British food critic Egon Ronay dies aged 94: friend

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Egon Ronay, the food critic credited with transforming eating habits in Britain with his ground-breaking restaurant and hotel 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 major force in the British food industry, his no-holds-barred reviews having the power to make or break a business.

Ronay's name became a byword for quality and helped raise the notoriously bad catering standards in post-war Britain throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In doing so, he helped transform expectations and eating habits.

He died early Saturday at his home in Berkshire, southeast England, after being ill for several weeks, 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 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 was destroyed in World War II and, after a run-in with occupying Soviet soldiers, he fled Hungary for London, arriving penniless in 1946.

He never saw his father again.

Using his family connections, he found work as a restaurant manager and in 1952 -- by this time a British subject -- set up a French restaurant in the upmarket London district of Knightsbridge, called The Marquee.

Two years later he became a food critic for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, an opportunity to air his views to a wider audience.

Amid despair over the state of British catering -- he regularly cited the horror of finding a communal teaspoon attached to a string in a London train station -- he began his mission to change its ways.

Although humble about his impact, he once said: "I think the guides certainly have had the effect, particularly in mass catering, of telling people that they could no longer get away with murder -- because I would expose them."

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.

Two years ago he attacked modern celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, saying they "are not chefs any more, they are business people".

For the past decade of his life the Egon Ronay guides continued to carry his name but he was only a consultant.

© 2010 AFP

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