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Interview - Anton Edelmann

Chef Anton Edelmann is the kind of man who is used to being obeyed. Sitting at his cluttered desk in his office in the kitchens of the Savoy hotel, he barks some instructions over the telephone in his precise, German accent. Then he swivels around to face me and a liveried waiter from the restaurant who is delivering our order; coffee for me, peppermint tea for him.

His pale blue eyes scan the cup and saucer and biscuits in front of him. "Hev you gone mad?" he suddenly shrieks at the waiter. "Serve the lady first. The lady is always served first. Effrywhere in the world! Vot are you thinking about?"

Actually, the waiter has served me first; it's just that Edelmann cannot see my cup behind his discarded toque and a mound of paperwork on his desk. "Humph!" he says, when this is pointed out. Then an inspired diversion. "Bring us some champagne instead!" he cries.

Chef Edelmann's office is situated high above the Savoy kitchens with a glass wall that offers him a commanding view of the clamour and heat below. To get here, you walk through the marble-pillared glamour of the Thames Foyer, where afternoon tea is served, and turn right at the approach to the River Restaurant.

Here, you slip behind a screen and leave the soft opulence of the hotel's public faade behind and enter the gritty reality of its sweaty workplace. The contrast is surprising. Rips in the linoleum are patched with strips of packing tape, the walls could use a lick of paint, the kitchen has seen better days, everyone looks exhausted.

It is from here that they cook and serve the food for Edelmann's Savoy fiefdom - the River Restaurant, the Thames Foyer and all the room service orders - and it is from this cluttered little room that he controls it all.

Although he was born in Germany and has worked across Europe, the sense of history here is not lost upon him. In its 114 years, the Savoy has only ever employed two non-Frenchmen in this position - and Edelmann is one of them. Above his desk hangs a photograph of the last stove in the Savoy kitchen that Escoffier cooked on - and one that Edelmann used himself until it was ripped out in 1985.

"Ach, terrible to cook on. It was coal fired and old. One Friday night, it packed up altogether," says Edelmann, although he loved it on damp winter nights when the hotel's front doors were open and a draught would suck the oven smoke right into the foyer.

"I remember one guest sitting there coughing, saying that this must have been what it was like during those old London smogs. I told him: you should see the kitchen."

Elsewhere in the office, there are sheaves of orders, suppliers' notes, a computer; the essential tools of the modern-day chef. Over on the floor, there is a little fridge with a glass door and, inside it, quietly chilling, you can see Edelmann's breakfast; a plate of chopped fruit and a few pots of yogurt. It looks like something left out for the cat.

"But I didn't have it today. I had a huge bacon sandwich instead. Disgusting!" he says. He spots the waiter. "So. Did you get the champagne?"

"Yes, sir!" cries the waiter.

Edelmann turns to me.

"So. Have you read my CV?"

"Yes, sir!" I almost reply.

Anton Edelmann, now 51, has worked at the Savoy for 21 years. In that time, he has killed and cooked a turtle, sent a hamper to Jeffrey Archer in prison, regretted introducing some of his female friends to Adam Faith, and sent out hundreds and thousands of dishes to Savoy residents and guests.

He lives in Potters Bar ("It's the bloody pits") with his wife and children, he loathes the word "gravy", and he drives to and from work each day in a Volkswagen Beetle. He runs marathons, he loves Japanese food, he radiates good health.

Yet these are not the very best of times for Edelmann. Having resigned, he will shortly leave his beloved Savoy to take up a new post, later this year, as Principal Chef of the Directors' Table, the fine dining division of Sodexho, the catering company, and will take charge of its Dolphin Square restaurant.

In public, he has said that he is leaving the Savoy because it is time for him to move on. In private, he admits he was almost forced out of his position as Maitre Chef des Cuisines.

"I could see the writing on the wall," he sighs. He extracts one of his business cards from a large pile on his desk.

"Maitre Chef! You ask what does that mean? I wish someone would tell me! Oh, the Savoy is very pretentious, of course. I am only a cook. That is how I started and that is how I will die, I suppose. Look at all these cards! Look at how many are left. I won't need them any more, isn't that amazing?" Is it sad?

"I had a sadness before I made up my mind, and it is gone now. You see, I had 21 good years here and I always said to my wife, look, I will only stay there as long as I think I am wanted, I feel I do a good job and that management supports me.

"I feel fit, I feel good about myself but, last year, the time came to make a decision. But there is no bitterness in my heart," he says. "My last day here is going to be joyous, it is going to be a good day."

The Savoy is part of the Savoy Group, which is owned by the New York-based private investment bank, Blackstone Group. This week, Blackstone and Colony Capital, which bought the Savoy Group for 520 million in 1998, played down Daily Telegraph reports that the Savoy Group was for sale, although city analysts still believe that it is being quietly marketed for 800 million plus.

The Savoy Group contains most of London's most glamorous trophy hotels, such as Claridge's, the Connaught and the Berkeley, and it has been part of the company's strategy over the past few years to lease the hotel restaurants to top chef Gordon Ramsay and his team, who then overhaul them completely. For the most part, this has proved to be a rip-roaring success, although Edelmann understood at the very beginning that the Savoy's two main restaurants - the Grill and the River Restaurant - would not be touched.

This year, the Grill (which Edelmann never had responsibility for) was handed over to Ramsay's number two, Marcus Wareing. After an expensive refit, costing millions, including brand-new kitchens, it opened to rave reviews last month and has become an important addition to the London dining scene, rather than an overpriced timewarp. Now, industry pundits predict that it is only a matter of time before Ramsay gets his hands on the River Restaurant - the jewel in Edelmann's crown - and Edelmann himself is inclined to agree with them.

"Claridge's went, the Connaught went, the Berkeley went. People said that Savoy restaurants are OK, don't you worry. Then the Grill went. I could see the way the wind was blowing and perhaps I may have been pushed out if I had stayed on longer. I mean, Gordon certainly seems to be the flavour of the month, doesn't he? I find it fascinating that they are putting all their eggs in one basket with him, so to speak. Now, nearly all the hotels in the Savoy Group are controlled by him. Do I think they are making a mistake? I couldn't possibly comment on that. Is Gordon making a mistake? Good God, no. Good luck to him, is what I say."

Ramsay and Edelmann have met "many times", right here in this office, and despite Edelmann's assertions of support - "He is a good cook and he puts his money where his mouth is" - it is hard to believe that their relations are truly cordial. Edelmann reveals that, the last time they met, he told Ramsay that he must be a very worried man about having to make a profit on "having to pay such a high rent" at the Savoy Grill.

And Ramsay said?

"He said, no problem! Hmm. Very confident man, isn't he?"

Despite his protests to the contrary, it seems that one could deep-fry eggs in a bowl of Edelmann's bubbling pique - although he is clearly a man more bruised than bitter - and although he is loquacious on most subjects, he seems to find talking about other chefs, and Ramsay in particular, a difficult task.

Which of the Ramsay restaurants does he prefer?

"Can anyone tell the difference?" he cackles.

Mention the expensive new kitchens freshly installed in the Savoy Grill and Edelmann takes on the countenance of a diner who has just swallowed a particularly bad oyster.

"Well. That would affect anybody, wouldn't it? It would be stupid to say that I wasn't upset."

Still, cheer up! Our champagne is here and Edelmann is full of fabulous anecdotes about the Savoy, surely the most glorious of all London's hotels, with a certain cachet that none of the others can match. He is still disturbed about the turtle he made into soup for a guest about 15 years ago. "It is an endangered species. And I am a member of the Soil Association!"

For his friend and regular Savoy diner Jeffrey Archer, he packed crab cakes, foie gras - "old Jeffrey loves that" - and smoked salmon into a hamper, and was crushed when wardens at the Norfolk prison refused to allow the package into the jail, as it was "against rules". Edelmann was close to Adam Faith, who would often lunch at the table here in the chef's office with him. The last time this happened, Edelmann also invited two fiftysomething female acquaintances along. When he was out of the room, Faith invited both women to "make up a threesome" in his Savoy apartment upstairs. Appalled, the women quickly left, and one of them later told Edelmann that Faith had said to them: "Normally, I am not doing it with old ladies like you; you should be pleased."

Edelmann chuckles to himself. "It wasn't surprising that he died with a young girl with him, was it?"

Edelmann himself is happily married to an Englishwoman who always demands that he cooks a Sunday roast for her and their three daughters each week. "That is my sad fate," he says, although he couldn't be happier with his home life.

His one extravagance is the 50,000 kitchen he installed in his Potters Bar home and where, on the only day off he has each week, it is his joy to cook for his own family. "I love it when it is just me and the four of them," he says. "That is when I like it best."

Recently, he drove home with a live crab in a bucket of water, with plans to cook it for their Sunday lunch.

"Fantastic, Dad," said his youngest daughter. "Can I keep it as a pet?"

"That's disgusting Dad," said the middle daughter, looking into the bucket.

"Dad, you're a murderer!" shrieked the oldest daughter when she saw that one of its legs had broken off.

"Anton, get that thing out of here," commanded his wife.

Sigh. There was a time when he was appreciated at the Savoy. There was even a time when a customer left him 1,000 in his will as a token of gratitude. But you get the feeling that it's all going to be very different for Maitre Chef des Cuisines Anton Edelmann from now on.

jan moir 2007

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