Eat to the beat of Egon Ronay

05 December 2011
Eat to the beat of Egon Ronay

This month sees the publication of Egon Ronay: The Man Who Taught Britain How To Eat, a collection of essays on the life of the iconic food critic, who passed away last year aged 94, by some of his closest friends and work colleagues. Here editor Peter Bazalgette shares a few extracts from his chapter of the book

Egon Ronay spent 31 years of his long life in Hungary and 63 years in Britain, voting in elections and carrying a UK passport.

So did that make him more British than Hungarian? Those who knew him well would say, at his core, he remained a proud Hungarian. But the story is more complicated than that.

What's my point? Merely, that as well as being a member of a well to-do, middle class, Hungarian family, there were experiences that gave Egon Ronay the sensibility of an outsider, both when he lived in Hungary and certainly after he settled in England. I believe this partly explains his resolute campaigning, and his taking on of the establishment.

Of course we all know that he enjoyed publicity, and that his campaigns helped sell his guidebooks. We also know that the standard of public food in Britain was disgraceful, and that these crusades were therefore highly justified.

But there was more to it than that. Egon Ronay learnt to deal with, and when necessary, take on the established order from an early age and his life's achievements suggest a complex set of motives.

In retrospect it is extraordinary how long Egon worked as a manager for other people - the best part of a decade. He did so because he had to. But his independence of mind and entrepreneurial spirit won out in the end and he decided to open his own place. He was his father's son.

In 1952 he gathered investors, including a travel agent who was later to die in the famous ‘Busby Babes', Manchester United plane crash. And he found a site, a tiny former cafe in Hans Road, down the side of Harrods. It had a forbiddingly high ceiling so it was designed with an apparent drape, in the manner of a marquee. This became its name.

For Egon the critical recruit was the chef and he decided to lure the Frenchman Jean Gardes away from 96 Piccadilly. He greatly admired his skill and felt an affinity for him, having originally brought him over from Beaulieu in the South of France.

Gardes specialised in French classics such as pâté de campagne, chaud-froid de volaille, omelette gratinée, truite farcie and bouillabaisse.

The last was only put on the menu for the following day when well briefed Cornish fishermen had first contacted Billingsgate to let it be known they had each of the prescribed 10 fish and crustacea that chef Gardes regarded as indispensable for an authentic fish stew.

In a decade Egon had moved from penniless Hungarian immigrant to celebrated restaurateur and now national newspaper columnist. He had penetrated British society and now he had the means to criticise it. In the years to come that was something he would do with relish.

Egon's task as a regular columnist started out as a straightforward restaurant reviewer. But he quickly broadened it out to include more general culinary issues. And it was influential - The Daily Telegraph's circulation in the 1950's was around 1.2 million with a readership of twice that number. And there were only three restaurant review columns in print in Britain.

In 1958 Egon decided to collect some of his reviews into a book, and 1959 saw the publication of his first, slim guide, covering 175 restaurants in the London area. Its full name was Egon Ronay recommends 175 eating places in and around London. The cover of a second edition proudly announces, "First printing sold out in two weeks".

In his Introduction Egon tackled two of his favourite themes: the importance of exposing low standards and how diffident Britain's ruling class was when it came to food.

While Ronay Guides dished out brickbats to public catering every year, its serious purpose was to discover, encourage and celebrate good cooking in restaurants, hotels and pubs.

Chefs as diverse as Rick Stein, Marco Pierre White, Simon Hopkinson, Pierre Koffmann, Joyce Molyneux, and Raymond Blanc were all spotted early on by Egon's inspectors and then lauded and publicised.

So when the 23-year-old former French waiter Raymond Blanc opened a tiny restaurant in a shopping arcade in Oxford's Summertown, word soon got to Egon.

Blanc was made restaurateur of the year in 1978 and it was life changing: "I was told - we have Egon Ronay in tonight. I said who? But it changed my life in many ways. It filled up my restaurant, kept it open and saved my life."

Over the years Egon shrewdly arranged for a long list of non-food companies and organisations to sponsor the Guides - Lucas, Dunlop, The British Tourist Authority, The Gas Council and Raleigh Bicycles are some examples.

This enabled him to maintain and pay his team of inspectors. They were kept on a tight leash though.

Simon Hopkinson, one of Britain's best cooks and an inspector in the late 1970s, remembers the hire car - a small, pale blue Ford Fiesta that came from Brew's of South Kensington.

Hopkinson's broke down outside the main entrance of the Gleneagles hotel and had to be pushed out of sight by the two porters. The inspectors' alcohol allowance was 50p per meal, and they were definitely not allowed to aggregate unused 50ps for a Friday blow-out of £2.50.

But Egon treated his small team of inspectors as part of the Ronay family. At one time Hopkinson had two outstanding speeding charges on top of a previous conviction. Three endorsements meant suspension of his driving licence which he feared would lead to losing his job, being unable to travel.

Egon paid for a barrister and got him off both charges. They remained good friends. Egon once again championed Hopkinson when he returned to cooking (though that did not deter Egon sending his celeriac soup back in Bibendum one day, complaining it was far too hot).

Egon Ronay book cover
Egon Ronay book cover
Egon Ronay: The Man Who Taught Britain How To Eat is available from or by calling 0843 060003, priced £25 or £20 for two or more copies.

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