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Taking the heat

Published 20 October 2006
The Times

The writer and bon viveur Michael Winner is used to getting his own way. When he doesn't, he can be quite sensationally rude, using his restaurant review column in The Sunday Times to vent his fury in print.

Thus did Rachel Lewis, the manager of The Petersham Cafe, incur a sustained attack, over several weeks, after she told Mr Winner that, with regret, she was unable to accommodate his party of eight for Sunday lunch. Ms Lewis was "the rudest restaurant manager" the silver-haired titan had ever come across in his life and should be sacked. At the same time, he praised the cooking at Petersham as "superb", singling out a chickpea, sweet potato and spinach curry as "memorably excellent" and a ginger pudding as "historic".

The object of his praise is Skye Gyngell, the tall, blonde fortysomething Australian chef whose cooking has been attracting similar attention since she started sending out flavoursome and exquisitely presented lunches from a potting shed in the pastoral enclave of Petersham Nurseries, down river from Richmond in southwest London.

I am here for lunch just after the latest volley of abuse from Winner and the staff are still smarting: "Rachel is the loveliest person," exclaims Gyngell. "You just wouldn't recognise her from his description." The restaurant is booked out at weekends over a month ahead: "We only have a set number of tables," says Gyngell, whose kitchen has now moved to slightly larger premises -a garage that used to house her employer's Ferrari. "To accommodate Michael Winner's party we would have had to ring people and chuck them off; I'm not prepared to do that. He was offered a table for two but that wasn't acceptable: he doesn't get the ethos of the place."

With unusual candour, Gyngell admits that her friend and mentor Rose Gray, of the River Cafe, rang her up after the Winner incident and suggested, gently, that she needed to grow up. "She said we had to learn to play the game: that you must always be able to fit certain people in; it's part of business."

So will she in future? She scowls: "Maybe, but that man's not bloody well coming back."

Oh, I do love a plain-speaking Australian. [Article continues for 94 pages]