A tribute to Egon Ronay

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egon-ronay_rex_250.jpgAlthough most young chefs may not have heard of him, Egon Ronay, who died June 12th, sat at the heart of the British food revolution, no less. When he arrived in England after WWII, Egon Ronay was so appalled by British cuisine that he started his own restaurant, which became hugely successful.

Witnessing the terrible greasy food that customers would willingly eat and pay for with stoical acceptance, in 1957 he decided to create his own restaurant guide (in contrast to the Good Food Guide, which Raymond Postgate had already founded in 1951, but which was mostly written by its readers. The Michelin Guide to the UK was reintroduced in 1974 after a 43-year absence).

His Egon Ronay guide lasted until 1985, and became an influential and revered guide in Great Britain. He relentlessly fought mediocrity, poor service and food, on all fronts whether it was the local café, restaurants, and the busy airport or motorway cafés. On that level, I know that he was a force for good and I feel he helped many young British chefs to regain their confidence, their identity, their creative force so as to change the dreadful landscape of gastronomy.

This is when Egon Ronay came into my life. In 1977 my wife Jenny and I had just opened our little restaurant in Oxford. Our restaurant was different, because I was completely self-taught; I never had worked under a chef, not even for one minute.

Like all inexperienced young people who start a business, we were bold rather than sensible: we mortgaged our house to the hilt, borrowed the rest at 17 per cent interest, and opened our restaurant in terrible economic times. We bought a concrete corridor between the Oxfam shop and a lady s underwear shop (nothing like Agent Provocateur). We bought some cheap red and white tablecloths, put some even cheaper prints of Paris on the wall, and I placed a plastic cockerel on the frontage, so people would know that Les Quat' Saisons was a French restaurant! (Actually it was an effective branding 

It was hard. There was so much to learn about everything: food, techniques, systems, food costs, staff training, refining our own ambitions, and much more. My style of food was light and driven by the seasons, yet the customers' palates demanded a lot of salt, sugar and richer foods, and they wanted strawberries all year around. And the economic climate felt much worse than today.

In Oxford there were two well-established Michelin-starred restaurants. It was hard graft for Jenny, the team and myself. But after just a year the Egon Ronay Guide, to our disbelief, awarded us what can take a lifetime to earn for the handful of chefs that achieves it - his Restaurant of the Year title.

At that time Egon Ronay's Guide seemed to rule the restaurant world, and this award changed my life. I was astonished when I was invited to cook in London for the great and the good, for the country's best chefs such as Anton Mosimann and the Roux brothers. I had never cooked for more than 10 people at a time, and now I was being asked to cook for 50 of the most celebrated chefs and gastronomes. I was the new kid on the block, hailed in some quarters as the new "Genius."

I cooked all night in Mosimann's Dorchester kitchens and, to cut to the chase, I served them a disastrous meal. What should have been my proudest moment turned into the most humiliating hour of my professional life. Just as Egon was about to crown me publically, and acknowledge me as the new creative force, I had to eat the biggest humble pie imaginable.

Yet the "Egon effect " lasted: our little restaurant was fully booked a year ahead, and more importantly, it paved the way to the most impossible dream - the opening of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.

In today's particular football moment, I will use a metaphor. Egon helped British gastronomy and young chefs to believe in their own creativity and ability to create a healthier gastronomic landscape. If Fabio Capello had the same success, it would delight an entire nation.



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