Published 9 September 2003 News Review 530th article
Dropping in for lunch: Winner and Fleet surrounded by students at Downing College, Cambridge (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
I only met Sir Lionel Whitby, the master of Downing College, Cambridge, once. That was when he sent me down in 1953. I told the story to the current master of Downing, a particularly nice man named Dr Stephen Fleet.
"You weren’t sent down," he explained, "you were rusticated." That means I was expelled from the university for a couple of weeks.
In those days everyone simply took the nearest bike and used it. Now they're all locked! I made the mistake of taking the college porter's bicycle for transport to the offices of the university newspaper, Varsity, which I edited. He called the police. They greeted me, notebooks rampant, and explained as I hadn't intended to keep the bike I couldn't be done for theft. This was the basis of my 1960s hit comedy-thriller The Jokers with Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford.
Geraldine had never seen Cambridge so I took her there. Many of the colleges were not open to tourists during the exam term. Thus much energy was expended by my staff getting letters of accreditation to permit me to enter. At no time was I asked to present any of these documents. We just wandered through.
Dr Fleet has a spectacular house in Downing's Regency quadrangle and a lovely wife, Alice, he met when she was working at the Fitzwilliam Museum. We visited the dining hall for lunch. What I recall about college meals is not the food but the immaculate way it was served. So when I discovered Sunday lunch was a serve-yourself fry-up I was delighted because I like fry-ups, but disappointed because I like to see a lot of staff around.
"Oh well," I thought, "I can see that at home. I'll just pick up the tray." I took sausage, eggs, fried bread, baked beans, hash browns and tomatoes. A feast. At the table I noticed none of the students had napkins. I eventually found some paper ones. I was also amazed to learn students pay for the food according to what they eat. When I was up you had to wear a jacket, tie and gown to get served in hall. Now it's formal for three nights a week, otherwise it's all very casual.
Bernie Klein, seated near me, favoured a local noodle bar called Dojo. As did most of my fellow diners. He was studying chemical engineering. "Does that mean you make weapons of mass destruction?" I asked. "We don't make them," said Bernie, "we just work out how to make them." That boy's got a big career ahead.
The girl opposite, Ellie Hargreaves, was on crutches. She'd sprained her ankle playing in the college football team. In my day a girl wouldn't have been allowed in the college, let alone to play football. I asked her boyfriend, a trainee lawyer, if he'd proposed marriage. "I'm waiting for the right moment," he said. "Don't wait," I advised, "she might leave you."
"She can't get far, she's on crutches," he responded.
The dessert situation was a bit naff. They had Muller Light Mousse and some other stuff. Not an ice cream in sight. Luckily, Dr Fleet had arranged creme brulee and fruit salad for me. See, one master expels me. Another gives me pud. Who says the old days were best?
In London a letter arrives from my friend, the super-chef who should be knighted, Gordon Ramsay. "Let it be known," he writes, "that whatever the Great Man imagined was 'seared tuna with some ghastly sauce' was not served in the Boxwood Cafe. No tuna has ever been served there, not even to Michael Winner."
I launched an investigation with meticulous vigour. By comparison the Hutton inquiry is a mere bagatelle. My first witness, Geraldine Lynton-Edwards, was doing a crossword by the pool of La Reserve de Beaulieu. "Gordon says I couldn't have eaten tuna," I reported. "You told me it was gravadlax," said Geraldine without diverting her eyes from 18 across.
I phoned my receptionist Dinah Lagoudakos, who'd been my guest that evening. Dinah works alternate fortnights. She was at home in the Wirral and not pleased to be troubled. I assured her it was a matter of national importance.
"What was our main course at the Boxwood Cafe?" I asked. "Salmon, it was horrible," replied Dinah. This pleased me. Salmon and tuna are of vaguely similar size and texture. I was obviously on form that evening. Had I displayed my normal expertise I'd probably have described the fish as fillet steak.
The cantankerous Michael Winner usually writes a load of ridiculous twaddle, but shock-horror I found myself agreeing with him about the pretentious food at Midsummer House. When will chefs remember they are cooks and craftsmen, not artists or decorators? When will they realise their job is to put food in front of us that we enjoy eating rather than looking at? When will they honour the ingredients they use and not do all they can to disguise their flavour with complex spicing, saucing and drizzling? I suppose they think it's clever and adds value. It doesn't and it's very far from satisfying. So thanks, Michael, keep up the good work.
Terence Conran, London
Michael, surely you're not still using a film camera with The Sunday Times now issuing CD-Roms (Winner's Dinners, last week)! Go on, treat yourself to a digital one.
David Blackburn, Prestbury
During a summer lunch at On the Waterfront in Cardiff I complained about no ice in my white wine as requested, no plastic wine cooler to put the bottle in and no meals to be had at 5pm when the board said meals were served from noon to 9pm. The manager's answers were: they didn't have enough ice to spare, their wine coolers didn't work (?) and the kitchen was a bit hot "so the chef has gone off for an hour". How will they survive the winter?
Steve West, Cardiff
I was astonished when at the four-star Hotel Andalucia Plaza on the Costa del Sol I was faced with having to pay a supplement at breakfast for fresh orange juice. This in the country where they grow! I cannot begin to think what Michael's response would have been.
Fred Somners, Berkshire
Some dining experiences are so disappointing they inspire a sense of shame. Why did I have to choose the restaurant run until recently by Gary Rhodes at the Dolphin Square hotel, London? The atmosphere on a very warm evening was chilly due to the air-conditioning, the cool colours and the near emptiness of the room. For £165 for three the food was adequate but unimaginably dull - I yearned for Rhodes's "drizzle of olive oil". I'd tell you what we ate, but I don't want to bore you.
Elizabeth Syrett, East Sussex
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