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Chef's table? Don't lead me up the garden path

Published 9 May 2010
News Review
877th article

Michael at Lewtrenchard Manor with Jason Hornbuckle, left, and other staff members (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

I hate chef's tables. That's where you're seated in some gloomy room that wouldn't be good enough to store dead cats. Even worse, you're faced with TV screens exhibiting kitchen staff at work. Who needs that?

I was shown the most ghastly chef's table ever at an otherwise splendid hotel, Lewtrenchard Manor in Devon. Jason Hornbuckle, chef and general manager of this beautiful Jacobean mansion, pointed with pride to a long, narrow table facing three TV screens. You could talk to only the people on your immediate left and right.

Jason intended to tell us, from his personal TV, what we were being served. Please, just shut up, Jason, stay in the kitchen and dish it out. Preferably at great speed. This, to his credit, is what he did.

After we were re-seated in a marvellous panelled room with leaded windows (seen in the background of this week's lovely evening photo), the set dinner flowed like a torrent. Artichoke with sautéed scallops, sea bass with curry, venison with liquorice sauce, rhubarb fool, hot chocolate tart, coffee and home-made fudge all came at the speed of an express train. Possibly influenced by my presence and that of the hotel's owner, Andrew Davis.

Andrew specialises in country house hotels. They remain extremely un-centralised. Each has real, welcoming character and an individual atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the bread, which I was assured was made every day, didn't get to me. Nor did the water.

"They didn't serve me the water; now they're not serving me bread," I complained.

Andrew said, "Geraldine needs a Nobel prize. I'm going to model myself on you in future."

His assistant, Sarah, remarked, "He'll never complain about me again." Andrew, the most politically incorrect person ever, does a double act with the prim Sarah that is hilarious. They'd have been a wow closing the first half of the variety bill at the old Chiswick Empire.

In an hour we'd had six triumphant courses, the only dud being a caramelised orange and cardamom ice cream. Geraldine loved it. Andrew and I had ours replaced with vanilla. I don't think chefs should be too clever with ice cream.

Andrew, who has dozens of hotels, including Cliveden, Sharrow Bay and the magnificent Chateau de Bagnols near Lyon, started out as a property developer, converting old mansions into flats. He bought the Mount Somerset hotel in Devon and went there to close it when the phone rang. It was the Yves Saint Laurent company booking a large group in for £20,000. Andrew thought: I'll have the £20,000 and keep it open another week. Thus he got into hotels and thus I fled from the chef's table in a room absurdly named the Purple Carrot.

I was told a scrap metal dealer took my place when I declined. "Just the sort of person who should be there," I commented with disgraceful snobbery.

  • I just managed to reach Nice recently, after the Icelandic ash fiasco. Planes were grounded. Now we learn the ash was never more than 20% of the real danger level. I congratulate Wee Willie Walsh, the British Airways chief, for annihilating the credibility of the Met Office and other "experts" by flying into the ash with no bad results.

    I was desperately trying to get to the Cote d'Azur by Eurostar with the help of its charming PR lady, Lesley Retallack. First to Paris, then a flight to Nice or on the TGV fast train, just before Willie proved the skies were safe. Thanks to him my private jet could perform. The public were denied the delight of travelling with me.

    You'll be glad to learn Nice airport has a posh new reception area for private jet passengers. They were putting down a red carpet. Not, amazingly, for me, but for some nob who was going to open it.

    We stayed at the magical La Colombe d'Or in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a walled medieval village on a hilltop. Picasso, Braque, Bonnard and other famous artists left examples of their work to pay for food. In the dining room hang some £75m-worth of paintings.

    The expressive Danielle Roux, who owns the place with her husband, François, was being quizzed on the phone by a prospective guest - "What size is the room? What's in it?" Eventually she said testily, "This isn't a Hilton; it's an antique hotel." The prices are antique, they're so low. The three-course set lunch, as good a meal as you'll get, is €30 (£26). For dinner with a cheese course added it's an incredible-value €35. The chef, Herve Roy, and the highly efficient restaurant manager, Filippo Donato, have been there 23 years. It shows.

    We had the best bouillabaisse ever at Tetou, in a hut facing the sea in Golfe-Juan. One portion of fish soup with white fish and half a lobster costs €124 (£108). It takes cash only. I never have enough. Currently I owe €79. I'll pay when I go again this summer.

    PS: I told you of my amazement at finding I could draw only £200 cash a week on my Gold Amex card. On my Coutts Gold Mastercard-used massively less than my Amex-I can draw not £200 a week, but £1,000 a day. That might just cover lunch for two at Tetou.

    Michael's missives

    Who was the elderly lady standing by the sea at Dubrovnik with the lovely Geraldine in last week's picture? Was it by any chance her mother? How sweet of her to take the old biddy on holiday.
    Simon Pritchard, Cornwall

    That was a lovely photo of Geraldine in Dubrovnik, looking relaxed, surrounded by well-preserved ruins.
    Paul Lyons, Hampshire

    When I visited Dubrovnik years ago, on the first morning at breakfast on the terrace the waiter cleared the table of uneaten food, plastic bottles, paper napkins etc, walked over and tipped the lot into the sea! I'm sure things have moved on.
    Don Roberts, Cheshire

    Following the letter from Julie Stonel - I stayed at the Grosvenor House hotel last Christmas and the waiter found me some Marmite without any problem. He must have liked me.
    George Mold (aged 12), Northamptonshire

    The staff at the Auberge du Pere Bise told us it was full for dinner. We went anyway and requested a table. Mme Bise inspected us from head to toe, conceded we'd passed the sartorial test and allowed us to pay her to eat. You would not have passed the dress code.
    Jan and Michele Manning, West Sussex

    I'd very much like a Winner doll. Since Geraldine is taken, please send Jenny Seagrove or similar.
    Nigel Bartram, Devon

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