Restaurateur and reformed boozer Robert Charles Phillips reflects on a life too often lived through a glass, drunkenly, in the company of HNWs with similar tastes
THE PHONE RANG. I took the turbot from the oven and reached to garnish the lobster, all while keeping a beady eye on the filet mignon. This was a restaurant kitchen, but not just any restaurant. Described by some as petite and cosy, it was diminutive in size. It was a miracle the staff weren’t falling over each other.
I picked up the phone, wiping a dripping brow. ‘Hello. La Rosette.’
‘Ah, Robert. It’s Government House calling. We’ve got a VIP flying over; a private room should do it.’
I should explain at this point that Government House is the Queen’s colonial residence on the Isle of Man, staffed by archaic remnants of the British Empire, complete with an overstyled lieutenant-governor. Irked by the timing of his call, I snapped down the line that I was cooking for a full house, single-handed, didn’t want to be answering the phone, and he should be so lucky to get a table on a busy Saturday night anyway. A knowing cough emanated from the other end: ‘Did I mention our guest is from Japan? Crown Prince, you see, destined to be Emperor.’
I took my eye off the browning fillet. ‘Oh… perhaps something might be available later on,’ I mumbled. I was told the bodyguards would be arriving prior to the prince at approximately 9.30.
And that’s how it went — strange days, almost surreal now when I look back on them. Because of our proximity to the airport and the fact that we had created three private dining rooms, clients frequently flew in for a business lunch or dinner where confidentiality was prerequisite. Among these higher echelons were financiers, politicians, racehorse breeders, sports and TV personalities and well-known UK restaurateurs for whom privacy was valued. I’ve always admired the brilliance of the minds of the high-flyers — not so much the politicians, but the savvy investors, entrepreneurs and wealth creators who forge prosperity for themselves and others alike.
By this time I had developed a bit of a habit, the kind that polite circles fall over themselves not to mention. During those gilded years, I’d developed a flavour for fine wine. Normally not a problem, only as the financial sands started shifting underneath me, the flavour became less of a requirement, neatly crossing over to the ‘stronger effect’ territory.
One of my more bizarre, alcohol-inspired ideas was to convert my newly mortgaged country home into a covert private dining club — private, by appointment only; after all, food did have its part to play.
This was where the big-hitters would come to let their hair down. This was a respectable area; I’m sure a certain neighbour (the wife of a former governor of Jamaica) would have fainted at the suggestion of a ‘food outlet’ anywhere near her immaculately lawned estate.
It was here one ghastly evening that we mislaid one of our financial wizards! What had started as a light lunch had drifted (or should I say floated) into the early evening. After everyone had left, I could see his Bentley still parked outside the kitchen window. I rang his secretary — he hadn’t arrived back with anyone else. Frantically searching our grounds, we came across him, thoroughly inebriated and fast asleep, under a palm tree on an extremely cold and frosty night.
There had been a blizzard and it was still blowing a hooley. If we had just gone to bed and left him there overnight, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. What can I say? It took us longer than expected to defrost him. Happily the gentleman was unharmed, aside from a temporary loss of self-respect. My wife and I decided that was the closest shave that we had ever wanted; it put the wind up us so much that we promptly closed our unofficial private members’ club, just before the authorities did it for us.
IT WAS AROUND this time that the list of former customer casualties grew, nearly all drink-related. Oh, how the great and mighty fall. I guess we’re talking about the flipside of success here. Do keep alert. I recall the occasion when an insurance company merger had taken place, agreed by two executives (perhaps a little overindulgence took place), and the terms and conditions agreed did not meet the approval of a parent company. One of the executives paid the price with his sudden retirement.
It happens so quickly, crossing the invisible line — it’s the most important pivotal point for anybody who has to drink socially. We don’t know where the bloody thing is until we’re well past it.
Some of my drinking associates were airline pilots and, because of my interest in flying, my wife purchased some flying lessons for me as a birthday present. I enjoyed it immensely but my pilot instructor gently suggested I might not drink quite as much before continuing my training. When I explained why I was no longer flying to my pilot friends, they laughed and said, ‘You’re not the first or the last to be told that.’ One highly rated captain, a good friend and customer of mine, lost his licence to fly because he fell asleep while in charge of an aircraft flying over the desert. It was the boozing the night before that caused his downfall.
Let me give you another example. Many times my wife and I used to do a lot of outside catering for prominent people, select customers. They were the life and soul of the party, quick-witted, intelligent, financiers, TV and radio personalities — they’re used to dealing with other people and that’s all they’ve done all their lives, and it’s amazing how they use alcohol as a prop.
On one occasion we went round to do a dinner party for a global financier — a big, long baronial table, laid out superbly — and, as the evening progressed, the wine kept flowing. I was astonished, even as a drinker, how much these people polished off — plenty of champagne, claret and port, standard practice. It was hard to get away; they kept wanting us to stay longer, to pour more.
WE HAD TO go back there in the morning to cook brunch; it was one of those occasions when special guests flew into the island. And here we were pouring the champagne again. The host’s hand was shaking so much that I thought he was joking because, when I went to pour, I thought: there’s no way I can pour liquid into that glass. I made a joke of it: ‘Got a bit of the shakes this morning.’
He just laughed it off as well, and I had to discreetly steady his hand as I put the champagne in the glass. At one stage he was holding his wrist with the other hand. I really thought he was pulling my leg, but I wasn’t sure. About a year after that incident he left us permanently! He certainly must have been an alcoholic, but he held it well. He was a snappy dresser, he spoke like a politician, he flew his plane, he drove his Bentley, he ran his global business empire from here. It was a very sad occasion for his wife when she lost the love of her life and it affected her deeply.
I still have this picture in my mind — one of the private rooms in my little restaurant with about a dozen wealthy professionals sat around a table at 3.30 or 4pm; they’d had a good lunch, enjoyed plenty of fine French wines. Nearly all gone now; perhaps two survivors. They weren’t old invalids, they weren’t decrepit, maybe three or four years my senior.
Sometimes, even when people have died as a direct or an indirect result of alcohol consumption, it hardly ever says so on the death certificate. It says something else, like heart failure or whatever. It might spare the feelings of the deceased’s family, but it goes on and on and on. It’s society covering up for itself. We’ve got to stop this by openly talking about it. We can’t continue to gag the medical and scientific professionals any longer.
These days I’m still a restaurateur, albeit part-time, leaving me some time to write on this somewhat thorny subject. As well as many of my former clients, alcohol almost finished me off; it became my toxic friend. Hence this ever-so-gentle warning, if you’ll humour me. In these testing financial times, keep an eye on how many glasses turn into bottles and, should the bottle get to know you a little too well, remember these sobering words and examples; they could be just the calling card you require.