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Why the schmutter king chopped off my head

Published 5 April 2009
News Review
820th article

Michael Winner, with alien body, on the Club at the Ivy Christmas card (no credit)

There are those who do things, achieve, create jobs. Others sit back and moan. In the first category is Richard Caring. Richard was probably the first lad in clothing (aka the schmutter business) to get schmutter made in China - in 1971. He was 22. Richard supplies big stores, including those of his pal Sir Philip Green. He started in catering by acquiring the posh Wentworth golf club from Elliott Bernerd in 2005. When Elliott bought it, his right-hand man, an upper-class friend of mine, Michael Broke, was sent to check things out. He asked a club official what sort of members they had. "Nice people," he replied. "We don't have many Jews."

"You've got one more now," said Michael. "He just bought the place."

With Richard the tradition continues. Later he bought the Ivy, Le Caprice (opening in New York) and J Sheekey. He went on to acquire more businesses here and in America, including the Soho House hotel, Cecconi and - to the horror of his detractors - Mark Birley's empire: Annabel's, George, Harry's Bar and Mark's Club. "How dare a schmutter trader from north London get his grubby paws on all that?" was the moronic view of many. Stories rampaged, some fuelled by Richard's own employees: there were staff cuts; the quality of kitchen ingredients was being reduced; portions were smaller.

I see no dumbing-down. The standard remains excellent. I'm told George now serves half an artichoke instead of a whole one. The world won't shake.

Richard's greatest triumph is Scott's. He took a dud, dull restaurant, redesigned it and rebuilt it so now it's one of London's best. Elegant, immaculate; great food and service.

Another of his creations is the Club at the Ivy. It had a shaky start. Members complained to me endlessly. That was then. Now it's superb. Shortly before Christmas I went with boss Caring. He's very open, most amusing, beautifully tailored. He produced a Christmas card showing my head on a muscular, alien body wearing a black T-shirt with "Calm down, dear" on it, standing in front of the Ivy club flanked by uniformed doormen. Inside was the message: "From Michael Winner and all the team at the Club at the Ivy."

"Can we use this?" asked Richard.

"Please do," I replied, "it's very funny."

Later I e-mailed Richard asking him to confirm in case I wrote about it. He replied. "That'll definitely be our card."

A few days later I was in the Ivy club with Robert Logan, the first-rate manager of Sandy Lane. I asked Fernando Peire, man in charge, "Am I on the Ivy club Christmas card?"

"No," he said, "you're on the restaurant card. The club has Santa Claus in the doorway."

"Impossible. Your boss told me I was on the club card," I responded.

"They've just come in. I'll check," said Fernando. He returned. "You're definitely not on the Ivy club card," he stated.

I e-mailed Richard again: "Am I mad or is Fernando mad?"

He replied, "You know Fernando's mad."

Members told me they were receiving the Santa Claus card. Then, as a member, I got one. I e-mailed Richard yet again. He said he'd explain the next day at a lunch given by the Sotheby's chairman, Henry Wyndham. There Richard produced "my" card, assuring me it had already gone out. He asked me to sign it for reissue. "I always sign in felt pen," I said petulantly. Richard went to search Sotheby's, returning with a black felt pen. That's the spirit that built empires. I wrote: "Wot a luvly place, the boy's dun well! Michael Winner, world's worst food critic." Richard assured me all his members would have it. I certainly got one.

I last visited the Ivy club with Peter Wood of esure. I had a fantastic chicken pie, marvellous white asparagus with poached duck egg and minted hollandaise, and a lovely rhubarb pie. Service is good, the menu mercifully simple. The first-floor bar also offers food; the second floor has the Library restaurant, above it a sushi bar. I'm not going there. Raw fish can be dangerous. Only one problem with the Library: the three best tables have huge, soft leather chairs. You sink into them. You're out of touch with the table. Peter Wood, sensibly, insisted the staff change his chair. When I queried the seating, a manager said, "People can lean back and take books from the shelf."

"Oh yeah," I responded, "how many members have you seen reading? They come to eat." As that's my only complaint the place has to be pretty darned good. Bravo, Richard. Ignore all critics, gossips and halfwits. Especially me.

  • PS: There's a very glamorous glass lift. No buttons. It goes automatically to the first floor. The single door swings outwards electronically. There's an accident waiting to happen.

  • After the BBC's Question Time from Newcastle upon Tyne, the other panellists stayed chatting on the platform. I left to catch my private jet. As I was walking out someone in the audience shouted, "Michael Winner, good on you." Then everyone applauded me like mad. That was very nice of them. I was moved. Thank you.

    Michael's missives

    On Question Time I was amazed you didn't complain. Your table was cramped, the water looked like Hildon and you were facing a bunch of Geordies.
    Alex Graham, Ross and Cromarty

    I enjoyed watching you make those politicians squirm on Question Time. Nice to see you haven't totally lost touch with reality.
    Simon Stroud, Essex

    I see you're planning to marry soon. The pink maternity top you wore in last week's photo gave the game away. I know people of your generation are ashamed of children being born out of wedlock. I send best wishes and hope you continue to write Winner's Dinners even when confined.
    Val Alcock, Surrey

    The Coco Momo photo caption was: "Michael with Ginny, Rebecca, Natalie and, seated, Seth Barry." Did you really think we'd confuse you with the handsome Seth?
    Katrina Golden, Northamptonshire

    Thwarted and bored by finding nothing to gripe about at Coco Momo, you launched into an astonishing interrogation of the waiter. Why didn't the lovely Geraldine ask you to eat up and shut up? But then perhaps she did.
    Iain Lineker, Worcestershire

    Your tedious dissertations on the relative merits of bottled waters lead me to suspect you have water on the brain. In your case this could be treated with an enema.
    Dr M Buckley, Kent

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