Egon Ronay is a campaigning food critic with a sharp tongue.
He has at his command a verbal piquancy spiced with a wicked sense of humor. He serves his words piping hot. His usually deserving victims do not always relish what he puts on their plate - particularly when he doesn't like what they have put on his.
One major catering chain, Forte, even went so far as to sue Mr. Ronay, demanding retraction of his ``very strong language'' (as he puts it) in an article criticizing the food they then dished up at some of Britain's airports. In the end, it was they who backed down and paid heavy costs. Ronay simply insisted that his motive was without malice and ``in the public interest.''
Now, he is three years into a campaign - actually in the employ of the British Airports Authority - to improve catering at all the country's airports. He uses a rating system based on detailed regular inspections. It appears to be having the desired effect.
The general manager at Edinburgh Airport, the only Scottish airport where any food outlet has earned even one ``chef's hat for quality, says that the ``Egon Ronay Recommends campaign is prompting ``a concentrated effort. Everybody's aware of it, and the staff even know what the inspectors look like.''
Hungarian-born, this thorn in the flesh of British cuisine settled here after World War II and has spent half a century promoting good food in an adopted country with a still-persistent international reputation for lousy food. But this reputation, he maintains, is ``an old chestnut. It is a complete misrepresentation that Britain is a culinary desert.''
Nevertheless, it is a hard chestnut to crack. He agrees that Americans are often convinced it is impossible to find good food in Britain. And ``the French find it very difficult to accept that you can eat well here. Bit by bit ... I think it will finally filter through.'' And he points out that ``you can eat badly in France,'' and that recently Forte took over a chain of French motorway restaurants, Relais, which ``were so terrible that Forte has actually made a great deal of improvements.''
Today, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that you can find superb food throughout much of Britain. (You can still find truly appalling food, too.)
It helps to have a guide. For 27 years, Ronay published his discrimination between the good and the bad in the form of guidebooks. They are still published under his name (though he sold the company in 1983 and is now only ``an unconsulted consultant'').
While the ``Egon Ronay Guides'' have become household words in Britain, he continues to play an unrelenting and sometimes insulting role as a critic who refuses to accept any excuse for low standards.
Sometimes his battles have not been entirely won. Discussing food on British Rail's trains (which was the first target of his ire as a journalist and which, it must be said, still puts up a remarkable resistance to improvement), I asked him what he felt about one of the staples of today's buffet fare on intercity trains, the ``bacon roll.''
He admits he has not ``eaten on British Rail for a long time,'' so he has been spared this repellent composite of flabby bread and soggy pig meat. But he says: ``There's no reason, you see, because there is no difficulty in producing a good roll.... The staff ... don't care all that much because it wasn't part of their culture in their childhood.... It's just this attitude that the masses don't matter.'' And he likes to point out provokingly: ``It's so simple. Even a girl of 8 can be taught in two minutes to make a good sandwich.''
One public food area his campaigning has surely helped improve, at least here and there, is service stations on Britain's motorways. He started to ``wade into them'' soon after the first short length of motorway was completed in the late 1950s.
``The food was really absurd,'' he remembers. He must have outraged people by suggesting that even German motorway catering was vastly superior. He went over to Germany deliberately to research the difference.
He mischievously recalls a live TV program at one of the first two British motorway-station food outlets, the Blue Boar. On camera, he prodded a mousse with his spoon. ``I could see that it was solid. I said to the camera, `Well, I am going to do an experiment.' I turned it upside down.'' He assumed that this object would simply stick to the plate. But better still: ``To my amazement and delight, it started to dangle off the plate up and down like a yo-yo.''
I asked if he might move on from his current airport-food campaign to the meals served on flights. For a moment his apparent lack of interest made me wonder if he wasn't running out of steam.
``No, I think airline food is doomed,'' he said. ``I don't think it can be improved because of the treatment it has to undergo: prepared, chilled, kept, transported, and then heated up - it is an impossible task....
Then he remarks that the airline caterers' concept is completely wrong. ``They're still talking about doing, you know, `meat-and-two-veg.' I mean - who wants `meat-and-two-veg'? On a 1-1/2-hour flight?
When he flies, his solution is simple. ``I don't eat,'' he says. He has a friend who ``always takes his own sandwiches on a flight, the airline food is so dreadful, with very few exceptions. I am talking about economy class. First-class food, they say, is much better. I rather doubt it. It's subject to the same maltreatment....
So watch out, airline caterers. There's life in the old gadfly yet.