Egon Ronay’s enduring influence on British foodby Peter Bazalgette / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Egon Ronay (above) and his inspectors—masked to preserve anonymity—taste tea
There was a time when Christmas was the only occasion the British thought seriously about food. Some put this down to the awfulness of our wartime diet, others to our Anglo-Saxon culture, freezing and wet at Europe’s northern fringe, which regarded food more as fuel than cuisine. I came across a third explanation while researching my new book about Egon Ronay, the Hungarian food critic and campaigner. In his first London restaurant guide in 1959 Ronay attacked the “scandalously inferior and stupidly spartan feeding a large section of the better-off are brought up to tolerate at public schools.” He argued that our ruling class were all too willing to eat rubbish and had never learned to complain about it. How things have changed.
By the time Ronay died last year Britain had woken up from its culinary slumber and developed a proper restaurant culture. His role in that change is part of the social history of the 20th century. Over five decades he attacked the rubbish masquerading as food in public places such as motorway stops, ferries, airports, airlines, hospitals, theatres, coach and railway stations. He also championed a new breed of homegrown chefs who were the equals of any in Paris, Milan or New York.
Why did this Hungarian expatriate dedicate so much time to exposing careless and cynical food? He attributed it to his upbringing as the son of Budapest’s wealthiest pre-war restaurateur. Each evening he and his father would taste the sauces prepared for dinner and criticise them. Thereafter, he said, poor food made him “literally angry.” These campaigns led to Egon Ronay becoming one of the best known names in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, as the tabloids fed off his inflammatory remarks. Hospital food was “simply revolting”; eating at Victoria coach station was “horrifying”; on ferries the hamburgers were “lamentable” and the sandwiches filled by “cardboard”; theatre food was “appalling”; airline snacks were “rubbishy” and airport food was “deplorable.” Ronay, of course, had an ulterior motive. These attacks, around Christmas, always coincided with the publication of his annual guide, garnering a tide of publicity.
Ronay was ahead of his time. In 1959-60, when the first motorways were opening, he warned against allowing companies local monopolies on service stations. In 1975 he pointed out how the British Airports Authority’s control of so many airports was lowering standards of catering, nearly 35 years before it was ordered to break up. And, when Welcome Break invited his inspectors to scrutinise their motorway stops to drive up quality, he set about the task with relish. Ronay tested all 600 of their ingredients. He rejected the sausages (made with extra-thick skins so they could be fried in batches of 200); it cost the group £250,000 a year to buy proper bangers. He also insisted their staff be taught how to make tartare sauce because, he judged, there were no acceptable alternatives. Ronay deserves a lot of credit for the fact that we can now buy a decent cup of coffee in nearly all public places.
At the same time as harassing those who were trying to poison us with junk, Ronay also championed a new generation of elite chefs through his guides. Long before Google, TripAdvisor or GPS location-based services he was celebrating quality cooking. Thus a tiny establishment in Oxford’s Summertown in 1978, just opened by the 28-year-old Raymond Blanc, was made restaurant of the year. “It changed my life in many ways, it filled up my restaurant, kept it open and saved my life,” said Blanc. One of our finest chefs, Pierre Koffmann of La Tante Claire fame, praised Ronay, a vital help as “in the old days, critics could fill up or empty a restaurant.” And when Marco Pierre White started his first place, Harvey’s: “Egon was the first critic through the door… I’m indebted to the great man.”
Ronay managed to pay his team of inspectors by getting non-food companies to sponsor his guide. Readers were then guaranteed impartial verdicts. Today’s online guides rely mostly on peer review which, in theory, works. But services such as TripAdvisor, despite their best efforts, can be manipulated. Hotels and restaurants can now hire companies which create fake positive reports. I recently found a glowing online tribute to a London club that had been refused a licence and never opened. If anyone invents a business model for genuinely independent online guides it will be a significant public service—and a fitting tribute to Egon Ronay.