Who’s Having the Chips?

SOMEWHERE in the Italian lakes, perhaps, a tall and portly head waiter called Philippo is presiding theatrically over an elegant, fashionable, and suitably expensive restaurant. In my mind's eye I can see him clearly against a background of lake and mountain, and can hear the rolling cadences as he tells some party of diners about the day's bill of fare. What he does not know is that he almost certainly if indirectly inspired a character in the latest Rumpole by John Mortimer.

Philippo used to be head waiter at the Malmaison, Glasgow, in the last days of that famous restaurant which for so long was effortlessly the best in Scotland. It was about 10 years ago that I first made his acquaintance when I went there to dine with a party of friends.

Philippo, I was later to learn, carried the art of professional sycophancy to a point of elaboration that approached satire; but on this night he must have been in a bad mood. He did not know us and he might never see us again.

He began his ritual incantation about the fresh fish and how they were to be done, and the exquisite sauce in which the beef was to be cooked, cheerfully enough. Perhaps he felt he was being silently mocked and his manner suddenly and subtly changed. Into his discourse crept the distinct innuendo that all this magnificence was too rich and expensive for the likes of us.

Irritation grew among us. He was being patronising and offensive. In a spirit of pure revenge I asked: ”Have you got any mince?” Philippo, outraged, drew himself up to his full height and screeched in his Italian accent: ”Mince? Mince? Is there something the matter with your teeth?”

After a delay, during which the ambient temperature dropped by about five degrees, he produced a particularly unappetising plate of minced steak, which had no seasoning and had barely been cooked. He had me there: I ate it without complaint.

Later Philippo and I became friendly. He would welcome me like a long-lost brother. But slowly the restaurant began to die. The pianist no longer appeared in the evening. The a la carte stopped at lunchtime and was replaced by a businessman’s menu. One day a friend and I watched a party of trade union leaders walk out in protest at this move down market.

Then the restaurant closed. Philippo said to me sadly: ”A town gets the restaurants it deserves.” For a while he shared the franchise in La Fourchette, the cheap and cheerful place into which the Malmaison had mutated. He worked hopefully, bustling about with all his old theatrical officiousness. But one night, driving up Hope Street, I saw him rather sadly standing on the pavement, smoking a cigarette in the cool night air, and I wondered how things were going.

A couple of days later there was a paragraph in the paper. Philippo had abruptly gone back to Italy. When last heard of, he was working for a famous restaurant at Lake Como. For me he lived on as the subject of the anecdote about the mince.

How does Rumpole come into it? A couple of years ago John Mortimer won the People’s Prize, sponsored by the Scottish Libraries Association and the Herald, and he came up to Scotland to pick it up. He did not have time to linger at the presentation but a few months later, in Edinburgh, John Linklater and I had lunch with him in an Italian restaurant. In the course of a very pleasant conversation I told him the story about Philippo.

It was therefore with I hope not self-deluding proprietorial pleasure that I read the first story in Rumpole a la Carte (Penguin). Rumpole is in a restaurant with his wife Hilda and her cousin. He is being patronised by the head waiter. ”Madame, messieurs. Tonight Jean-Pierre recommends, for the main course, la poesie de la poitrine du canard aux celeris et epinards crus . . .”

Rumpole rebels. He asks for a ”poesie of steak and kidney pudding, not pie, with mashed potatoes and a big scoop of boiled cabbage. English mustard, if you have it.”

”Rumpole!” Hilda’s whisper was menacing. ”Behave yourself!”

Now it is perfectly possible that John Mortimer has no recollection of our conversation and simply invented the incident. I will continue to believe that his head waiter is a literary metamorphosis of Philippo.

In the heyday of the Malmaison, expensive restaurants were used by relatively few — the wealthy and those on business expenses. In Scotland nowadays eating out is an almost universal pastime but the head waiters are an ordinary lot by comparison with Philippo.

Too many have the absolutely infuriating and detestable habit of interrupting you, as you are about to deliver the punchline of an anecdote, to ask: ”Is everything all right, sir?” Just about as annoying is the waiter who unceremoniously barks: ”Who’s having the chips?”

Philippo would assume that everything was all right. Under his direction the waiter would know who was having the chips. Not many of our waiters in Scotland would last five minutes in a busy Parisian brasserie: earlier this year I dined in the Terminus du Nord in a party of 20; the waiters allocated each dish to the person who had ordered it without inquiry, faultlessly.

But I digress. If anyone sees Philippo, somewhere round Lake Como I should think, they should tell him about Rumpole and the Head Waiter. But they should phrase it with care to avoid some subtle reprisal.

”For a tense moment,” thought Rumpole, ”it seemed as though the looming, priestly figure of Georges was about to excommunicate me . . .”

That’s Philippo, to the life. Wherever he is, I wish him well.

From a later article:
* Faithful readers may recall that on September 7 I wrote about Philippo of the Malmaison who, I suggested, was the model on which a
character in the new Rumpole stories was based. Filippo Zoanni (I apologise for mis-spelling his name) has received a
copy of the piece from a friend in Glasgow and has written me a charming note. He is maitre at what he calls a ”lovely restaurant” called Tout
Paris, in Menaggio on the shores of ”beautiful Lake Como”.
He writes: ”I often think about my years in Glasgow — and with a certain nostalgia. People in that city are so very friendly and have
such a keen sense of humour.”
One day, I hope, we shall meet again.