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Once again I'm on the lookout for leading ladies

Published 3 October 2004
News Review
586th article

Michael Winner with Nicole Rubi, right, and her daughter Cecile (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

In 1957 I was associate producer on a documentary filmed on the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious. The title associate producer goes to anyone prepared to associate with the producer. I helped carry equipment, offered the occasional directorial suggestions (rarely accepted) and sailed the Mediterranean.

After this searing experience the producer-director, a lovely man called Harold Baim, said, "If you have any ideas for short films, let me know."

I helpfully suggested Danger Women at Work - a look at women preparing for, or engaged in, useful activities. This was partly because I thought it a good subject and partly because I reckoned I'd meet a lot of girls who might later join me in social activities. Thus I wrote, produced and directed this mini-movie, which supported Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot in the West End and on the circuit.

I'm drawn to these thoughts, some 50 years later, because there are, sadly, few women working in high places in what is laughingly and inaccurately known as the hospitality industry.

A fine example is Nicole Rubi, hostess with the mostest, at a fantastic restaurant, La Petite Maison in Nice, much favoured by glitterati from Elton John to Michael Caine. A couple of years ago I wrote high praise of the place. I returned to see if it was still running smoothly.

Nicole led me to a corner table displaying two bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal champagne and a gargantuan tin of beluga caviar.

As we approached she said nervously, "You are Michael Winner, aren't you?" All these delicacies were an intended freebie as Nicole had been inundated with English diners after my recommendation. The moment of panic was in case she was showing the wrong person to the right table!

With me was television commercials guru Gerard de Thame and his lovely ex model wife Rachel, now a garden columnist on this newspaper. We ordered. Then Nicole appeared again. I explained we'd already chosen. Nicole proceeded to tell us what we'd each have. This included lobster for Rachel who is Jewish and doesn't eat shellfish.

There arrived truffles with scrambled eggs, an artichoke salad, crevette and fried calamari and more. I finished with ice cream and berries. This is a "must visit" place.

Madame Rubi declined to give me a bill. Rather than argue forever, as I absolutely refuse to take anything for nothing, I pressed £500 worth of euros into the breast pocket of a passing waiter. Madame Rubi insisted I had a celebratory cake, so we re-settled on a pavement table.

Some tiramisu displaying a "Thank you Mr Winner" card appeared with four fireworks that nearly destroyed the canvas awning. Madame Rubi, accompanied by daughter Cecile who works with her, reprimanded me for missing the risotto and the macaroni. "I've eaten enough for three days," I said scoffing some orange jelly babies. "How can you possibly go on eating?" exclaimed Geraldine. "Very easily," I replied.

Then the waiter who got my tip passed by. Nicole grabbed my euros from his top pocket and thrust them back at me. This is the only time I've ever left without paying. I plan a major present for Nicole on my next visit, to more than compensate for the meal.

Nicole reminds me of London's greatest hostess, Mara Berni at San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge. Mara's run the place for more than 40 years. She sees everything and communicates to the staff her clear views on what should be happening.

Both Mara and Nicole dress in a manner I would describe as practical for people who have to be on their feet for hours on end. Mara is more than an institution, she's a marvel. There was also a lady boss at Wiltons in St James's, Margaret Levin, who was the most unwelcoming host I ever came across. She's gone to the Groucho club in Soho.

In the south of France a wonderful woman supervises another terrific restaurant, the Hostellerie Jerome in La Turbie. Marion Cirino has that slightly frightening air of efficiency that many French ladies possess. But she's a delight. Husband Bruno slaves away in the kitchen, producing two-star Michelin meals of exceptional taste and quality. Don't miss them.

My favourite lady in the area is Sylvie Coppini who runs La Chaumiere near Eze. This rustic farmhouse offers beef or lamb, roasted on an open log fire. If you want chicken you have to ask in advance. The set menu is one of the most delicious experiences ever.

When I sat there in late summer a man came in. "I'm a potato farmer from Shropshire," he announced, "I'm here because of you. It took me forever to find the phone number." So what! He got there. And he loved it.

Winner's letters

Apropos last week's information that Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's was voted third for top gastronomic experience in Harden's London restaurant guide, six of us dined there recently. The food and service we couldn't fault. But the bill for our water - Evian and Badoit - came to £70! Gordon, you cannot be serious!
Pat Coates, Leicestershire.

Some of the pockets in your jackets look as if they are big enough for doggy bags. "Waste not want not" is surely not your scene?
Nigel Deacon, Harrow

Maggie Jones's (Winner's Dinners, last week) - there's a name to conjure from the past. It was once the haunt for dining budding actresses, models and au pairs in a dark, romantic, candle-lit setting. I haven't been for 25 years. It's of comfort to learn it still exists in a world where restaurants fight for survival past their early popularity. But I'm worried, if I revisit am I likely to encounter Mr Winner at his most effusive and petulant?
Donovan Winter, London

Dining out should be an event in pleasant or even luxurious surroundings. However, I often find myself staring at a wall, or worse a mirror. At my age the reflection of my physog is not something I seek out. Certain restaurants have much more customer-friendly seating arrangements. Could Michael include such facility in his reviews.
Patrick Nolan, Leeds

Surely a food critic ought to have at least a basic knowledge of the dish he is condemning. For the second time in recent months Michael Winner castigates a treacle tart for its lack of treacle. Treacle tart is the name of a dish which contains absolutely no treacle at all. It does (or should) contain Golden Syrup, a different thing altogether.
Brian Highley, Devon.

What is happening to Michael Winner's skin? In every photograph it seems be getting a shade darker. Is he turning into a kind of Michael Jackson in reverse? I think we should be told.
David Powis, Worcestershire.

They say a fool and his money are soon parted. But where on earth does Michael Winner keep getting all this money from? I am perplexed.
Charles Saunders, West Sussex.

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk