Fantasies at the dinner table

Un verre de porto by John Singer Sargent

The background to an article about a perfect dinner in today’s Financial Times and on It’s behind the paywall, alas, but £1 will get you a four-week trial.

I remain indebted to Grahame Edwards, my ever-smiling general manager of L’Escargot restaurant in London in the 1980s, for the following phrase. He would point at his feet and say: ‘Down there for dancing; up there [pointing at his head] for thinking’.

I have had a few good ideas over the years. The best, of course, was asking Jancis to marry me – or was this the other way round and I just had the good sense to agree? Then there was all the thought that went into getting Lunch for a Fiver, the much-copied restaurant promotion we ran in the Financial Times in 1993 when restaurants were having a tough time (though not of course anything like as tough as now). Since then I have had one or two more, resulting in the publication of my two books, The Art of The Restaurateur (Phaidon 2012) and On The Menu in 2016, which Unbound will publish as a paperback later this year.

More recently, just after we entered lockdown, about 20 March, I thought that I had had another. I suggested to my editors at the FT that, with restaurants around the world closed and likely to remain so for several months, it was just the time to launch a Fantasy Dinner competition. Readers would be invited to nominate their favourite location, their favoured chef, the sommelier of their dreams, the wines they would most like to drink. And, most importantly, the three guests of their dreams, fictional or non-fictional, from any era, with whom they would like to share their Fantasy Dinner.

My own guests would have been Albert Einstein, the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the historian Margaret MacMillan. We would have eaten a fish supper at La Pineta on the Tuscan coast, a meal cooked by the Australian chef Josh Niland. We would start the meal with a bottle of Equipo Navazos 52 La Bota de Palo Cortado followed by magnums of Dom J F Mugnier, Clos de la Maréchale 2005 Nuits-St-Georges and finish with a bottle of Torcolato 2012 from Maculan and a shot each of Poire William from Miclo in Alsace. My sommelier would be Aldo Sohm from New York’s Le Bernardin.

Coming at a time when there was not the opportunity to go out to enjoy a meal in a restaurant, this seemed perfectly timed, I thought. My three editors at the FT, one of whom described the idea as ‘brilliant’, agreed. My idea went through the echelons extremely quickly and was launched on on Saturday 28 March with readers asked to log in with their own suggestions the next day.

The idea met with little response. Was it not publicised well enough? (There was no time to feature it in the print edition.) Was it because the meal had been restricted to three courses (my original suggestion was for four)? Was it the lack of incentives for readers to write in with their own suggestions that hampered it? I will never know.

Anyway, the FT (and who said that journalists were the original recyclers?) have decided to revive my idea, although without directly crediting its originator. They have revived my Fantasy Dinner idea today with columnist Simon Kuper as the host. Over subsequent weekends they will publish the choices of Martin Wolf and Robert Shrimsley, both of which I greatly look forward to. I hope too that there will be a few women hosting these and that the total number of those at the dinner will be split equally between the sexes.

Our illustration is a criminally cropped reproduction of John Singer Sargent's Le verre de porto.