Following the news of Michael Winner’s death, we revisit a 2010 interview with the film director and food critic which coincided with the launch of his ITV show Michael Winner’s Dining Stars.
The woman behind the till at Sainsbury’s was full of sympathy. “It’ll soon be over,” she said with feeling. The taxi driver was slightly more direct. “Well, he’s a cantankerous old boy. I’d be very nervous, if I were you.” As I rang the bell at Michael Winner’s Holland Park mansion, and was ushered in by a phalanx of staff, I would have gladly been anywhere else in London. And doing anything else than cooking lunch for him. Putting one’s own food before the country’s most feared restaurant critic, a man who delivers phrases such as “This meal is absolutely appalling” and “Could you please send a search party to the kitchen to find my main course” is not to be taken lightly.
For many celebrity chefs, the newly slender figure of Winner, thanks to his self-styled Fat Pig Diet (which boils down to simply eating less and not eating much at all in the evening) is a thing of dread. In his restaurant, Antony Worrall-Thompson actually devised toilet seats printed with the face of Winner, so his image would be intimately connected with, er, waste products.
It’s not just restaurateurs; recently, domestic kitchens across the country have been trying to please Britain’s most displeased foodie, as evinced by Michael Winner’s Dining Stars, a four-part romp in which Mr W traverses the country by chopper and Roller in order to find the best British cook. It’s not an easy journey. Winner advances on one home in Yorkshire with the classic statement: “The North is not a place I frequently go to. The people are very nice but they provide food that is absolutely pathetic, and they are incapable of cooking.” He thinks nothing of shouting when the food is late, or the plates aren’t hot, or giving advice to crestfallen say, “the starter was a failure and the dessert was a disaster”. In one show, he actually reduces the hostess to tears before he’s even met her.
Mindful of all of this, I take the precaution of cooking my chosen lunch with a professional chef two nights beforehand, and writing every step down in my Filofax. I’m a good home cook, but pleasing Winner is a gastronomic Matterhorn whose ascent must be planned with care.
“Come in, come in, dear,” shouts Winner from a magisterial study. “Let me show you the bedroom,” he says immediately. I’m holding a carrier bag of food, including a very large smoked halibut, but maybe this is Winner’s way. “Not for hanky-panky, mind you,” he snorts, “but just because its such a marvellous room!”
We enter a palatial split-level chamber dominated by a vast, canopied emperor-size bed and surrounded by chandeliers, soft toys, assorted antiques and Victorian art. Winner has lived here since the 1940s, the only child of devoted parents who made sure from infancy that his palate was properly refined. “I’ve been eating out in the best establishments since I was five,” he announces. “So I know what good food is.” This isn’t to say he was born into money. “My mother gambled the lot away. All my inheritance ended up in Cannes casinos,” he says affectionately. He doesn’t mind a bit.
There’s only one person behind the triumphant creation of Michael Winner, British movie director turned pantomime food villain, and that is Winner himself. In order to get lunch on the table at 1pm sharp, I slip hastily away to the kitchen where a team of devoted women are busily sorting out the Winner day. One is preparing to cook a small dinner for 15 people that night, another is pasting Winner’s press cuttings from the weekend into a file, and the third is – well – just at his beck and call. It’s how he likes it.
His fiancée, Geraldine, floats past. Winner, 74, has never married and has no children. It’s probably a wise move. There can only be one sun at the centre of the Michael Winner solar system. Or, as he puts it, “You cannot shirk from taking a position in the stratosphere,” while plumping for the centre spot.
I’m cooking kedgeree spiked with chilli, and grilled rhubarb and ginger. Nursery favourites with a bit of bite. A bit like Winner himself. His regular Sunday Times restaurant column is much loved because he speaks for the ordinary punter, not the chic foodie. He tells it as he finds it, calling Britain the least hospitable nation on earth and pouring scorn on receptionists who ask for reservations (“They treat you like a nonperson”), waitresses without pads (“When you have a pad I’ll give you my order”) and chefs with airs and graces.
“You get the most terrible food in this country and anyone who goes into a restaurant is treated like a second-class citizen,” he says, somewhat puncturing the myth that British food has been revolutionised of late. He says he gets hundreds of letters from readers. “They start off by saying, ‘I think you are pompous and arrogant’ and finish by saying, ‘Carry on with the good work’,” says Winner, hooting with laughter. “Piers Morgan once called me the most despised man in England,” he continues. “I thought it was hysterical. It’s all a game, you see. I’ve set myself up as this OTT person, and that’s very funny.”
In the kitchen, everything is going well. I’m following my notes to the letter and it seems to be working. I’ve grilled the rhubarb with quite a lot of brown sugar, and am poaching the halibut while I sweat the onion and boil some eggs. A lovely housekeeper quietly busies herself behind me, washing up everything I use. I taste the kedgeree. It’s delicious. Then I taste the rhubarb. Ugh! It’s disgusting. I quickly bung on some more sugar, hope for the best and plate up the kedgeree. I remember how my cheffy friend did it, and arrange the kedgeree artfully with the egg, a tomato and some chopped coriander. Winner is nowhere to be seen so, mindful of his thing about heated china, I cover the plates with foil and put them on the hotplate.
“You’ve already got a C minus!” yells Winner as he strides into the dining room. “Never leave food on the hotplate like this!” I grab the plates and rush them back into the kitchen, before tasting the rhubarb again. It’s still horrendously bitter. Winner asserts himself at the head of a mahogany table that could easily seat 20. I bring him the kedgeree, hoping I’m delivering it on the correct side. “Don’t you normally have a poached egg on this, dear?” he asks. I look at my dish with frozen dismay. “Never mind, never mind,” he says, tucking in with the help of an array of silver cutlery. His mother left him a canteen of gold cutlery when she died, which he loved for its outrageousness. “Put it in the washing machine; scratched it to pieces,” he hoots.
My main course is going down very well. “What sort of herbs are in this?” demands my host. “Curry powder? Chilli? Good, very good. Very tasty.” He waves a fork over my arty attempt with the tomatoes. “I like the colours you have brought out here, very good. You have decorated it well, and you have respected the food, by not giving a huge serving. One of the most dreadful things you can do with food is give enormous portions, because they just defeat you.”
He says he only eats out at restaurants twice a week, swims (naked) in his private pool and never normally has dinner. “You can’t have dinner. It’s a shame, but there it is. I usually just have a tomato juice. It’s either that, or see that fat face looking back at me in the mirror, and I don’t want that.”
Of course Winner is vain; giant portraits of him as the sharp and famous film director hang in the hall, and one only has to glance at the title of his autobiography, Winner Takes All, to understand his modus operandi. But the showmanship is cut with great generosity to friends in his life. Every single ex-girlfriend (and there have been oodles) is described in his autobiography as an absolute delight, beautiful and so on. He also has a rather wholly endearing dose of reality with regard to himself; he readily describes himself as “74, and a cripple”, referring to a horrendous episode of food poisoning thanks to a bad oyster in Barbados, in which he nearly lost his left leg.
He is also perfectly aware that his position as national treasure is probably more due to his car insurance adverts than anything else. “My films are still on television all the time, and play at the National Film Theatre,” he says proudly. (The Winner opus numbers about 30 movies, the highlights of which are undoubtedly Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson, I’ll Never Forget What’s ’Is Name, starring nearly everyone in British cinema, and The Games, starring an exhausted Michael Crawford as a marathon runner.)
“Directors are like actors,” he pronounces. “You don’t have everlasting batteries. There are very few directors of 74 still working today. And at least I got out there and did something else!”
Indeed, his zeal for reinvention is remarkable. “Yes, well. The Sunday Times column brings in the posh readership. But outside that community it’s the insurance commercials which have really worked. ‘Calm down, dear, it’s only a commercial’ is something of a catchphrase,” he says, delighted. Wouldn’t he rather be getting on with planning the next film, though? “Of course I would! I’d much rather be making features. But I can’t honestly say my career was cut short. I had 50 years of it! And there is no good moping.”
I venture off to the kitchen and doctor the rhubarb with a generous swirl of honey and some crème fraîche. It’s still bitter. Time to face the music. “I love rhubarb,” grins Winner. I look miserably at my plate. He seems to be eating it with gusto, however. Maybe it was just my nerves. But as Winner says, culinary nerves are for pussycats. “People on the show had to gird their loins and remember they were the host. I may be threatening, but you must let that be conquered by the fact that I was the guest. That’s the key thing.”
Has making the series made him a fan of British cooking? “Judging from the six homes I visited, the state of British cooking is not great. The meals were reasonable, no more. Actually, one was terrible. This woman did crêpes – which should always be eaten immediately after they are cooked – at three in the afternoon! But home cooking is difficult because you are usually cooking to a tame audience.”
What did he learn from the series? “I don’t want to learn how to cook!” he guffaws. “My signature dish is incompetence! What I did learn was the wonder of being welcomed into family homes, and briefly touching the lives of people I would never otherwise have the chance to meet. Because I love meeting people, and I’m very nosy.”
It’s my turn for an appraisal. “The rhubarb was too bitter. Not the greatest in the world. Where did you get it? Sainsbury’s? Well, there you are. But you served it well, and I ate it all up. I would have liked to have seen a poached egg,” he says longingly, as if wishing for one to wing towards us down the dining table. “But apart from that, very good, dear. Do a lot of cooking, do you? Nursery food? Well, I love nursery food. Don’t forget, I’m 74 and a cripple.”