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You get a better class of guest at my events

Published 17 July 2005
News Review
627th article



Michael with the Queen at the National Police Memorial unveiling (Paul Ashton)

Catered events fill me with dread. Not only is the food usually terrible, so are the people I'm expected to sit next to and entertain. I always ask who they'll be and who I'm in touch with on the other side.

I don't mean the other world, the one we may visit when dead, I mean the other side of the table. If I'm guest speaker then opposite are people staring at the top table.

I was flogging my autobiography not that long ago - well, within living memory if you've got a very good memory - at Simpson's-in-the-Strand. This is a nice old-fashioned place serving nice old-fashioned food. Richard Ingrams hosted for his Oldie magazine. Youth was not in evidence. Except for Paola.

I sat next to Richard, whom I'd never met before, and found him a total delight. More than I can say for the other two authors who vastly exceeded their allotted 10-minute speaking time. I made a note to insist I went on first at such events in future. Then I can make an excuse and leave without waiting to hear the others.

The food was solid. Okay salmon terrine, roast breast of guinea foul, a bit dry but acceptable, and a strange bitter chocolate iced parfait.

The next catered event was my own. To give it a bit of splash and dash I asked the Queen. She turned up radiant in a red, double-breasted coat. It perfectly matched the carpet I put down for her. She was unveiling my National Police Memorial in the Mall, followed by what is laughingly called a finger buffet in a tent on Horse Guards.

It was a distinguished group. My pals Tone (Mr Blair to you), Michael Howard, Charles Kennedy, assorted toffs and, most importantly, the widows and children of slain police officers.

Catering was by Damian Clarkson of Red Snapper Events. I thought it was very good, but then, being the host, I would. wouldn't I? He did terrific sandwiches (six sorts) from clove-scented York ham to tomato and free-range egg with basil. Also baby Yorkshire puddings and eourgette with haloumi fritters. Desserts included excellent chocolate brownies.

The Queen took a cup of tea. I didn't dare because I was introducing her to people. A waiter offered food. I'll always remember Her Majesty's look. It said: "I'd like one of those but I've got a cup of tea in one hand plus a handbag and I have to shake hands with people!" She resisted. I really liked her. Wonder if I can get her for a nosh at my house?

A fortnight ago I was asked by Laurel C Powers-Freeling (great name!), UK head of American Express, with five other couples, all much posher than me, to the Wimbledon men's finals. The game was intensely boring. I fell asleep. It's much better on telly.

Lunch was in a house close to the tennis courts. Stan Smith, an American ex-Wimbledon champ, very cleverly pays the owner to get out during the tournament and then arranges catered lunches where he - and in this case Pat Cash - give a brief discourse on tennis.

The food, by a group called Inn or Out, was moderate. But Laurel C was a delight. Very elegant, very clever. On my other side sat the immensely charming Gordon Pell. He's close to the top of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who own my bank, Coutts. They once sent me the bank balances of the consul general of Monaco. "At least you get the misdirected mail of a classy client if you're with Coutts." said Gordon. A good response.

We were offered miserable canapes, either big and nasty looking, or small and shrivelled. Lunch started with terrible bread and a cloying mousse. The main course lamb was all right, the dessert moderate. There were only 33 people, so it should have been massively better. Still, it was a nice day out.

Last weekend another catered "do". Lord Lloyd-Webber's marvellous Sydmonton festival. An arts event staged at his country house. Brilliantly orchestrated, much by his wife, Madeleine.

It proved that when you get people who know what they're doing, meals. even for 130 people, can be superb.

Andrew chose Rhubarb Food Design, a top firm run by Lucy Gemmell who used to work for my personal favourite caterer. Johnny Robertson-Roxburgh of Admirable Crichton.

Lucy provided everything from superb smoked haddock souffle to "Rhubarb's 17th-century apple pie recipe"; from whole spit-roasted pig to layered white and dark chocolate mousse with raspberries It not only sounded good. it all tasted good.

The guests were so interesting even I didn't have to worry about whom I sat next to. They might complain about me, of course. If they did, who could blame them?



Winner's letters

Sorry to read, last week, you had such an awful meal at Buckland Manor. Before moving to Scotland we walked our spaniel in the area of Buckland and were shocked when the new owners erected an incongruous electrified fence around the perimeter. Now we know why. Not to keep the peasants out but to keep the poor old diners in!
Douglas and Kay Mitchell Nairn

At Buckland Manor we had no dressing table in the bedroom and no shelves or cupboards in the bathroom for cosmetics. Breakfast arrived late. There was no marmalade or butler and the croissants were no good. Next morning they forgot the sugar. Two bowls of soup cost £18. Afternoon tea with lemon and one small slice of cake was £12. There were no deckchairs in the beautiful garden and, in mid June, the swimming pool was not operating.
Ann Garrod, Suffolk

Last week you described the surly Italian receptionist at the Cipriani in Mayfair. My party also experienced an incredibly snooty greeting from the receptionist two days before your visit. We were made to feel like something the cat had dragged in. Our table was barely big enough for two, let alone four of us. We pointed out a larger table nearby, but were told to like it or lump it. We lumped it - and left!
Anna Cullen, Bristol

I'm glad you admitted last week your mistake in calling all Italians hospitable. Perhaps you'll admit being wrong to call French chefs snooty. If they'd read about your predilection for fried eggs with truffles, grapefruit jelly and treacle puddings no wonder they look down their noses when you walk in.
Anthony Ricketts, St Jean D'Angely, France

You criticised the gloomy waiters at Le Manoir au Quat'Saisons last week. Would you be pleased to see yourself walk into a restaurant knowing of the impending "car crash" situation’? As for them not serving you bread, perhaps they were concerned about your waistline.
Paul Morgan, Carmarthenshire

I'm fed up with seeing you in your Mothercare tops. Could you find something more fitting! And does Paola know she has to go to Sandy Lane at Christmas?
Margaret Jowers, Hampshire

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