My second presidency, which afforded brief and unexpected eminence in the restaurant world, ended only last week. A cheery-sounding woman rang last November to inquire if I would be president of something called the Wine Magazine/Muscadet Most Sympathique 1994 Restaurant Awards - the Sympa Awards for short. The organiser, it emerged, was a public relations firm called Biss Lancaster. Judges would include our own Anthony Rose, Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, her husband, Nick Lander, the restaurant critic for the Financial Times, and the Evening Standard food critic, Fay Maschler. Wowee, I thought, me president of them? Hell, yes, I said.
I was asked to nominate a shortlist of restaurants. Most of my choices proved ineligible, on the unexpected grounds that they were outside London. My suggestion to lengthen the competition's already long title into the Wine Magazine/Muscadet Most Sympathique London Restaurant was politely ignored.
Several weeks had passed when a letter arrived listing the judges and their assignments. Damn] Tim Atkin, wine correspondent for the Observer, had got the Brackenbury. I would be going to somewhere called Olivio in Victoria.
There is no such restaurant; there is one called Olivo, however. Professional restaurant reviewers tend to prefer pseudonyms, but this organisation was so professional as to change the name of the restaurant as well. I rang Biss Lancaster to find out my pseudonym, to be told it had booked the table under my name. Olivo would be subjected to critics from the Independent, Financial Times and the Wine Spectator, all cognito, simultaneously. This was unorthodox enough to qualify as cunning.
What, I wondered, would be my next presidential duty? Biss Lancaster assured me that all I needed to do was to fill out a questionnaire about my meal. The company would tally the results, then re-inspect the contenders, and somehow produce a winner. The final, simple step would be to show up at a reception on 1 March and make some sort of speech. I might, if inspired, explain what a truly 'sympa' restaurant is. Biss Lancaster would help.
It dawned on me then they had got the wrong American President. Ronald Reagan was good at saying what he was told, although he probably cost more than Biss Lancaster paid, which was nothing. It was with some unease that my aide de spoon and I ate our main courses in Olivo that evening. The entire kitchen staff congregated around the bar and stared at us. Biss Lancaster's foxy tactic of using our own names appeared to have backfired.
And so to the questionnaire. It asked, for some reason, what we thought was the most important factor in going to a new restaurant. So obvious] How to get there. It offered an extra point if the wine list included Muscadet. I hadn't noticed. We had drunk a very good Barbera D'Alba from Piedmont.
Later that afternoon, Biss Lancaster rang. It had come to the painful conclusion that I wasn't a sympa kind of president. I had to agree. However, I still reserve the right to refer to myself as president. We at the Walt Whitman High School Executive Club never did fix a term. I am still in office.