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Sunday, 21 October 2007

A pig’s point of view

The first proper money I ever made was in my parents’ restaurant at the Sycamore Inn in Ashton-under-Lyne – a good 18th century pub of character which has since been utterly ruined by the tasteless halfwits at the brewery which owns it.

I was 16 or 17. I cooked pork chops stuffed with ham and cheese. Probably the home-cooked food we served in those days would never pass muster now, but that restaurant was in the Good Food Guide right from its first year.

And I’ll tell you what, the service was far better than at many restaurants today. This is despite the fact that my father, for whom the word eccentric may have been invented, used to make the whole cooking procedure almost impossible.

That’s because he was constantly going round turning down the gas to save money. I shall discuss my extraordinary parents when I get a minute, but back to the kitchen.

Well I am, quite frankly, a pig - just love eating and drinking - and maybe because of my upbringing, I’m fascinated by restaurants and how they are run. It's one of the hardest businesses in the world to get right -and one of the easiest to go broke in, believe me

Last week I took my partner to dinner at L’Oranger in St. James’ Street. They rang me in the afternoon to confirm the booking – almost the only efficient thing they did from then on. I made a point of telling them it was her birthday.

When we arrived we were greeted by a smiling receptionist who said she would show us to our table. then an unsmiling waiter came up who undid her good work by completely ignoring us – actually had his back to us. After chatting to her – but not us - for a while, he disappeared, leaving her with the nasty job of saying our table was not ready – would we take a seat?

We did, and another waiter came and asked if we wanted a drink. “No” was the answer.

Then a very pleasant man bustled up, showed us to a better settee, and offered us champagne and foie gras on the house. Then two minutes later another waiter came up with the champagne - but not foie gras, but crostini and tapenade. Then, after another few minutes the foie gras did arrive.

Half an hour after the scheduled time we went to the table. It took twenty minutes to order - and they took the the food order only, forgetting about the wine. All in all it took three and a quarter hours from the time we arrived to get and eat a two course meal with coffee. The food was pretty good, but not extraordinary.

But here’s the most amazing thing: they had about one waiter per table. With the exception of the dolt who ignored us to start with they were all quite charming and, when necessary, apologetic. But they spent most of their time rushing about to no great purpose or talking to each other animatedly, but not achieving much.

If you know much about the way a classic French restaurant is organised you will be aware that there is someone called a commis whose job is to take the food from the kitchen and give it to the waiter to serve at the table. The commis knows where it is to go because it's written down on the order that went to the kitchen in the first place.

I felt sorry for the commis here: they spent a lot of time not knowing which table the food should go to. Clearly the ordering system was not being operated in the classic manner.

We weren’t pissed off; just amused.

But it saddened me to see such lack of attention to detail, especially as I am chairman of a firm that arranges a lot of entertainment, and they had a superb private dining room which would be perfect for high-level clients. But could I trust them? Not really.

Having said all that, they were paragons of efficiency compared to Peter Jones in Sloane Square who have so far spent 10 months failing to make a set of curtains for us -- and can't even summon up the wit to reply properly to a letter of complaint sent to their chairman.

That hilarious tale I'll come to, not just because you wouldn't believe anyone could be so incompetent, but because it's an interesting insight into why good businesses go bad. Like fish, they rot from the head.

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