Egon Ronay died in June 2010, aged 94. He had been a publisher of bestselling restaurant guides, critic of revolting fodder in airports and hospitals, and the champion of a new breed of great British chefs. In the 1960s and 1970s he was the country’s best-known name in food, waking us up from culinary hibernation to discover the restaurant culture we now enjoy.
When his team of undercover restaurant inspectors gave damning verdicts on revolting coffee at airports or inedible sausages at motorway service stations, Ronay’s outrage was splashed across the front of the tabloids. His name became a byword for critical judgement. From the moment his first guide came out in 1959, Ronay was defining a significant role for himself in Britain’s postwar social history.
This short, pugnacious, immaculately-coiffured Hungarian émigré was my good friend. A duellist by nature, he was never happy unless he had a campaign or, better still, a full-blown row on the go. And yet he was the best of dining companions, discerning and adventurous. Ronay ate his way across Europe in the company of friends. We had lobster and artichokes; pigs’ trotters with ginger; horse casserole with polenta; rum and caramel pannacotta. He taught me how to enjoy food and, I hope, how to judge it (the Taste Tests I carry out for the FT Weekend magazine owe a lot to his challenging spirit).
Last year, as I wrote one of his obituaries, it occurred that someone ought to set down his life at greater length. Ronay’s story is that of the 20th century. Born under Austro-Hungarian rule in 1915, an empire that disintegrated three years later, he grew up the only son of a wealthy Budapest restaurateur in a briefly independent Hungary.
Ronay’s daughter, the fashion designer Edina Ronay, had shown me a haunting home movie of the 14-year-old Egon. Characteristically neat, wearing a bow tie, he smoothes back his hair as he approaches the camera, which is held by his proud father. But Egon would never inherit the family business. This family with Jewish roots outwitted the Nazis in 1944 but then saw the Soviets confiscate their business after the war. When Ronay fled to England in 1946, married with two children, he was already a survivor of some of the nastiest episodes of the past century.
At lunch with a literary agent, I mentioned the idea of writing a major Egon Ronay biography. He was dismissive of the proposal, arguing that readers under the age of 40 hadn’t heard of Ronay.
I knew I would find a small publisher for the book but, if I went down that route, I’d have to settle down and write it, a serious commitment. Gradually, an alternative idea took shape. I would ask those who had known Ronay well to write short memoirs of him. Together, we would tell his story. And if I was acting as editor, why not also self-publish? Could it be so different from producing television, something I had been doing for 30 years?
I signed up 12 willing contributors. They included nonagenarian school friends from pre-war Hungary, former food inspectors, dining companions such as the television presenter Nick Ross, and a fellow restaurant writer, Michael Winner. I still had no clue how I’d produce the actual book.
In the spring and early summer the contributions came in. Ronay’s early life was recalled by Joci Zimanyi, the school friend who had introduced Ronay to Edith, his first wife. Zimanyi revealed how Edith’s well-to-do, Catholic father forbade the marriage because he didn’t want his daughter to marry someone he regarded as Jewish (even though Ronay had been brought up Catholic). They married in secret just before the war and I had been given a wedding photograph showing the couple looking strangely furtive, as if caught out.
Two of Ronay’s former restaurant inspectors captured their eccentric existence. Recruited via the personal columns of The Times, and auditioned over a lavish dinner, they drove around Britain incognito in hired Minis, and were given an alcohol allowance of just 50p per night.
My own chapter was to chart Ronay’s decisive influence on Britain’s public food. His second wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1967, lent me his meticulously-kept personal archive. It covers his long-running campaigns against the disgusting food served in airports, motorway stops, ferries, hospitals and schools. These verdicts were always shrewdly released to coincide with annual publication of his restaurant guides, guaranteeing maximum publicity. Over 25 years, he earned thousands of tabloid headlines (the Sunday Times once described him as “a small Hungarian with a hairstyle like a budgerigar”). And there was the testimony of famous chefs, including Raymond Blanc, Marco Pierre White, Simon Hopkinson and Pierre Koffmann, thanking Ronay for the recognition and promotion that he gave them.
I now had most of the raw copy but needed professional help to turn it into a book and didn’t know where to find it. What happened next was pure serendipity. As I walked through the back streets of Notting Hill, someone shouted my name from a doorway. It was the head of a large publisher for whom I’d previously written a book. When I told her about my project, she recommended a freelance designer. I contacted Lizzy Laczynska the next day and she opened up a masonic world of copy editors and print buyers, of fonts and litho, endpapers and tints, gloss laminates and silk paper. Lizzy offered a choice of typefaces and we chose elegant Granjon, a font she also uses for The Good Hotel Guide.
Lizzy sorted out how many colour pages I’d need for photos, including one of Ronay dining with Cary Grant in the 1950s. I also wanted to reproduce some menus of the meals we had eaten together. This included a dinner at Dal Pescatore, near Mantua, in 2001. Ronay, then aged 86, ate every dish with care, in case it was his last. He particularly relished saffron risotto with fried artichokes and frogs’ legs gratinées. In fact, he enjoyed himself so much that he proposed we return for lunch the following day. And we did.
Lizzy connected me to her network: a print buyer, Hugh Allan, negotiated on my behalf. He told me that other recent self-publishing clients of his had included a collector of military badges, a farmer writing about an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in his herd, and bereaved parents with a memoir of their late son.
By this time I had been through every page five times, correcting all the errors. When Lizzy recommended a copy editor, I doubted I needed one. But I was intrigued and I got in touch. Alison Wormleighton made, in the end, a total of 670 amendments. She spotted mistakes, smoothed out the punctuation, tackled accents and introduced consistent style throughout. Her input elevated the book from an amateur to a professional product.
In early September the proofs were ready. Just as we were going to press, Joci Zimanyi died, aged 95. His testimony now had even greater value. The printers agreed to wait while we amended the copy. Then, there was the impatient wait for the finished books to be delivered. A first attempt was frustrated when my wife sent them away, not recognising the packages. I had to endure another day before I got my hands on them.
Opening the box containing my first self-published book, I held it in my hands, stroked the cover and the spine, leafed though the photographs and, in a wholly emotional and uncritical way, sighed happily. But that high soon evaporated. My 500 copies of Egon Ronay: The Man Who Taught Britain How To Eat had cost just under £5,000 to produce and print. How was I going to sell them?
I had been warned that my book would never get into the big chains. An email from me to four local bookshops in west London got no response at all. Two independent stores did agree to take a few copies. While encouraging, that was hardly a way to sell 500 books. I investigated the phone number of a virtual bookshop I’d seen at the end of book reviews in newspapers. This turned out to be a company in Cornwall, which has given me a number and web address through which anyone can order the book. It means I can market Egon Ronay to everyone on my personal database (including an old school friend, who emailed back, “I don’t hear from you for 10 years and when I do you’re trying to sell me a book!”)
A friend, who is another self-publisher, explained how to register Egon Ronay with Google Books and Amazon, so it comes up on a search. I decided against a digital version for Kindle because it would have forced me to sell the book too cheaply. After commission, I need to sell 320 copies of the book at £25 each to break even.
The whole project has taken eight months. I could have done it more cheaply with a vanity publisher, which takes care of everything for you, but I wouldn’t have had half as much fun and the product wouldn’t have been half as good. To celebrate, all those who have helped with the book, and the Ronay family, are coming to a small party at my house next week. I am, above all, proud that our project has given the extraordinary life of a remarkable man the recognition it deserves.
‘Egon Ronay: The Man Who Taught Britain How To Eat’ (ISBN 9780957046009) is available by calling 08430 600033 or at www.sparkledirect.com
Peter Bazalgette’s Taste Test column appears in the FT Weekend magazine
THE NATIONAL DIGESTION: Food fighters
Egon Ronay (1915-2010) was a campaigner for better food in Britain – but he was not the only one.
Alexis Soyer (1810-1858), French-born chef at the Reform Club, used his status as the country’s most famous chef to back his formidable food campaigns. Having invented mobile soup kitchens during the Irish potato famine, Soyer then devised an efficient field stove for use in the Crimean war. He spent almost two years in the Crimea, training the army to use his stove.
During the second world war, the Ministry of Food, and innovative cooks such as Marguerite Patten, taught British housewives to make thrifty meals using substitutes for rationed meat, fat and sugar. (Carrots replaced apricots, and potatoes were used to make pastry.) Nobody starved and the nation ate a low-fat, vegetable-packed diet.
Like Alexis Soyer, the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver combines that role with campaigning: Jamie’s School Dinners (2005) provoked national debate as Oliver sought to improve the dismal quality of school meals. In Ministry of Food (2008), Oliver used wartime tactics, including cookery demonstrations, to promote healthy eating.