Written by Allan Hall
My first culinary romp with Roger Allen – indeed, the first time I ever met him – was born out of that essential ingredient for success in journalism.
Old hacks can bang on about contacts, schmoozing, working all hours that God sends etc. etc., but without fortune’s benevolent hand, you are generally screwed. Luckily, I have mostly been lucky.
Lying in my bed early one night in Manhattan, (the American beat was a gem of a job but with the hours of a milkman given the time difference with London) I received a call from a pal who worked on the National Enquirer, a magazine based in Florida which is almost exclusively devoted to catching celebrities out and vomiting their indiscretions over several pages of every issue.
Hollywood hated it, the readers loved it.
My friend said they had received a call from a woman in a drink tank in Maryland saying she was on a detox programme with a well known British comedian. “His name doesn’t mean anything to us over here,” he said.
“Who is it?” I enquired.
“Michael Barrymore,” he replied. “Interesting for you guys?”
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Several hours later I was encamped in a fleapit motel in a place called Aberdeen, 60 miles north of Washington D.C. To those born too late or simply disinterested in the dissection of TV stars upon the pages of newspapers, Barrymore was at the time one of the biggest names on British TV and one of its richest. If he was drying out then this was indeed a grand tabloid tale.
By then I had been in America for close on six years and had no idea what he looked like. Which is why Roger Allen, despatched from the Mirror office in London, was bringing the organ’s American editor (me) a picture of him.
The fragile informant who was sharing his attempt to kick John Barleycorn and all his evil ways was called Sally Anne, a smaller version of Dolly Parton. She had big blonde hair, big boobs and a large mouth that was chewing a huge piece of gum when I met her and made the offer that the office had told me to put to her; $20,000 US dollars for her story IF it turned out to be true.
Roger showed me and her photos from his TV show. Before he’d even finished pulling them out, she’d seen enough of his face to recognise him.
‘God damn that’s him, that’s the man who’s in the drink tank,’ Sally Anne cried.
‘Right, OK. Are you sure it’s him?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, I’m double sure honey,’ the Texan said.
‘Well, I’ll ring London and tell them we’ve got a deal,’ I said.
‘Sally Anne, what’s Barrymore doing right now? Lying in his room, in a therapy session, or what?’ I asked.
‘Right now, he’ll be on the front lawn of the big house playing volleyball with some of the other guys. Why?’
‘Really? How far is the clinic from here, how long will it take to get there?’ I said with urgency.
‘Oh, about twenty minutes. He always goes out for volleyball at four o’clock. He loves his volleyball. He’ll be there ’til about five.’
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I was mentally contemplating that night’s feast which surely awaited us. While the world may turn on more than the weaknesses of celebrity comics, Barrymore would be a huge exclusive which would buy Allen and I 24 hours of office heroism and a meal fit for kings. Or two.
Twenty minutes after Sally Anne told us where he would be, we arrived at the impressive gates of the drug and drink clinic. I was driving, Roger was in the back with Sally Anne nurturing a lens as long as a bazooka.
We drove through its portals and entered a tree-lined avenue; it seemed to go on forever. It was like a royal park. After a few minutes of driving through wonderful open woodland, a massive structure came into view. It was a stone-built, colonial-style house two floors high with four dormer windows set in the large tile-hung roof. On the right side of the building was a verandah, ideally placed so inmates could sit and look out over the fantastic Chesapeake Bay. In front of the house was a well-manicured lawn, mown in strips, with ornate lamp posts lining a footpath.
Just as we drove to the edge of the lawn and the horseshoe road that swept up to the front door of the house, Sally Anne let out a shriek.
‘That’s him, there he is, playing volleyball!’ she yelled.
‘F**k me, she’s right, that’s Barrymore,’ said Roger.
There was the errant superstar, looking stick thin, dressed in a grey T-shirt and long, crumpled Gap shorts, with short white socks and boating shoes. Roger’s motor-driven camera clattered away like a WW1 Lewis gun.
It was impossible for Barrymore not to notice he was being, in the parlance of Fleet Street, “hosed down” and he began to sprint after the car. He was too late, we were too quick. We sped out through the open gates of the Father Martin Ashley Clinic. It was 4.30pm. Time to abandon Sally Anne with her contract and for us to head off to Washington to celebrate.
Not only did we have the photos of Barrymore, we had hours of tape recordings in therapy sessions that Sally Anne had been canny enough to record.
An hour later we were speeding down Highway 95 to Washington. There I booked us into the Willard Hotel, a stone’s throw to the White House.
The Willard is known as the ‘Crown Jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue.’ It’s where elected presidents have stayed the night before their inaugurations and where visiting foreign heads of state reside when they’re in town. It was the top end of luxury.
After drinks in the famous Round Robin bar – it was Saturday night and Barrymore was scheduled for the full page one treatment in the Mirror on Monday morning – we departed for the then trendy, now sadly closed, Red Sage restaurant.
The Red Sage at the time was a spin-off of celebrity chef Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe franchise, specialising in New Mexican cuisine; hot, spicy, but rarerified and elegantly served, giving modern twists to classic dishes, and drawing in an eclectic crowd to enjoy them. We both had black bean soup to start with and, if you are a fan of this particular pulse, you will want to cook no other recipe.
At Red Sage there was a wonderful condiment made out of chipotle chillis, those smoked jalapeno peppers with an aroma like none other. I don’t know how they made it there, but Ross Burdon, the 1993 runner-up on Masterchef, had this recipe and it is brilliant.
There was a message from the editor awaiting us when we staggered back to the Willard close to midnight: ‘Don’t go anywhere near the clinic until Monday.. Just go and have a damned good lunch.’ Oh well, orders are orders.
My local watering hole in New York was Les Halles, where celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain worked. A proper French bistro with a meat counter in the front, a small bar and a noisy, crowded restaurant, it had just opened a second branch in Washington although both, sadly, are now shuttered.
Les Halles gave a decidedly French twist to steak, perhaps the favourite meat among Americans. It offered cuts such as onglet and bavette in a land used to rump and sirloin.
Onglet, or hanger steak, was for long known as ‘the butcher’s cut’ because the wise meat merchants kept this tender, little known portion of the cow for themselves.
The frites at Les Halles, either Washington or NY, were legendary. Potatoes soaked, dried, fried, rested and fried again were the perfect accompaniment to most of the dishes served there. Follow this and your chips will never be soggy again. Promise.
At 7.30am we were both back in my rented Thunderbird, heading north on I95. The paper had dropped in London.
The story was on pages one to five, with the headline ‘MY DRINK AND DRUGS HELL, by Michael Barrymore’. There was a huge picture of him looking at the camera in his shorts and T-shirt.
On page two was another picture of Barrymore just before he ran away. That was below the strap line, ‘Marijuana – I didn’t smoke it, I ate it in chunks. I guzzled painkillers and Valium. But I never drank more than a pint of Bourbon each day.’
There followed a week of further Olympian lunching and dining before a press conference was convened at the drink clinic the following Friday.
‘The privacy of my client, Mr Barrymore, has been invaded by the Daily Mirror,’ said pompous brief Henry Brandman from London as Barrymore looked on with his wife. “Their actions encouraged other papers to pursue a story about my client, causing him further distress. Therefore, we will be pursuing Allan Hall and Roger Allen on both sides of the Atlantic with civil and possibly criminal proceedings. You two gentlemen will be hearing from my London office. Thank you very much.’
We never did.
We went for lunch instead at the Occidental Grill, still basking in the afterglow of tabloid glory.
This is one restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue still open for business after 111 years. It specialises in American classics, modernized and cooked with flair for Washington’s movers and shakers who chow down beneath portraits of every president and plenty of other politicos besides.
It’s grilled calves liver with raspberry vinegar reduction was sublime, served alongside potato halves that had been rubbed with garlic and rosemary and baked in the oven for 45 minutes in a small pool of olive oil.
At the end of this culinary eatathon Roger and me were the size of Belgium. We were both looking forward to tea and beans on toast.
“Don”t come back, go to California on the next plane,” said London.
It was a recipe for disaster – one which involved me sharing a bed with Roger, as well as several more menus.
The sordid details will follow in another chapter of The Hungry Hacks.