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Six chefs, four customers, two stars . . . no hats

Published 2 January 2005
News Review
599th article

Michael Winner and Gualtiero Marchesi at the hotel L'Albereta (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

They shouldn't give Italians Michelin stars. It encourages bad habits. Italian cooking is simple and unfussed. Michelin-starred cooking is over-the-top show-off stuff.

Nice about once a year and then only if in the hands of a real expert.

So as I drove through pouring rain to Erbusco (don't ask where that is - it's in Italy) I thought, "Why am I bothering?" When I arrived my dismay increased.

The restaurant is called Gualtiero Marchesi. It's in the hotel L'Albereta. We were shown into a garish, long bar with two airport lounge type tables.

I asked at reception if the renowned two-Michelin-starred chef Gualtiero Marchesi was in. "Yes," said the receptionist. A PR woman arrived. "Is Gualtiero Marchesi in today?" I asked. She said: "I don't know." That sums up public relations people. They're inept and ridiculous.

We were given cheese biscuits, cheese and olives. The biscuits were horrid.

Geraldine liked the olives. She knocked back the cheese like she was a starving mouse. "You don't have to eat all the cheese," I suggested, "you've got a major two-starred Michelin meal coming." Geraldine replied: "I don't have to eat all the meal, it might be . . ." and she pulled a face.

We were shown into a bland dining room to a table facing an enormous photo of chefs in a kitchen. There were only two other customers.

Gualtiero Marchesi himself appeared, a very charming elderly man. "Do you want five portions?" he asked. "No thanks, I get too full up," I responded. "Two?" said Gualtiero. "Two and a dolce," I replied. Off he went. "I think he's gone to do it without showing us the menu," I said to Geraldine.

I asked for water, ice and lemon. Then started going on about why it didn't arrive. "Calm down, we're not in a rush," said Geraldine. "Speak for yourself," I replied.

They brought the ice and lemon. Most places ask if you want it in the glasses.

Here they just put it down and left.

Delicious freebies flew in. Fried mackerel with sweet and sour sauce, then focaccia. The photo on the wall rose revealing a real kitchen, not with 18 chefs as in the picture, only six. I reckoned that was enough for four customers.

Aubergine cream, candied tomatoes and star anise croccante arrived. Then two eggshells cut off at the top. Egg cream with ratatouille of vegetables. "Very posh all this," I dictated into my tape.

We could only take two photos of me and Gualtiero because we were running out of film. Geraldine said: "Let's hope I did it properly." "Pray rather than hope," I advised.

We got a mushroom cream with spring onions in a champagne glass. Geraldine looked up.

"That chef's very fierce," she said, indicating an extremely large man. "Why doesn't he have a hat on?"

Roberto Stroppiana, the assistant maitre d', said: "He's too tall. His hat would hit the ceiling." "My friend Gordon Ramsay wears a hat," I explained. "Well, he doesn't cook so much now, does he," said Roberto.

"I worked for a year in the Connaught. There he walked through and supervised."

It transpired Roberto's girlfriend, Jane Brealey, was an English girl. Jane's a total delight. She was three years at the Ivy, then managed the Connaught Grill.

She's cheerful and brilliant.

Jane explained she'd met Roberto at the Connaught, fell in love, and now worked in the beauty salon of the hotel. "Because I don't speak Italian yet," she recounted.

"When I do I'll be director of the place." "You've been going out with an Italian for two years, you live here, and you still don't speak Italian! Unbelievable!" I said.

Then we got marinated salmon with dill and a mustard and pear sauce. "In the middle is cold spaghetti with caviar and chives," I dictated. "The spaghetti's not cold, it's tepid," corrected Geraldine. "No, it's cold," I said. "It's tepid," repeated Geraldine. "It's cold," I responded. This could have gone on for ever. And did. Believe which of us you choose.

The main course looked like chicken in a basket from McDonald's. I was only in McDonald's once, years ago, in New Rochelle. Had a Big Mac. It was awful.

The excellent Italian chips were made on the premises. The chicken had butter in it. This used to be called chicken kiev. It came in a white picnic basket.

The dessert was chocolate biscuit with chocolate mousse and passion fruit sorbet.

All the food was exemplary. I asked for the bill and they said: "It's compliments of Mr Marchesi." "No it isn't," I responded.

If I return I hope Jane will be running the joint. She deserves to.

  • PS: Our competition "What most impressed me on my travels?" continues. Amazing prize. Great answers so far.

    Winner's letters

    What impressed you the most? Finding a mirror large enough to reflect your head.
    Christopher Wood, Valence, France

    . . . that intelligent people still take the trouble to write to you and read your drivel.
    Alan Bracken, Hertfordshire

    . . . after all those dinners tested/the chairs on which your bottom rested.
    Christina Cradick, East Sussex

    . . . surely it was Geraldine.
    George Russell, Fife

    . . . that people north of Watford Gap have running water and in some cases electricity.
    Marvin Pryce-Jones, Barbados

    . . . it must have been Concorde.
    Dr Eiddon Davies, Swansea

    . . . the number of people who fail to notice the tongue in your cheek.
    Tony Boddy, North Yorkshire

    . . . the restaurant where you didn't see the fork carelessly left on your chair.
    David Miller, London

    You were least impressed when Geraldine thought your IQ was 58. You were most impressed when you realised that she meant your age.
    Richard Usmar, Oxfordshire

    There can be few sights more dreaded by a restaurateur than seeing you enter and few more welcome than seeing you leave. Could we too have the opportunity to judge whether your backside is more appealing than your full frontal?
    Peter Grundy Newcastle-on-Tyne

    At the two-Michelin-starred restaurant The Square in London we received a glacial greeting. The food was far from high voltage, served with little grace and consumed at a table better suited to two people than four. We were required to eat charter-flight style, elbow to elbow, with woefully inadequate space for our wine glasses. The Square should enter the space age and be more generous with their smiles.
    Stephen Ritch, Isle of Man

    I am from Durham. I speak with a northern accent and sometimes even in dialect. Let's get one thing straight. I do not "talk funny" as you wrote on December 19. You are the one who talks funny.
    Ken Orton, Co Durham

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