Saturday, June 12, 2010

Food critic who changed British habits dies

LONDON - Egon Ronay, the food critic credited with transforming eating habits in Britain with his ground-breaking restaurant guides, died Saturday aged 94, a close friend said.

The Hungarian emigree published his first guide in 1957 and over the next few decades became a British institution, dubbed the "godfather of gastronomy" by The Times newspaper, as well as one of the world's most famous reviewers.

His criticisms helped raise restaurant standards throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s -- and by transforming people's expectations, they were credited with causing a revolution in British eating habits.

Ronay had been ill for a number of weeks and died early Saturday at his home in Berkshire, southeast England, close friend and broadcaster Nick Ross said. His wife Barbara and daughters Edina and Esther were by his side.

"Right up until his death, even young chefs regarded him as the monarch," said Ross, who said he had known the critic for about 15 or 20 years.

"He was a tiny man but had no airs and graces about him and yet he was almost fawned upon by restaurateurs right up until his last illness."

Ronay was the son of a prominent restauranteur in Budapest but the business collapsed in World War II and he fled communist Hungary for London, arriving here penniless in 1946. He never saw his father again and his mother only once.

Using his family connections, he found work managing restaurants and finally set up his own place in the upmarket London district of Knightsbridge.

Amid despair over the state of catering in post-war Britain -- in one interview he recalled the memory of a communal teaspoon attached to string in the tea-room of a London station -- he began his mission to change its ways.

Ronay was never afraid of holding back his views and enraged the French several years ago by suggesting that British "gastropubs" were now at least equal or even better than the finest French bistros.

"Obviously, French bistros and their staff could learn a very great deal from our gastropubs... your bill will be much smaller (and) the portions can be huge," he wrote in the foreword to his 2006 guide.

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