A foodie's charter to whine and dine in all the best places
Published 29 September 2002 News Review 481st article
A winning evening: Ramsay, Blumenthal, Winner and White (Dwayne Senior)
I get about 400 letters or e-mails a week from readers of this column, a political column I write for another newspaper and from people writing in general. Other than posting a fetching signed photograph of me standing behind my director's chair to those who seek it, I don't answer any of them. This produces aggravated responses. There just isn't time to tell Mr Bloggs about that little restaurant I discovered in Venice, or to suggest somewhere nice for Auntie Millie's birthday dinner.
But relief is at hand, at least for foodie letter-writers. A new volume of my collected Sunday Times articles, beautifully divided into countries and with a highly digestible index and startlingly witty cartoons (by me) is just hitting the bookshops. The publisher, rather optimistically, stated the last two editions were "bestsellers".
This new, much enlarged version, named The Winner Guide to Dining & Whining, lists hundreds of hotels and restaurants in different countries. So instead of writing irate letters, cough up a modest amount - and have answers readily available.
I write in the foreword that the best thing about my space in The Sunday Times is the readers' letters. Even when highly critical of myself, they're invariably witty and worthwhile. They're particularly amusing when sent in by people in the catering industry who feel they've been unfairly slighted. Remarkably, no one ever writes to say they've been praised unfairly.
I was amused by a lady restaurant owner who wrote indignantly because my then girlfriend, Georgina, gave an opinion that her tomato was not slow-baked but sun-dried and she didn't think much of her spaghetti, either. To which the lady owner asked: "What are Georgina's culinary credentials for making such judgments?"
I can tell the lady exactly what Georgina's credentials were. She was a paying customer who had eaten some food and given a view of it. This is done by millions of people all over the world every day. They go into restaurants, they eat, and they either like it or don't like it. More often they'll like some of it and dislike other parts of it. The idea they are incapable of making a worthwhile comment unless they have "culinary credentials" is extraordinary. But then I have a definite feeling that most people in the catering trade don't like their customers.
The amount of letters I receive from people who've written to restaurants complaining and have either received no reply or a rude one, are legion. My own knowledge of people in what is laughingly known as the hospitality trade, many of whom I like and admire, is that they view customers as a nuisance. If the customer doesn't exactly agree with what is put before them then they're more of a nuisance. If they dare to write a letter about it they've graduated to be unspeakable.
I implore you: do not be inhibited. You may not possess "culinary credentials". That shouldn't deter you from offering a clear opinion, to which you are absolutely entitled.
To celebrate the quasi-historic publication of The Winner Guide the great and the bad gathered in the Belvedere restaurant in Holland Park on Tuesday night. It was a very nice and friendly group. Lord and Lady Lloyd-Webber, Lord and Lady Norman Foster, my neighbour-lyricist Mr Donald Black OBE, my ex-girlfriend Vanessa Perry, who featured for so many years in these columns, and almost, but not quite, my other neighbour Mr Simon Cowell. My favourite food critic, Fay Maschler, came along. So did Gordon Ramsay, who got the award for Best Chef.
Gordon kindly presented a younger chef, Heston Blurnenthal, from the Fat Duck at Bray, with my other award for Best Chef. Marco Pierre White picked up awards for most Machiavellian Person in Catering and for Most Excellent and Amusing Person in Catering.
Many of the UK's top restaurateurs and chefs came for their awards and Sylvie Coppini, of La Chaumiere near Nice, flew in specially. Some were given the opportunity to eat my personally prepared steak sandwiches. I offered only 12 of those. They were so good I ate three of them. The hero of the evening was Dominic Coroleur, who came to pick up his award as Worst Maitre D'. To which I added "and best sport". Dominic annoyed me at Claridge's and I've had a go at ever since. This is now totally rescinded. I said that if his boss Gordon Ramsay would pay to have the book pulped, I'd happily give Dominic an award reflecting his new high status in Winner-World. Gordon declined. But then Gordon once announced to a newspaper "Michael Winner knows nothing about food". God, the truth hurts.
The Winner Guide to Dining & Whining, published by Robson Books, is out now at £8.99. Copies can be ordered for £7.50 plus 99p p&p from The Sunday Times Books Direct on 0870 165 8585
It was, as always, a delight to see you on TV (Diners, BBC2). We looked forward to a glimpse of your erudite and expansive charm. Shame, then, that the noisy nose-blowing at table detracted from your politesse. Hope you didn't wave your hanky at the waiter afterwards!
Jenny and Laura Brown, Elgin
Michael, Michael, your secret is safe with me - I know a Popa Chubby when I see one! It's a lovely name, it really suits you and it goes with the job!
Sandi Firth, Leeds
Your correspondent last week refers to the antisocial habit of smoking in restaurants. Why do restaurants allow it? After all, airlines, cinemas, the Tube, etc, do not allow smoking and they don't suffer from lack of trade. When you consider how many die from smoking and passive smoking is it not about time we did something about it? If a well-known person such as Mr Winner took up the case I am sure the effort would be rewarded with healthier diners.
Stanley Silver, Hadley Wood
The Stanneylands Hotel (Winner's Dinners, last week) gets my vote as one of the worst hotels in England! While eating a dreadful dinner, my room was burgled. Among other items my spectacles were stolen. Liam Walshe, the owner, told me I should have given them to the staff for safe-keeping. I suppose that was a bit remiss of me. Before leaving I was assured my credit card would not be charged until the police had finished their investigation and the matter resolved to my satisfaction. My card was immediately charged. I gave up with Mr Walshe when my letters went unanswered. As a gesture of goodwill, American Express Centurion refunded the charge but said it would be unable to recharge the hotel.
Stewart Smith, Folkestone
I must recommend that you pen La Fosse in Cardiff, purportedly one of the capital's finest. It would take your superior talents to adequately review this eatery. On a recent visit, after waiting more than 45 minutes I had to phone the restaurant reception to inquire if all the staff had gone home. David Beckham's recent injury could have been caused by dropping one of their salmon fishcakes on his toe.
Steve West, Cardiff
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times. co.uk