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The celebrity chef who can still cook up a storm

Published 7 June 2009
News Review
829th article

Michael with, from left, front row, Giorgio Locatelli, his wife Plaxy and Roberto Veneruzzo (Dinah May)

Chefs are stupid egomaniacs, vacuous morons. That's when they're not going broke, thus denuding their suppliers and staff of millions of pounds. I don't know why they're even called chefs. They cook. Why can't they be called cooks, restrained in the kitchen and just get on with providing food? As any twit can become a celebrity chef, why not have celebrity plumbers and celebrity undertakers?

My only interest in chefs is what they serve for me to eat. I don't need to know who prepared it, peeled the potatoes or swept the floor, who screamed at who or any other details of activity in the kitchen.

There are a few exceptions. Giorgio Locatelli for example. Giorgio (bet you guessed) is Italian. He has a superb Michelin-starred restaurant, Locanda Locatelli in Marylebone. He's charming, pleasant, intelligent, handsome, cheerful - and he can cook.

I met Giorgio decades ago when he was at Zafferano in Knightsbridge. I stopped going because the restaurant manager, Enzo Cassini - still there, and I got him the job - pulled a stroke on me so disgraceful that I stamped my little feeties and never returned.

"What upset you this time?" I hear you ask wearily. Glad you're interested. I'll tell you. I have a regular table at many restaurants. I don't go to restaurants, I go to tables. If they're not available, who cares? I go somewhere else.

One evening I rang Enzo and asked, "Is my table free?"

"Yes," he replied. On arrival I could see, through the window, a couple sitting at my table. I went in and stood by the table. Opposite, stairs led down to the kitchen.

"Why is my table not available?" I asked Enzo icily.

"I've done you a favour: I've put you over there," replied Enzo, pointing to a small table in the opposite corner crammed between two large tables, 10 people on one, 12 on the other.

"Why?" I asked in disbelief.

"The kitchen air-conditioning's broken down. Hot air is blowing up over your table," said Enzo. As we were standing there and felt nothing, and as this was obviously a lie, I was not impressed.

I said, "Don't assume I fell off the turnip truck. You'll never see me again." And stormed out. As the girlfriend and I sat in my light blue 1971 Mercedes sports convertible, phoning elsewhere, Enzo rushed over. "Your table is now free," he offered.

"Too late," I responded and drove off.

I reminded Giorgio of this incident. He said, "Note I did not take Enzo with me to Locanda Locatelli."

"Very wise, Giorgio," I replied.

When he opened in 2002, Giorgio's wife, Plaxy, a lovely dark-haired lady, was the brilliant restaurant manager. Giorgio met her in a place called Huckle Fred in Carlisle Street, Soho. That's information no one else would give you.

"Is she Italian?" I asked.

"She's British, from north London," replied Giorgio.

"Not Jewish?" I queried.

"No, she's not," said Giorgio.

"You're lucky there," I remarked. I now wait for a deluge of letters saying I'm anti-semitic. All from north Londoners, who tell endless jokes dismissive of Jewish princesses. It's a little humour, fellas. I love you all.

I bet you're thinking: "Did you eat anything, Winner?" We started with freebie fried artichokes, beans, olives and cured beef with lemon and a touch of olive oil. Marvellous. Then spaghetti alla chitarra, made with balls of tuna. Prior to the meal I'd watched Giorgio preparing these in the kitchen. He then ate them himself. Didn't fall down foaming at the mouth. So they were obviously safe. Also very good. I followed with marvellously moist cod, lentils and parsley sauce.

My guest, a Welsh lady, had fillet of wild sea bass in salt and herb crust, green salad. I can't mention why I was with this person. I have a contract which warns that if I say anything I'll be dismembered and my body parts will be delivered to various kitchens around London, where they'll be cooked and served as pork.

A friend of mine who ate people in the jungles of Borneo, before the area became infested with McDonald's and Starbucks, assured me human flesh tasted just like pork. Valuable information if the recession bites and you have to eat your neighbour. I finished with Amalfi cream Eton mess.

"What's the difference between Amalfi cream and ordinary cream?" I asked restaurant manager Roberto Veneruzzo.

"Amalfi cream is made with limoncello," he replied. The dessert had crispy meringue inside. Historic. Only downer: the restaurant decor lacks the warmth of he whom it is named after. Go anyway.

  • The Academy Award-winning writer, director and nice person Julian Fellowes (The Young Victoria, Gosford Park) said in an interview: "Michael Winner changed my life. When I saw his I'll Never Forget What's'isname, it so impressed me I decided to become a film writer and director." How have I changed your life? Answers on a postage stamp, please.

    Michael's missives

    I was most impressed by your photo last week. If you have any spare time can you come and stand in my garden? It would keep the birds away from the crops.
    Steve West, Cardiff

    Your photo caption referred to the managing director, the helicopter pilot and the Rolls-Royce dealer. Please offer a free meal with your good self for the reader who comes up with the best punchline to complete the joke.
    Philip Weisberger, London

    You say the young man at the next table at the Devonshire Arms "was transfixed with incredulity". Like the rest of us he probably thought you were long since dead.
    Peter Williams, Conwy

    I thought it was just me - that's how Devonshire Arms MD Iain Shelton made me feel when I wrote to complain. Our food was appalling, splodged on the plate and covered with foam and mush. I agree, it is nouvelle cuisine at its absolute worst. I'd describe the restaurant staff as troubled!
    Jacqueline Butler, Macclesfield

    You said next time you'd try the Devonshire Arms Brasserie. Don't bother. Our medium-rare steak was raw, the duck leathery, the breakfast haddock so minuscule the egg obscured it. Our cell-sized room was grubby, only one person at a time could enter the bathroom and they had to squeeze round the door to get in.
    David Jenner, East Yorkshire

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