Alan Richard Crompton-Batt, public-relations man: born Salisbury, Wiltshire 23 March 1954; married 1987 Elizabeth Moody (marriage dissolved 1995); died Cape Town, South Africa 21 September 2004.
Alan Crompton-Batt was in the vanguard of the British restaurant revolution. He was one of the people accountable for those strange features of modern life where going out to restaurants is a recreational activity and cooking is a hobby rather than daily drudgery.
He was a pioneer restaurant public-relations man; indeed, he was one of the inventors in Britain (it was a venerable institution in the United States) of full-service restaurant consultancy, where the same person would help a would-be restaurateur find premises, hire a chef, plan a menu, launch the restaurant and schmooze the critics. And, as the champion of Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White, he was as responsible as anyone for the cult of the chef.
Crompton-Batt was able to do this because he was a person of exceptional charm and style. His stylishness seemed almost old-fashioned, though his taste in ties, mop of yellow hair, and courtly, self-mocking manners hearkened back no further than the 1980s; and his charm was genuine - it sprang from a generous soul, coupled with a ready wit and quick intelligence. He was free of malice, loved making people happy, and deserved better of the world. To the distress of his friends (and they were many and loyal) this golden boy of the early 1980s died a broken man - in South Africa, where he had lately gone, in search of a new life.
Restaurateurs who employed him felt confident of good treatment by the reviewers. This was not simply because he had cultivated the friendship of those few critics who counted, but because you could trust him. In public matters he kept his word, and he told the truth.
He normally only took on clients of whom he could be proud, and, like the very best PRs, he understood journalists' needs for facts and for accuracy. Because of this, journalists were unafraid of accepting hospitality from him - both parties knew that it placed no one under any obligation. I know of several cases in which a close friend of his wrote negative reviews of his clients; it never affected his friendships or his relations with his clients. As these last included the two supposedly most temperamental chefs in the country, Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White, both of whom remained fond of and concerned about him to the end of his life, it is evident that Crompton-Batt had some of the skills of a diplomat.
At the same time, he knew a great deal about food and wine - though his thin, long frame and pale complexion might dispose you to think he had too little acquaintance with the former and too much with the latter.
Crompton-Batt's father was in the RAF, stationed at Salisbury, and Alan, an only child, went to Bishop Wordsworth's School there. When the family was sent to Singapore, he went to an English-language boarding school in Penang. Penang has very special and particular culinary traditions and dishes, and it was there that the young Crompton-Batt got interested in food. (I remember that we shared a passion for the Penang speciality muttabar, a subtle and spicy omelette and potato dish.)
They returned to London when he was 16, and Alan was intending to go to Oxford, but was prevented from doing so because his father became ill. In the early 1970s he became involved with the pop-music scene, and managed bands during the punk era, including the Psychedelic Furs.
Fed up with the music industry, he turned to his true love, food, and wrote a letter to Egon Ronay, offering his services as an inspector for the then buoyant restaurant guide. He was set a practical examination - his palate and food-lore passed muster, and he took to the road to eat for a living. When in London he shared digs with another Ronay inspector, Simon Hopkinson, the future starry chef of Bibendum, who gave up cooking for food writing and painting.
Crompton-Batt was no doubt a fine inspector, and he could write - so his reports must have been unusually valuable. But he was also observant, and in the course of a year or so he had learned a good deal about how the restaurant and hotel business operates. Being a restaurant-guide inspector is hard work, and becomes wearing - it's no fun to eat by yourself twice a day in places you would not normally find yourself, even if you are being paid to do it.
When he was ready to leave, Crompton-Batt found a position as director of marketing for Kennedy Brookes, a company specialising in restaurant management. It was then that he began dealing with press people and got his reputation for supplying reliable information - and also for having a good nose for a new restaurant.
For restaurant critics trying to be first with the news of a new opening or to spot a new trend, Crompton-Batt was a wonderful resource. He not only knew everything the minute it happened, he was totally generous about telling his friends. In the mid-1980s, in America, the New York Times restaurant critic was expected to write only after paying the bills for half a dozen anonymous visits to a restaurant; in Britain, however, only a few newspapers paid their restaurant critic's expenses for a single visit. Even those of us whose expenses were paid by our papers sometimes found it difficult to eat out, as it were "on spec", in the hopes of finding that a place was worth a write-up. But if Crompton-Batt found a new place he liked - even if it was a competitor - he made it his business to take his friends there, often paying the bill himself.
In 1986 Kennedy Brookes bought the Ivy from Cathy Grade, Lew Grade's wife, and Crompton-Batt became involved in doing PR for the re-launched restaurant. In January 1987, he married the beautiful Elizabeth Moody, Lady Grade's niece. Alan Crompton-Batt was riding high then, and no one was surprised to learn that the reception would be held at the Albert Hall. We expected no less.
Together they scaled the heights of PR. Their client the young Marco Pierre White opened his first restaurant, Harvey's, on the day of their wedding. They helped Nico Ladenis open, out of London, in Shinfield, near Reading, the only mistake (though a seriously bad one) Ladenis made on his quest for the three Michelin stars he finally got, as did White. Crompton-Batt believed in them both, and worked hard for them - indeed, he is credited as co-author of Ladenis's 1987 book, My Gastronomy.
They hitched up with Robert Earl to do the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood. They won the Taittinger Champagne account, which gave Crompton-Batt a broader canvas to paint on - rooms at the Lutèce and lunch at Benoît in the shadow of the new Beaubourg. The UK Relais & Châteaux account meant that they worked with Raymond Blanc and the Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and with Chewton Glen and many other country-house hotels. They were associated with the start-up of many London restaurants including, with Christopher Gilmour, Christopher's in Covent Garden. They branched out into products, and launched Häagen-Dazs ice-cream, and Crompton-Batt had his sights set on Manhattan.
Then something extraordinary happened. In 1993 a disgruntled minor client who felt that his restaurant had not succeeded because Crompton-Batt had not given it his full attention took his complaint to a BBC Radio consumer programme, Face the Facts. The charge was - crazily enough - that Crompton-Batt had failed to bag the big-time reviewers.
It was Crompton-Batt's bad luck that a presenter who knew little about the restaurant business believed the story, and proceeded to doorstep him. Though his friends and proper clients were happy to defend him on the record, by this time Crompton-Batt was living on his nerves, smoking and drinking too much (though pace the Daily Mail, he was never heavily involved with drugs), and paying too little attention to his own business affairs.
Many of his friends felt the unwelcome attentions of Radio 4 broke him, for the attack on his integrity was at odds with his own view of himself as an honourable man. He was too intelligent not to recognise that, like many alcoholics, he had a Walter Mitty side to his character, but I am certain that, though he acknowledged the inherent fragility of his profession ("Public relations is like Christianity. If you don't believe in it, it doesn't work for you," he told The Independent on Sunday), he never stopped believing in his own integrity.
His marriage ended in 1995, and there followed a string of girlfriends and failed projects, culminating a month ago in the move to South Africa, where he had hoped to find sun and health and write his memoirs.
Paul LevyReuse content