FOOD & DRINK / Undercover with a guide leader: 'The Good Food Guide' is famous for the acerbity of its judgements. Its new editor, says Michael Bateman, is the most genial of men. So will his guide still have teeth?

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The Independent Culture
THE Good Food Guide has a new editor, only its fifth in 43 years, Jim Ainsworth. That is to say, he is Jim Ainsworth to his family and friends and the village church where he plays the organ, but to the restaurants who will receive anonymous visits from him this year he will be someone else.

He booked his first meal as editor last week. 'Table for two. Certainly sir. And your name?' 'Mr Green,' he lied. Anonymity is essential to the job. For example, the chief inspector of the Michelin Guide to Great Britain hides his identity under the pseudonym Mr Smith. He is really Mr Brown. Though when Drew Smith was editor of the Good Food Guide he booked in as Mr Smith. Not Mr Brown. Confusing.

Egon Ronay and his wife, Barbara, always booked as Mr and Mrs Gerrard (their son is Gerard with one 'r'). Restaurant critic David Wolfe used to book in as Harry Covert till his covert was blown. It was based on a dreadful pun, haricot vert. Some London restaurateurs get the jitters when Mrs King books in, for it's a badly kept secret that this is the Evening Standard's Fay Maschler.

Obviously, it is important that the restaurant should not know when a critic is coming and so give them special treatment. Although critic Lindsay Bareham, who used to book in as Mrs John, says the opposite is also true.

'If they know you're a critic it can make them nervous in the kitchen and they'll start to make mistakes.'

Jim Ainsworth takes over the helm of the quirkiest of the guides. In the world of restaurant bibles The Good Food Guide is the gifted amateur. While the Ronay Guide, the Michelin Guide and the AA Guide are staffed by professional inspectors, The Good Food Guide consists mainly of entries submitted by readers. These are compiled by an editor who checks them out, acting as arbiter, testing meals where opinions vary. Inevitably he tends to impose his own prejudices to some degree, maybe a loathing for canned music, dogs or smoking.

Ainsworth won't have any trouble managing the quirks; he is a trained psychologist, a former Punch columnist, a former restaurateur, author of several wine books and a keen musician. But how would he perform as arbitrating critic? We booked in to La Chouette in Westlington, Buckinghamshire, a fairly new country restaurant seeking to establish its credentials, and Ainsworth cannot tell from readers' comments if it's going up or down. The Good Food Guide 1994 questions whether Frederic Desmette, the Belgian proprietor and chef, should not spend more time in the kitchen than in the restaurant, talking to the other guests. 'As Mr Desmette operates virtually single handedly, this might be a gain.' Hum. If Mr Desmette is not of a philosophical disposition, this may be another reason for us to conceal our identities.

Westlington is a pretty hamlet of thatched cottages, very chouette - pleasing - and so is La Chouette, the Tudor-timbered restaurant, a converted pub, decorated with images of owls (chouette is also French for an owl; Desmette loves birds). We are the only customers for a Thursday lunch, and Desmette asks how we found him. 'From The Good Food Guide,' we chorus. Harrumph. Bah. They know nothing, he snorts, launching into an explanation of why the Michelin Guide is the one true guide. Ainsworth is unfazed, apparently happy to be the centre of controversy.

Ainsworth is a far from anonymous character, sporting a D'Artagnan beard and moustache beginning to bristle with grey. He evidently enjoys his animated conversation with Desmette, mentally rewriting the next entry to the guide. Desmette explains that he left Belgium because there was too much competition. Here he finds the opposite scenario, no competition, but untutored diners. 'I served two globe artichokes. When I came back, the plates were clean. They had eaten the leaves, the choke, everything. I served a quail with eight or 10 vegetables, and I found that a table of four had eaten every vegetable but left the quail. I asked why. They said they didn't know how to eat it.'

Perhaps they were the people who wrote to The Good Food Guide? Desmette eyed us meanly. 'You can always tell a guide inspector,' he said, rubbing his nose with one finger. 'You can smell them.' Fee-fi-fo-fum, there's time to get up and run.

Jim Ainsworth follows a grand tradition of The Good Food Guide editors. The first was a left-wing scholar, Raymond Postgate. He founded a Good Food Club which he initially called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food. He published the first hardback edition in 1951, and by the time he retired in 1970 reckoned he had dealt with some 40,000 readers' recommendations.

The Fifties and Sixties offered much to criticise, little to praise. Christopher Driver, who succeeded Postgate as editor, suggested that the problem was that the middle classes did not discover eating in restaurants until the Fifties. Ostentation was the main consideration, food was secondary, and neither the restaurateurs nor the diners knew exactly what they ought to be doing. Many restaurateurs, said Driver, 'mentally divided customers into those who wanted cheap rubbish and those who wanted expensive rubbish'.

Driver, somewhat before his time, campaigned against smoking in restaurants. Drew Smith, who succeeded him 10 years later, was happy to find more to praise in the fast-improving expertise of the British chef; his big criticism was directed at the cynical operations of many so-called French restaurants. 'You would recognise them by their use of frozen food, inept service, poor sauces, a big bill.'

Tom Jaine, the most recent editor, had been a restaurateur, and he brought both expertise and scholarship to the job. He did not make friends with all chefs, however. When Marco Pierre White, the most upwardly mobile of today's top chefs, discovered him eating in his new restaurant in the Hyde Park Hotel, he insisted Jaine make himself outwardly mobile. This is unlikely to happen to Ainsworth, the most genial and kindly of men: 'I think there's room for temperament in a chef,' he says, 'though it's better if he keeps it in the kitchen.'

Ainsworth is a plain-speaking Lancashire man, son of a wartime chemist who helped to devise the bouncing bomb of Dambusters fame. His mother is a good homely cook, and it was holidays, camping in France, which inspired his own determination to cook.

He left school in Chorley to read psychology at Liverpool University and then taught at a teacher-training college. He started a PhD thesis on psychology and music, but it was interrupted by the Seventies' education cuts so he decided on a career change. He cooked for a summer season in North Wales with Stephen Bull (who'd made a career change from advertising) and took to the life like a duck to orange sauce. 'I was soon hooked on the steam, hiss and buzz of the kitchen.'

He bought a 35-seat restaurant in Northampton from Christopher Angeloglou (who in his turn had made a career change from being a picture editor), and within a year won recognition in all the guidebooks. He worked a 16-hour day. 'You're on your feet the whole time (and our dining room was on a floor below the kitchen). It's physically very demanding. Financially it didn't pay. In five years I made nothing.'

As a hobby he had started taking courses with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and writing for a wine club magazine (which he now edits). He was offered the Punch wine column when veteran Cyril Ray retired. Punch, too, was on the verge of retirement but Ainsworth quickly established himself as a wine authority and the author of two pithy wine books.

We finished our appetising meal of winter salad (with warm chicken livers) and pheasant with endive accompanied by Belgian Trappist monks' beer, finishing with ice-cream and foaming zabaglione. Still choosing not to identify ourselves, we asked for the bill. The beaming new editor of The Good Food Guide drew out his cheque book, and then his face fell. 'Ah,' he said. 'I've booked in as Green. But my cheques don't say Green.'-

(Photograph omitted)