Published 31 October 2004 News Review 590th article
Michael Winner with John Fraser and the Ritz chef, John Williams (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
I'm a great fan of a chef named John Williams. He's not famous. He doesn't scream out four-letter words on television. I've read very few good reviews of his cooking. In fact I haven't read any.
John comes from Newcastle.
He says, modestly: "I'm not a three-Michelin-star chef. I'm a hotel chef. I cook for the client." He can cook for me any time. I think he's marvellous.
John was with the Savoy group for 18 years, mainly at Claridge's, when it was run in an old-fashioned, gentlemanly way. It's still a nice place, but in John's day the restaurant was one of the most beautiful rooms in London.
Now it's been rebuilt -which is okay if you like glorified airport lounges. Gordon Ramsay was brought in to jazz it up and he's been very successful. I'm glad. He's a particularly nice person.
When Gordon acquired the main restaurant at Claridge's, John Williams was demoted to the catering and meals in the lounge. I often went there to eat simpler food.
A few months ago John left for the Ritz: a fantastic, preserved Edwardian grand hotel in Piccadilly. There he is master of the kitchens.
His food is served in unquestionably the most beautiful dining room in London.
It's enormous, with gilt metal chandeliers, wall candelabra, a ceiling painted with clouds and cherubs and a golden statue of some old man with a three pronged fork -Neptune, I suppose -accompanied by a nude woman also in gold. It's grand elegance of the old style.
There's only one problem: they require you to wear a tie. Why I can't imagine.
Even at Wiltons in Jermyn Street a tie is no longer compulsory.
Acquiescent as ever I put on a Macro cash and carry grey silk tie, a black blazer from Huntsman of Savile Row and dressed ever so smartly. "Not with your shirt hanging out of your trousers!" I hear readers exclaiming.
I went for Sunday lunch with Geraldine and John Fraser. I paid Fraser to make my bed and do general duties at our Quaker boarding school when I was 12 and he was 14. The headmaster took a dim view. "It's the power of the purse," he pontificated to Fraser, "totally against the principles of St Christopher's."
Fraser reported this to me. "Do you want to stop, John?" I asked. "I'll keep taking the money," he replied. He's been doing that for 57 years. Never even had a day off for illness.
Actually he did once. John had polio at school, so he's a bit crippled. Last year he fell down and was carried away in an ambulance. He was off work for a whole day. I deducted it from his salary. That's a Winner joke, I didn't really.
As it was John's 71st birthday, I took him to the Ritz. He and Geraldine ordered roast black-legged chicken with truffles and sweet cured bacon, souffle potatoes at Pounds 64 for two people. This was all very well, but they roast the chicken from the ground up so it meant a long wait.
Later I waited an unusually arduous time for my vanilla souffle. I've a feeling it didn't work and they re-did it for me. Before it arrived we'd been sitting for two hours. "A good lunch is three to four hours," said Geraldine. "Not in my book, I like to slosh it down and get out," I responded. Fraser said to Geraldine: "You've lived too long in Paris."
For my main course I had the Ritz chicken pie. This was John Williams's speciality at Claridge's. It was the same pie in those days but without Ritz in the title. It is truly and totally historic. It's got recognisable pieces of chicken in it. Plus a lovely white sauce, some bacon, herbs, very good pastry and little boiled eggs.
On my one visit to Claridge's under Ramsay, Gordon himself cooked a chicken pie for me. It was terrible beyond belief. Which was odd, because Gordon is a wondrous chef. He's also one of only two chefs in London who can do pommes souffles immaculately. John Williams being the other. These are little blown-up fried potato bags.
I asked for some fat from the beef fried up on the side. The last time I went to the Ritz they had it on the trolley and it was memorably brilliant. This time John Williams let me down. I got slices of beef with thin slivers of fat on them. Not what I wanted.
The rest of the meal was superb. The restaurant is well run by Simon Girling. The Ritz Sunday set lunch was £39 when I went. From tomorrow it's £45, including VAT, service, coffee and petit fours. Still a bargain.
Last week, referring to Les Agaves in Beaulieu, you advised "Book in your own name, not in mine." We wouldn't dream of making a reservation in the name of Winner. We amuse ourselves by booking for two in the name of Mr and Mrs Cheeseboard or Mr and Mrs Nest de Tables or, our favourite, Doctor E Coli.
Victoria Gray, Bolton
Your mention of the "exploding" Michael reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where a diner devours so much he is seen to explode over the whole restaurant. Not a pretty sight. Be careful this incommodious fate does not befall you. Python's sketches have more than a grain of truth in them.
Ralph Tuck, Huddersfield
I refer to the overstuffed state you found yourself in (Winner's Dinners, October 17) and your thinking you'd blow up blasting pieces of Winner all over other diners. Please telephone me when you're next feeling like this. I'll then place myself strategically so I can have blown over me your wallet and your watch.
Paul Johnson, Oldham
While Pinewood studios continues to produce the biggest (though perhaps not the best) of British films, the quality of the restaurant food and decor has plunged to the depths of a vastly overpriced works canteen. The situation has become desperate. I'd like to invite you to lunch there so you can give an unbiased outsider's view. Then we may be able to force the studio's catering management to take some action.
Ian De'Ath, London
On a recent visit to Reid's Palace, Madeira, for dinner the dining room offered the usual mixture of the truly beautiful (like us) and poseurs (alas, the majority). We were surprised to receive a bowl containing individual paper packets of sugar with our coffee. Have standards dropped? Or were we not paying enough to justify a proper sugar bowl?
Charles and Jane Sweet London
A correspondent last week asked if you could not be stuffed and mounted. I was under the impression that you were already: frequently and occasionally.
Michael Bright, Oxford
You have not published any of my recent letters. Is it something I said?
Stanley Silver, Hertfordshire
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