A gentleman with an air of class and quality about him who was full of integrity is how chefBrian TurnerCBE described Hungarian gourmet and food guide editor Egon Ronay, who passed away at the weekend, aged 94.
Despite his contribution to both raising British culinary standards and the evolution of food criticism over the past six decades, Egon Ronay was not a household name, something which irritated him, according to Kit Chapman, owner of the Castlehotel and restaurant in Taunton.
In fact, he was often mistakenly attributed with establishing the first food and restaurant guides in the UK (a title which in fact goes to rival gastronome Raymond Postgate who first set up the Good Food Guide in 1951), but the ebullient food critic, who came to England after the Second World War, nevertheless played a major role in the development of Britain's culinary landscape.
"Egon had both a vision and a mission, and he had the vision to achieve it," said Raymond Blanc](http://www.caterersearch.com/Topics/2241/raymond-blanc.html), chef-patron of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton. "He almost single-handedly influenced British gastronomy and British chefs to reconnect with their own creativity and confidence. He also had a long lasting impact on what the consumer at large eats, particularly at airports. As a self-taught young chef Egon was the one who awarded me with the supreme accolade of ‘Chef of the Year' back in 1978, he changed my life and will be hugely missed."
"He was one of those who contributed towards where we are today," commented Turner. "He'd been brought up in the restaurant industry so he knew how it worked. He may not have worked in it all his life, but he certainly understood the problems that restaurateurs had and I always found him very honest."
Born in Budapest to a family of restaurateurs, hospitality was in Ronay's blood. After completing a law degree at the University of Budapest, he immersed himself in the culinary world when he embarked on an international restaurant apprenticeship that saw him work in the kitchens of the Dorchester.
Good Food Guide.
It was perhaps this inclusion in the guide, along with the success of the Michelin Guide in France and a personal tenacity to improve the diner's experience - from station cafes to restaurant dining rooms - which spurred him on to write his own food guide. In 1957, he researched, wrote and published his first eponymous book, selling more than 30,000 copies. The Ronay Hotel and Restaurant Guide was published regularly from this point on.
Over time, Ronay built up his guide book business, initially on a shoestring budget with a handful of inspectors, but eventually with a staff of 50, plus freelancers, publishing books covering catering across the board. Staying personally close to his publications, he insisted on visiting a large number of the restaurants, hotels, cafes motorway services (he famously campaigned against the inferior quality of Britain's roadside catering) and airports himself and penned the majority of the copy. While he funded his publications through sponsorship from businesses such as the Ford motor company, Ronay never allowed commercial factors to influence his judgement, and is renowned for the independence of his criticism - never accepting a free meal.
A longstanding champion of what we now know as the "gastropub", Ronay added pubs to his repertoire of criticism in 1980 with the roll-out of his annual Pub Guide (he would later add gastropubs into his restaurant guide, commenting that "the top 300 British gastropubs surpass the majority of bistros in France"). In 1985, stretched too thin by his work commitments, he sold the rights to his guides to the AA, a move he regretted when, seven years later, the AA sold the guides to the Richbell Group, which went bankrupt, forcing him to go through the courts to regain ownership, which he did in 1996.
After a hiatus of almost a decade (during which he focused on food journalism and consultancy), the 2005 edition of Egon Ronay's Guide was published, followed, the next year by a guide to the country's best restaurants and gastropubs. During his break from publishing the guides, Ronay insured his palate for £250,000 - an eccentric and some might say pompous move which brings many a knowing smile to those who knew him, but, as Prue Leith CBE explains, he was not driven by ego. "Ronay was not on an ego trip, wittily lambasting some poor chef who'd got it wrong. It gave him much more pleasure to praise than to criticise and he did a lot for the industry. He was also a great family man, taking enormous pride in his children which represented his keen sense of taste."
Ronay was married twice and is succeeded by his wife Barbara, their son, Gerard. and his daughters Esther and Edina from his first marriage.
FURTHER TRIBUTES TO EGON RONAY
Prue Leith CBE: "Egon Ronay was unlike anyone I ever met. Passionate and concerned, but so knowledgeable and earnest, with such exacting standards, he could be rather daunting. I always felt like a clumsy, untidy giant next to him - he was so precise, neat and small. What I admired most was that his main concern was to further the cause of gastronomy - he wanted chefs and restaurants to do better."
Peter Hancock, Pride of Britain: "Egon Ronay is a name unfamiliar to the youngest professionals in our industry but for decades he enjoyed a status similar to Michelin today, feared by hoteliers and restaurateurs because of the influence of the guides he published. Sadly, after he sold his business to the AA, he allowed sour grapes to take some of the shine off his reputation but I am sure Caterer will be flooded with tributes and anecdotes about the man over the next few days."
Kit Chapman MBE, the Castle at Taunton: "Egon Ronay received little public recognition for his work (a fact which irritated him), but his death marks the passing of the greatest influence on the rise of culinary standards in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. His eponymous guide led the way for the arrival of the British edition of the Michelin Red Guide in the 1970s."
Anton Mosimann, OBE: "We owe Egon Ronay a debt of gratitude as he did an enormous amount to improve the standards in our industry. Having run his own restaurant, he understood exactly what the problems were and how to overcome them and this in turn enabled him to be outspoken and very honest. I got to know him very well and always had admiration for his considerable achievements. We will certainly miss a great contributor to our industry; not to mention a good friend."
Richard Shepherd, CBE: "I first got to know Egon Ronay in the early 70's when I was at the Capital Hotel and always found him to be courteous, polite and dapper. He was never cruel and could get his point and criticisms across without having to destroy the chef or restaurant in the process. I always remember Egon liked to eat simply which is the hardest form of cooking. He brought a lot to the industry and will be sorely missed but in saying that what a good innings."
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By Rosie Birkett
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