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Secrets from the Winner kitchen

Published 28 June 2009
News Review
832nd article

Michael in his kitchen at home with, from left, Peter, Kate and Betty Hallam (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I eat mostly in my kitchen. Probably five dinners a night when I'm not abroad. Just simple food. An apple. Orange and grapefruit juice. A piece of cheese. Can't eat much dinner if you want to stay slim.

That's my kitchen in the photo. An oil painting of Perugia behind my head, a rather good Heath Robinson on the left of the window, some fish, a 1956 Zenith radio which produces the best sound in the house (other than me screaming) and three of my staff, Peter, Kate and Betty Hallam.

Betty's the cook-housekeeper. She does very good, British cooking. None of yer fancy foreign muck. No plate decoration.

On Wednesday Jim the fish man drives up from Grimsby with the most marvellous fresh fish, caught that morning. That's fish'n'chips with mushy peas for lunch. Couldn't do better.

Kate works as receptionist for me and Jimmy Lahoud at L'Escargot restaurant in Soho. Peter helps out everywhere, managing the garden far better than our last supposedly professional gardener.

The restaurants in my area are mostly dreadful beyond belief. How so many utterly inept chefs managed to gather round my gaff I will never know. The Belvedere in Holland Park is pleasant. I often see Michael Heseltine, Simon Cowell and David Frost there. In the high street is a good little Italian place, Timo. Sticky Fingers is okay for a hamburger. That's about it. Geraldine has recently become quite attached to the quality of food at Pret A Manger at High Street Ken Tube.

Years ago I was at the Sandy Lane beach bar in Barbados. It was full of people called Hugo. There was Hugo Guinness, Hugo Swire, now a Tory MP, and Hugo de Ferranti.

"This is Julian," one of them said, introducing the fourth member of the group.

"Why isn't he Hugo?" I said. "Seems silly to break up the set."

I asked Julian what he did.

"I've just opened a sandwich bar in the City," he replied. "That'll go down like a lead balloon," I thought with total lack of grace. Of course it didn't. Julian Metcalfe became a zillionaire flogging soup, sandwiches, fruit salad, all the Pret A Manger range. Now he signs every item on sale. I thought I was meeting a beach bum, not a sandwich signer.

Chicken and pesto salad, crayfish and avocado salad, slim pret "half the dough", egg and bacon sandwich, chocolate and vanilla mousse, smoothies . . . Geraldine particularly admires the way each sauce goes so well with the food. You may ask: why I should be eating bought-in food at my kitchen table when I've got staff galore? Ask away. I plead the fifth.

  • Your letters which most appal me are not one's saying I look odd or ill-dressed (everyone can make mistakes) but those detailing how badly restaurateurs often react when you complain. Many of you are asked to leave. Others get short shrift.

    A classic example came from Penny and Roy Gluckstein, Londoners who ended up at the Devonshire Arms in North Yorkshire. They agreed with me that the main restaurant's claim to "fine dining" was ludicrous. "The food was stupidly fussy and unconvincing," they said. They much preferred the Brasserie.

    When they asked the hotel's general manager for his reaction to my adverse comments he said no one had complained about the food before. What codswallop. This is what hotel people say all the time. It's like one of those recorded phone messages. Of course people complain about food. I have e-mails and letters galore from readers complaining about the Devonshire Arms food. Many saying they complained when they were there.

    Having thus been faced down Penny and Roy "demurred". They shut up when they should have said, "Well you've got a complaint now." Unfortunately British people often don't like to make a fuss. So incompetence flourishes.

    When I moaned about the Ivy Club providing plastic-container orange juice instead of fresh a large package arrived at my house. When opened it revealed a wicker hamper. "That's nice," I thought, "someone's sent me pate de foie gras, champagne. Terrine, cheeses . . ." but no. The crate was full of oranges with a handwritten card from Ivy club owner Richard Caring which read "No one squeezes like you, Michael." That's funny.

    When I ate a piece of treacle tart at the marvellous Wolseley and found it among the most revolting substances ever, I asked the restaurant's excellent manager, Robert Holland, to try a piece.

    "It's not very good, is it?" he said.

    "It's diabolical," I replied.

    The next day co-owner Jeremy King rang me. "Sorry about the treacle tart," he said. "We've been trying to get it right. We thought we'd succeeded."

    "Not yet," I responded.

    "We'll take it off the menu and try again," said Jeremy. There spoke a true professional.

    Sometime later Robert said, "Would you like to try the treacle tart, Mr Winner."

    "If you say so, Robert," I replied. By George they'd got it. Marvellous. Been eating it regularly ever since. That's the way to handle a complaint. Do something. Don't sweep it under the carpet and assume the customer is a moron. Most of them aren't.

    Michael's missives

    Writing about Virgin Atlantic you say, "People who produce good waffles deserve total support." You must be totally self-supporting considering the amount of high-quality waffle you produce.
    Nick Jones, Le Crestet, France

    Michael - save your £100,000 on visiting Norway. You can eat herring and lingonberries in the Ikea cafe. Meet me in the Bristol one and I'll treat you. We can get free coffee with my family card!
    Susan Linacre, Wiltshire

    You complained about being addressed as "Mr Winter". Don't you invariably receive a frosty reception?
    Ian Lineker, Worcestershire

    We honeymooned at Chewton Glen during Peter Crome's tenure. We returned many times, but only once since his departure. Like you we were caught by unexplained extra dishes on the menu; we also took exception to denim at dinner, breast-feeding in the lounge and sundry other issues which deterred us from visiting since. Crome could be a little snooty, but he's sadly missed.
    Paul Hinks, Wiltshire

    You say you sometimes part with a lot of money for disappointing dishes. My regular haunt supplies honest food in quantity and quality with tea (second cup free) for £4.75. But you'll be thrown out wearing pyjamas.
    Tim Leman, Ickenham

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