Saying What He Thinks - Antony Worrall Thompson
PUBLISHED: 00:16 03 February 2011 | UPDATED: 20:36 20 February 2013
This time two years ago, award-winning chef, restaurateur and household name Antony Worrall Thompson was not in a good place. Now he's very much back in business and he's pulling no punches, as he tells Tessa Harris...
I first met AWT, as everyone calls him, in 2004 at Notting Grill, his erstwhile restaurant in Londons Holland Park.
His culinary prowess had already made him a TV favourite when, only the year before, he had been catapulted into the tabloid limelight by taking part in one of the earliest series of Im a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. He had also published his very candid autobiography, Raw. More TV series, more column inches in the newspapers, more cookery books and, crucially, more restaurants followed.
By 2008 he had six in all: Notting Grill, The Lamb Inn, The Greyhound at Rotherfield Peppard, The Barnes Grill, The Kew Grill and the Windsor Grill, which opened in September 2007.
Then came the crash of autumn 2008. By February 2009 it had all gone horribly wrong and his company went into administration.
Fast forward almost two years and were sitting in the office above The Windsor Larder, his delicatessen in St Leonards Road, just a stones throw away from The Windsor Grill.
It was so sad, he recalls, cradling a cappuccino. The banks didnt support me. I took my eye off the ball on the telly all the time. Its a classic story. We were riding the crest of the wave, and then the wave came crashing down.
Indeed, 2009 is a year which AWT would rather forget and I feel almost guilty asking him to relive the hard times. In November 2008 the loss of jobs and his business had left him in tears. He personally visited each of his restaurants to tell his employees that the company had been put into administration, and staff would be made redundant.
He famously blamed Lloyds Banking Group, which refused to extend his overdraft by 200,000.
He tells me: We needed looking after for the first four months of the year and to do that the banks asked me to risk my home I thought that was out of order.
While his financial woes mounted, he had problems on the domestic front, too, when he sued the surveyor who produced a report for him on the 1916 house he bought in Shiplake a couple of years before.
We moved from the family home, which we loved, to get away from the river because of the risk of flooding, he says. We lost the river but we gained a tennis court and a swimming pool. However, he also gained several unforeseen structural problems with the property and a lengthy legal battle ensued.
In the end, however, AWT bought three of his restaurants back: The Greyhound, The Kew Grill, and The Windsor Grill. In July 2009 he invited lots of his celebrity friends, including fellow chef Ainsley Harriott, Angie Best and Sir John Madejski to a big party to celebrate the re-opening of The Greyhound.
He also invested in The Windsor Larder, a real foodies shop that sells an array of homemade cakes, breads and pastries, as well as cheeses, preserves, locally-produced meat and dairy goods, thats situated just a few doors away from The Windsor Grill.
Im like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he tells me rather ruefully. He goes on: Im a classic Taurean. I refuse to take no for an answer. It was an interesting learning curve. Sometimes I think I am running a holiday camp.
What AWT has also learnt is that he needs to be more hands on. So now, more often than not, youll find him behind the stove at The Greyhound.
I did 11 shifts there last week and I really love it, he says, adding:
I became a bit of an office boy, but now Im back at the stoves and I'm having a good time.
Of course, one of his great passions is producing and cooking locally-grown food. Indeed, he has his own organic fruit and vegetable garden and rears Middle White pigs. He is also chairman of Thames Valley Farmers Markets, but he acknowledges that it is a difficult task persuading local residents to embrace the whole organic, locally-produced concept.
He bemoans: You assume that here youve got the right sort of people who appreciate these things, but there arent enough foodies in Henley or Windsor.
Initially, The Windsor Larder was producing several home-cooked ready-made dishes. We made really good casseroles and soups and classics like tagine, but business was very slow. It surprised me really, he says, adding: I would say I was disappointed with Windsor really.
Even so, on the night of our meeting, the restaurant is fully booked and bookings are 30 per cent up on last year. His older restaurants bookings are up by 10 per cent. Theyre small beginnings, but it seems to be encouraging, he says.
AWT seems genuinely pleased to be back doing what he loves most, cooking, so it comes as a bit of a revelation to learn that he was tempted to have his head turned away from the stoves by none other than the Conservative party.
Id love to be a politician, he smiles. There are no personalities in politics any more. (He makes an exception for his friend and former Henley MP Boris Johnson.) The men in grey suits took me out for dinner three times.
The men invited him to a debate and when he turned up he was horrified to learn that he was actually the speaker. He spoke for 15 minutes on a food-related topic and, not surprisingly given his media experience, managed to hold his audience.
He recalls: They said I was very impressive, even though I didnt have a brief. They said theyd love to have some people like me in the party and they would find me somewhere suitable. He goes on: I can relate to kids and all sorts of different people but, if I became a politician, I would want to get to the top and my wife said she wouldnt stand on the doorstep of No 10 with me.
His wife of more than 15 years is Jay, who is also a trained cook and is very much hands on in the kitchen. She is at the helm of Food and Wine To Go at the Windsor Larder, AWTs catering business. As Larder manager Brenda Newman says: Give us your dishes and well fill them for you and keep your secret!
Of course, its no secret that AWT is a workaholic. He also had a health scare a few years back when he was diagnosed as being predisposed to diabetes. He changed his diet and accordingly produced a cookbook aimed at those wanting a healthier lifestyle and lost a good deal of weight himself into the bargain.
And as for taking up a second career in politics? I am just on my way out when I stop to say goodbye to Jay and I mention his revelations. AWTs interest in politics does not, of course, come as a surprise to her, but she is sanguine about his ambitions. She tilts her head to one said and says, as only a wife can: The trouble with Antony is he says what he thinks.