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The chef's name? I don't know, I just work here

Published 11 September 2005
News Review
635th article

Michael Winner and Andy Howard in front of chef Adrian Booth (Paola Lombard)

I'm glad a chef I admire, Simon Hopkinson, had his recipe book voted the best ever. It's outselling Harry Potter. At least so I read. Either way Simon is a great success.

He opened Bibendum on the Fulham Road where I was a regular.

In an interview Simon recounted how the strain of cooking got too much for him. He collapsed in tears in front of his fellow workers and then quit the kitchen. I guess that was because I came in for dinner.

Simon said, when he was head chef, his advice to youngsters was "cook what you really like to eat". Today in most restaurants in London and elsewhere Simon sees little evidence of this basic dictum. He finds most of the dishes on offer are "bland and boring, put together to please the egos of the bods in the kitchen rather than the paying customer". He also objects to dots made with squeezy bottles.

Simon's food was terrific. His incisive description of what's currently on offer is my view too.

The worst example of this recently being my visit to the dreaded Ledbury in Notting Hill. The so-called chef there, Brett Graham, could be a role model for Simon's strictures. The food is tasteless, over-messed-about and there are "decorative" blobs galore.

A friend of mine went in the evening and said it was dark, like a night club. This is because they have mirrors facing the black night outside. At lunch Paola found the ladies toilet so dark she couldn't even see to fix her mascara. The only good thing there was the restaurant manager, Helena Hell, and she's quit.

Paola and I fled to 202 in Westbourne Grove for coffee. I liked the menu and wrote I'd return. We did. 202 is in Nicole Farhi's clothing-cum-furniture shop. It's got great bustle, irregular old tables, a counter and, at Sunday lunch, a large queue of locals who know what's good for them. In contrast to Saturday lunch at the Ledbury when it was more or less empty.

202 is a snacky place. Not grand. But highly useful. An elderly couple at the next table had read my column that very morning when I said I'd come again to 202.

That's why they were there.

You can have poached salmon, piquillo pepper, spring onion and watercress salad, hot salt beef sandwich on rye with mustard and pickles, moussaka and more, all of which looked worth trying. Paola ordered fresh orange juice. I said to Andy Howard, the very good restaurant manager: "When were these oranges squeezed?"

"In about a minute," he replied.

Their two specials were sweet potato soup with coriander and spinach and riccota ravioli. I ordered French toast with crispy bacon, maple syrup and hash brown potatoes. Paola said: "That's what I'm having."

"Well, I'm allowed to have it, too," I suggested. We also drank some superb home-made lemonade.

Paola said: "This place is fantastic. We've got comfort and tasty food with no pomp and circumstance." The portions were enormous.

We were going to share fish and chips with mushy peas but there was so much on our plates we went straight to apple and peach crumble. "Where's it made?" I asked Andy.

"Here," he replied.

We got cappuccino. "Coffee, bloody brilliant," Paola announced waving her mug about.

"What's the ice cream, Andy?" I asked.

"Vanilla," he said. "That's made here, too." The crumble was robust, very big, lot of crumble, ice cream on the top. Each portion could easily have served two people.

"Very fresh, wonderful," said Paola and then added "really good" in case I didn't get the message.

"Is the head chef on today?" I asked Andy. He was. "What's his name?" I asked.

"Adrian," said Andy.

"Adrian what?" I persisted. Andy looked confused. "How long has he been here?"

"Two months," said Andy.

"And you don't even know his name!" I said, adding: "Do you think he knows his own name?"

"We'll see when he comes out," replied Andy.

That was taking forever. So I asked the elderly lady with the man, the people who came because of me: "Would you like to be in our photo?"

"No," she said.

"What's your name?" I requested.

"I won't tell you," she replied.

"Why? Are you secretly running a brothel?" I inquired.

"She's my first wife," said the man with her.

"Where's your second wife?" I asked.

The next day he hand-delivered a letter to my house (how did he know where I lived?) saying: "I've been married to the first wife for approx 45 years." He enclosed his card. His name is Ed Wolf and he does "indoor garden design". Very useful if you want to throw away the dining room.

Winner's letters

I can help Annie Hurrell (Winner's Letters, last week). One in our partnership sometimes snores, quite loudly! I use wax earplugs. I find them useful on flights when a child is crying, in a noisy hotel, or when my wife is unfocused.
David Deal, Oxfordshire

With all the money you claim to have, can't you pay someone to sew up the frayed hems of your shorts (Winner's photo, last week)? Better still, throw them away and buy a new pair!
Elizabeth Fulford, France

What were you wearing? White shorts with a fringe? Or white jeans massacred by Paola's nail scissors without her knowledge or consent? The only reason I doubt you are a complete lunatic is that you still use a Leica camera. Albeit you're confused over which film to use. Understandable in a man of increasing years with a young woman companion.
Marvin Pryce-Jones, Solihull

How can Mr Winner be sure that when the staff at the Splendido in Portofino lined up and said "Goodbye Principessa" (Winner's Dinners, last week) they weren't referring to him and not pouting Paola?
Alan Rhodes, Nottinghamshire

Regarding last week's photo: it's nice to see you hanging around with people of your own age for once.
John Finegan, Republic of Ireland

In a television programme about the north/south divide Michael Winner stated he wouldn't live in the north, not for a million pounds. Hooray! We won't have to organise a whip round. Let him patronise his overpriced London restaurants with their indifferent offerings and offhand service. Up north we'll continue to enjoy good meals with friendly service for the cost of one of Mr Winner's starters.
Alan Greaves, by e-mail

It was a complete shock when I recently found myself in the lift of the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat with Mr Winner. Due to the after effects of sun and a bottle of sancerre, my usual British reserve was sadly lacking. But to Michael's eternal credit he was both polite and friendly. Unfortunately I forgot to ask what he thought of the restaurant.
Chris Lazenby, Lincolnshire

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