out of the kitchen exploded Jonathan Wright. He was, apparently, hysterical. He started shouting loudly: "How dare you be late! Who was late? Which one of you was late?" Hanlon later drew himself to his full height and told me: "I've never been spoken to like that in my life." The students thought it was part-strange, part-hilarious. "Never come to my restaurant again if you're going to be late," shouted Jonathan.

I don't know what he was so upset about. I was the one who didn't get my dessert. I didn't shout. I behaved perfectly.


I recently stayed at the Jalousie Hilton on St Lucia, a delightful resort in every way - apart from the food, which was consistently bad. As an alternative, can I recommend the tiny cafe at the airport, where I had my best meal of the holiday: a cup of spicy chilli beef with crackers. Delicious.
Christine Marlow, by e-mail

We had to laugh at Susan Harley's letter about The Box Tree restaurant in Ilkley (March 31). When we requested tap water there, we were informed that it wasn't available as the river was polluted. Still, excellent food and good value.
Colin Richardson, Thetford, Norfolk

If I may add my tuppence worth to the weighty and intriguing debate concerning the resemblance between Michael Winner and a koala (Letters, March 31), I should add that tourists in Australia are advised not to approach or cuddle them, as they can be unpredictable and prone to disconcerting tantrums.
Mark Hannon, by e-mail

I am delighted that, like myself, Michael Winner doesn't do tea bags (March 31). For me, tea leaves in a prewarmed teapot, wrapped in a hand-knitted cosy and served in china cups, is so quintessentially English.
Julian Corlett, Scunthorpe, Lincs

I wish to dispel the myth that Gordon Ramsay treats his staff badly. On Easter Sunday, six of us had lunch at the chef's table in the kitchen of his restaurant at Claridge's. We spent five hours eating, drinking and watching the preparation of more than 100 meals. The atmosphere was electric, the staff were relaxed and smiling and - despite all the pressures - we were treated as though we were their only customers. Incidentally, the table in the kitchen would suit Michael Winner, as it is large and well away from the madding crowd.
David Melbourne, Old Amersham, Bucks

Before lunch at The Bear, Woodstock, recently, we met in an anteroom for a glass of wine. When the bill arrived, a "discretionary service charge" had already been added to the total. I complained and was told that this was company policy. We did not want the poor waitress to feel we were getting at her, so after much argument, we paid up. But honestly, what is happening here? Is this right?
Lee Belcher, by e-mail

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