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The circumstances of its conception were murky and surrounded by intrigue, which has never been a bar to future greatness. No fuss or fanfare attended its birth, which ditto.
Eighteen years on, the infant has grown to much-admired maturity and become one of the great fixed points of this newspaper, a Financial Times institution as important and as enduring as Sam Brittan or Lex.
Born on April 23 1994, the list – now more than 800 names long – of those who have had Lunch with the FT is an international who’s who of our times. There have been presidents and playwrights; tycoons and tennis players; royalty and rogues; monks and a convicted murderer (Norman Parker). In age the subjects have ranged from centenarian Frances Partridge, last of the Bloomsbury group, to an 18-year-old former hostage, Noriaki Imai.
But this is not just a series of interviews. What makes it special is the word “lunch”. Most obviously, this elevates the occasion above the customary celebrity interview, which these days generally takes place in an anonymous hotel room with the subject in the midst of about 57 other similar conversations in two days, and the PR representative looking pointedly at his watch.
The hope is that anyone will be more relaxed with food on the table and the minder out of earshot. Yet even if that does not happen, the circumstances transform the occasion and the article.
Perchance the reader has no interest in the person being interviewed. Perchance, now and again, the reader has never even heard of the person being interviewed. No matter, because we are offering something else: an interview, yes, but with a whiff of food, and thus a little helping of humanity’s most universally appreciated form of titillation – gastroporn.
The credit for this ingenious idea belongs to Max Wilkinson, now living in very active retirement in Essex, who was in 1994 the editor of Weekend FT. However, it was inspired in a roundabout way by the advertising department, which had found a car manufacturer (Vauxhall Motors), anxiously searching for an innovative way of promoting its new executive model, the Omega, and willing to sponsor a series of interviews with well-known people who might be keen to drive an Omega and perhaps give it a discreet mention.
For Wilkinson (as for any self-respecting editor), this went way over the line that separates editorial from adverts. However, after a series of difficult internal meetings, his flat “No” was not going down well. He needed a Plan B. So he came up with Lunch. It cut Vauxhall out completely but was a sufficiently original idea to give him the high ground and see off the forces trying to invade his space.
The fundamental rules, which still stand, were set on day one: 1) The subject would choose the restaurant; 2) The FT would pay. And rule two was broken on day one. The first luncher was the pioneer celebrity chef, Marco Pierre White, then 32 and – in the words of his interviewer Michael Thompson-Noel – “the wild man” of English cooking. He was, however, a very savvy wild man. Naturally, he chose a restaurant he owned.
The meal was brilliant (the scallops, said Thompson-Noel, were “served with awesome precision”). So was the interview. “Am I an arsehole? Some people say so,” mused White. “You don’t get two Michelin stars if you’re only an arsehole.” At 3.30 the FT man tried to pay the bill.
“Nah, forget it,” said White.
“I’m supposed to pay. That’s the idea. We choose the guest. The guest chooses the restaurant. We pay the bill.”
“OK. The food was great. No doubt I’ll return in my own capacity. Then I can pay for myself.”
“Yeah,” replied White thoughtfully. “In your own capacity. That’s the bill you slip through the FT.”
Thereafter the rule held, other than in equally exceptional circumstances. Thompson-Noel did the first eight Lunches but soon wearied of the regime, and a double act emerged with two interviewers sharing what both found a distinctly agreeable job: Lucy Kellaway, still very much of this parish, and a young Cambridge classics don called Nigel Spivey, on a junior academic’s salary and keen to do a little moonlighting, or in the case of Lunch, daylighting.
Both were gifted, witty and observant writers operating within the tradition pioneered from the 1960s by Terry Coleman in The Guardian, which allowed the interviewees to speak and Coleman to convey mood, gesture and context. The FT pieces were snappier but equally enjoyable, and Wilkinson grew very proud of his baby.
“I invented it with great distaste because I hated the sponsorship idea so much. But the combination of foodiness and conversation with one-off fairly serious people fell very much into what Weekend FT was doing at the time. Intellectually we were above the crowd but keeping it nice and easy. It was a little ray of sunshine in the paper.”
In retrospect, those early days were astonishingly carefree. “I just sent letters out to any old people,” recalls Kellaway. “It was much easier to get them to say ‘yes’ in those days, and we didn’t care at all if there was a topical peg. They were people I was vaguely curious to meet.”
And the lunches were sometimes on a heroic scale. The TV cook Jennifer Paterson (half of the Two Fat Ladies) chose the Hyde Park Hotel, another Marco Pierre White fiefdom. “Don’t worry about the menu, darlings,” he told her and Spivey. They didn’t, the food just appeared, and this time White was not paying the bill – £220 in 1996. At that stage the menu was not published, which was perhaps lucky on this occasion: “It would have filled a quarter of a page, the stuff we wolfed down,” says Spivey.
The menus were not printed until 2003, so we cannot be sure of the all-time record for the most expensive lunch. It may have been achieved when Spivey met the 79-year-old poet Gavin Ewart at the Café Royal in October 1995. The exact cost is lost somewhere in the bowels of the FT accounts department. But the bill was somewhat overshadowed by the aftermath.
The main item on the agenda was alcohol, not food. Ewart began with several negronis (gin, vermouth, Campari), which is not an amateur’s drink, and carried on from there. “We departed the Café Royal in a moderately straight line,” Spivey said in the article. He put Ewart on a bus home then lurched off himself. The following day he received a call from Mrs Ewart.
“There are two things you need to know,” she said. “The first is that Gavin came home yesterday happier than I have seen him in a long time. The second – and you are not to feel bad about this – is that he died this morning.”
The world was starting to change in all kinds of relevant ways. One was that as Coleman faded out of the interviewing scene, his successors could be less subtle. The new school was epitomised by Lynn Barber, now with The Sunday Times, who carried a hatchet as well as a tape recorder. At the same time, the public relations industry was becoming ubiquitous. Celebrities would be advised to submit to interviews only if they had a motive themselves: a book to promote, for instance.
The FT was also changing, becoming less UK-centric and more global, and it must have seemed somewhat parochial to confine the series to London and unfeasible to fly Kellaway and Spivey to eat round the world when the FT had a global network of correspondents. So in the late 1990s the cast of both subjects and interviewers became far larger.
No journalist is equally good at every aspect of the job: a chap who can produce a superbly crafted feature might struggle to bash out a front-page splash from a war zone. And vice very much versa. It is arguable that the change of style made Lunch articles more uneven and less fun, sometimes rather plonking.
Against that, it gave the series a seriousness of purpose that was increasingly rare in journalism. With interviewers changing week by week, there was no danger of Lunch being about the writer rather than the subject. Which was a good reason for famous people to keep saying yes to the FT.
However, the biggest change involved lunch itself. The first harbinger of that came in 1996 when the industrialist Lord Hanson, who was not lightly crossed, lit a post-prandial cigar at the Berkeley Hotel. “I am sorry,” said the waiter. “We have many complaints about your lordship’s cigars. Cigars are no longer permitted.” The resultant explosion caused seismographs to oscillate in the Antipodes.
First smoking went out of fashion, then daytime drinking. Negroni-drinkers were dying out, or reforming. Wine began to be drowned out by absurd fizzy water. Then the food itself was threatened, partly because business lunches were becoming more businesslike, partly because interviewees were becoming more self-conscious.
“Even I have never managed a two-bottle lunch,” laments the FT’s arts writer Peter Aspden, who is thought to have conducted more Lunches than anyone else. “There’s such reluctance now to be seen to be pigging out in any shape or form, and hardly anyone drinks over lunch.”
The series seemed to hit a flat spot around the turn of the millennium. Reading the files, I came across the phrase “Nattily Attired” and thought momentarily it was the name of the interviewee: a Lebanese banker, perhaps. The masterstroke, in my view, came in 2003 when Lunch was adorned with the menu. (James Ferguson’s illustrations began this year too.)
This was also the time when the meal became a movable feast. We had Breakfast with the FT, Brunch, Dinner, Coffee, Aperitivo (film director Franco Zeffirelli, though actually he just had a few cigarettes), A Beer (writer Nicholas Farrell – two beers, to be precise), Cheese (Bob Lutz of General Motors), A Drink (footballer Thierry Henry, four bottles of water if that counts as drinking), Elevenses (Al Gore) and – ye gods – Pretzels with the FT (Jeff Immelt of General Electric).
The FT’s official attitude to this is ambivalent. Obviously if the paper wishes to interview the world’s movers and shakers, it has to do so largely on their terms. If the serving US secretary of defence says he will share coffee at the Pentagon, it is difficult to argue (especially as it was Donald Rumsfeld). And, naturally, cost-control is a corporate objective.
But there is a purpose in building the series round lunch, and the editor, Lionel Barber, wants to maintain that tradition. “Lunch,” he says, “should be done with panache but not indulgence.” He defines that as “excellent food but not vintage wine”.
A kind of nadir was reached when the self-promoting head of Ryanair insisted on using his office as a venue and treating our then aerospace correspondent, Pilita Clark, like one of his passengers: “ ‘Here,’ says Michael O'Leary, shoving something the size of a small grapefruit wrapped in red and white cardboard over the table. ‘Lunch.’ ” Yet it made for a revealing encounter. And in 2010 Alec Russell flew out to meet Morgan Tsvangirai, the Zimbabwean prime minister. The menu read as follows: “Coke: US$1; Sprite: US$1; Return flight to Harare: £950.” Interview: priceless.
Sometimes the free lunches can be the most spectacular. Conductor Sir Simon Rattle cooked shoulder of lamb; American TV host Jay Leno barbecued steaks in his garage (or hangar – it held his 130-strong collection of classic cars). Best of all, the grand dame of American cookery Julia Child, then 85, allowed Victoria Griffith to cook for her – “Steak and couscous,” said Child charmingly, “the perfect combination.”
For us at the FT, breakouts from the austerity norm have become so rare that we cherish and salute them. Our champion, from the start of published menus, is former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who stung the FT for a ¥57,960 bill (worth £306 at the time) at the Rantei restaurant in Tokyo in 2003. There was not even any wine: just two whiskies and soda, and a beer.
His closest rivals include Gore Vidal (£277.93 in Hong Kong in 2007) and Martti Ahtisaari, former prime minister of Finland (€284.85 in Helsinki, 2009). The universal in-house favourite is the cyclist David Millar, whose lunch with Tom Robbins at Scott's of Mayfair last year has passed into office legend. Notionally Millar was in training for the Tour de France but, says Robbins, “cyclists train in blocks and he was having a week off training to do interviews”. It was one heck of a week off.
Two £49 bottles of Viognier Sainte-Fleur 2008 and beer and pudding wine later, Millar belatedly headed off for the next interview, which involved answering various set questions including: “When were you last drunk?” to which he replied truthfully: “Now.” I count that as panache, not indulgence.
We long for more Millars and fewer O'Learys, but however hard the guests try to clam up or order what they don’t really want, the formula has a way of proving triumphant. Some of the images are unforgettable: the hip-hopper P Diddy at a Seventh Avenue soup shop; Bill Gates insisting on a cheeseburger; the neocon John Bolton smearing his fries with ketchup at the Mayflower Hotel; Roberto Saviano, who revealed the secrets of the Neapolitan Mafia, eating at an undisclosed restaurant in an undisclosed city with an undisclosed menu, for his own safety; the writer Paulo Coelho, in Geneva, announcing that he did not eat lunch, then ordering oeuf de ferme suisse cuit molle à notre façon, which was a very expensive boiled egg.
“People have no idea how they are coming across,” says Lucy Kellaway. “Lunch is hugely helpful from an interviewer’s point of view. It might start with both of you nervous but a lunch is like a three-act play. The ordering and the eating keeps allowing you to change the subject, to catch them unawares and lull them into small talk.”
What’s more, we like to think, the guests often enjoy it too. Not to mention the readers.
Additional research by Matt Ponsford
For an interactive graphic on the history of Lunch with the FT go to: www.ft.com/lunchat18
Jimmy Savile to Lagerfeld's muse: memorable conversations
1995: Jimmy Savile, disc jockey, to Lucy Kellaway: “I won’t let you pay for the lunch! In Yorkshire we have a word for men who let ladies pay for them! It begins with a P and ends with an E and the middle letters are O, N, C.” (He paid £4.43 for baked beans at a transport café.)
1997: Michael Bloomberg, billionaire, after the paper picked up a £96 bill: “Now I know why the FT is so expensive.”
1998: Joseph Heller, novelist, asked to define a catch-22: “Novelists who need publicity are not invited to lunch by newspapers. But once they are famous they cannot stop getting more and more publicity.”
1998: Robert Parker, wine guru, asked by Jancis Robinson about his biggest mistake: “He looked up at the skylight, as though invoking a being of equal status, smiled and asked rhetorically: ‘Have there been any mistakes?’”
1999: Rauf Denktash, Turkish Cypriot leader, interviewed by Leyla Boulton: “I tried asking him about his time as a fire-warden during the second world war …‘Chit-chat,’ he says mockingly.”
2004: Kenneth Lay, fraudster, on Enron: “We were doing some very exciting things.”
2009: Lord Tebbit, Conservative politician: “‘I do confess to a touch of sentimentality.’ Oh yes? ‘I find it quite hard to shoot woodcock.They are so beautiful.’”
2009: Prince Andrew and a waiter in New York: “Green or white noodles?”
“Doesn’t worry me. I think we’ll go with the green, shall we? Which is most popular?”
“I’ll go with the white.”
2011: Roger Waters, former Pink Floyd frontman: “I haven’t become less controlling. I’m much happier now because I’m not pretending to work in a group.”
2012: Amanda Harlech, Karl Lagerfeld’s muse, sizes up Peter Aspden. “I bet [your socks] are not black.’ She looks under the table. (They aren’t.) “There’s a whole look going on here. You drive a vintage car, don’t you?”