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I won't stand on ceremony when it comes to sitting

Published 11 June 2006
News Review
673rd article

Michael and Geraldine standing outside La Cocarde de St-Paul

Geraldine and I were in La Cocarde de St-Paul, a restaurant in the beautiful medieval hilltop town of St-Paul de Vence in the south of France.

Geraldine said, "When we enter a restaurant I'd like you to take my chair out for me, stand behind it, and push it in when I sit down. And when we're going, could you stand behind my chair again, take it back for me and escort me out."

"I'm not a (Gordon Ramsay swear word) furniture mover!" I responded. "If you want furniture movers try the Yellow Pages." Geraldine took this well as she has a great sense of humour. She needs it being with me.

Next day I phoned Dinah May, my office assistant, with Geraldine beside me. "You know what Geraldine said yesterday?" I asked. "She said, 'I'd like you to take my chair out for me and push it back when we come to the table and take it out again when we leave'."

Dinah thought about this. "You mean on special occasions?" she asked.

"No, not on special occasions. All the bloody time!" I responded.

"What did you say?" asked Dinah.

"I told her if she wanted furniture movers she should read the Yellow Pages!" I replied.

This reminds me of a titled gentleman who, when his lady friend rose to go to the toilet in Michael Caine's house, stood up. When she returned he stood up again.

"Do you always do that? Stand when Pat leaves and comes back to the table?" I asked.

"Always," he replied firmly.

About two weeks later we were eating on the terrace of La Colombe d'Or. Pat left to go to the toilet and returned. Titled gentleman didn't move a muscle either time.

I said, "You gave a big speech the other day about standing up when Pat left the table and standing up when she returned. I didn't notice that just now!"

I mention this because, as we have women's liberation and male-female equality, I'm quite happy to pull chairs about as long as we take it in turns. I do it one day. The lady does it for me the next. I put that to Geraldine. It went down like a lead balloon.

I bet you're saying, "We always thought Winner was a pig!" I resemble that remark.

No, I don't really. I often stand up when ladies come to or leave the table. But, like my titled friend, I not infrequently forget. Or just can't be bothered.

I think there are more important things by which to judge people. Such as kindness (first and foremost), humility and wit. All of which abound in my delightful nature.

Now to the restaurant. La Cocarde looks lovely. I've walked past it for decades and meant to go in. It has green wooden chairs with straw seats, which look rather like Van Gogh's yellow chair, and Provencal tablecloths with white and blue flowers on them. The room is painted in a yellow wash.

St-Paul, when I first came in 1947, and for years after, was just tiny houses in cobbled alleyways. You entered through an arch in the town's 8ft-thick fortified walls.

Then, sadly, every house became a boutique. Tourists multiplied. They used to sell a more varied line in very good tat than they do now. There are porcelain nuns in black underwear, very posh olive oils and bath stuff, good and expensive oil paintings in the style of Canaletto, Bruegel, impressionists and Dutch masters. A lot of women's clothes, less and less for men, table cloths, towels, T-shirts . . . you get the drift.

La Cocarde's set menu is €28.50 plus service, about £22. I had snails, which were excellent, then salmon, which was overcooked and ghastly. For dessert, an apple tarte tatin and a lemon meringue pie - both horrendous.

Its brochure says: "Andreas Wegner (one of the owners) became the youngest master pastry cook in Germany on obtaining his diploma with distinction at 22." He wasn't present, so either he's no good at passing on his knowledge or he just employs a rotten pastry chef.

The brochure continues, "If you come to St-Paul don't forget to taste our specialities." Salmon obviously not being one of them.

A homely American family sat next to us. She was Mrs Nice America. "I bet they're from a caravan," I observed.

But they were staying in Monte Carlo. No room for caravans there.

Then I noticed Mrs Nice had a rucksack. "She could be in a caravan," I mused.

"Everyone has a rucksack now," said Geraldine.

"Well I certainly don't," I said. "Neither do you." Then I thought again about her request to pull chairs about. Unbelievable!

Winner's letters

We dined at the Michelin-starred Horn of Plenty in Devon. My starter was asparagus, quail eggs and hollandaise sauce. The first asparagus was gritty, so was the second. I told the waiter to inform the chef. He returned to tell me the chef advised the grit was caused by polenta sprinkled on the asparagus!
Peter Marks, Monaco

My wife and I were in Palm Springs a couple of years ago. We couldn't help but notice the number of old men with suspiciously young-looking women on their arms. I do hope you weren't one of them, Michael. Enjoy your time with Paola, who was photographed with you last week. Hitchin's very own Pizza Princess.
Alan Rhodes Nottinghamshire

I know you go to tables rather than restaurants. I promised my goddaughter at her christening, 18 years ago, to take her to the Ritz for dinner so we could sit and pull her parents to pieces. Which is the best table? Could you lend me a tie?
Tom Bannister, Bath

Mr Winner supposedly eats the best food at the best restaurants in the world. Last Sunday I sat down to Welsh lamb, fresh peas, Jersey Royals, mint sauce and Bisto gravy followed by rhubarb and custard, all cooked by my lovely wife on the Aga. Michael might think he has it made. Would I swap my caterers for his? Never.
David Hawkins, Kent

What a knife thrower you are, Michael. Well-placed, lethal, slick knife slashes is more accurate. If an amnesty on every knife in the country were to be effected, they'd only have to trace you to recover vast quantities of daggers.
Margaret Simms, Tyrone

You have only yourself to blame for the offer of an OBE, Michael. A man of your means could have afforded at least a knighthood.
Cliff Redman, Worthing

At Richard Corrigan's Lindsay House we waited nearly two hours between our first and second courses and finally only received our food when we threatened to walk out. We wrote to Corrigan but never got a reply. Can anyone out there beat a two-hour Corrigan wait?
Michelle Atkinson Hertfordshire

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