Andrew Edmunds RIP – a personal tribute to a dear friend

Andrew Edmunds RIP

September 1943 – September 2022

The Academy 20th September 2022

I first met Andrew in the winter of 1989.  I had just started working for a wine merchant and was responsible for gaining listings in key restaurant accounts in central London.  I had no idea where to start, so I asked a friend of mine, Rupert Monier Williams, who was a dab hand at selling his wares, to give me some assistance.  I explained that I had various parcels of Burgundies in bottles and halves, a half-decent rosé Champagne and a couple of other restaurant-friendly labels at reasonable prices.  We arranged to meet at Andrew Edmunds for lunch.  Rupert explained that Andrew always looked for keenly-priced, delicious wines for his discerning, wine-fluent clientele.

Andrew & Rupert at our wedding in 2010

Rupert and I enjoyed the first of what turned out to be many hundreds of long lunches at 46 Lexington Street.

While I briefly talked to Andrew during lunch, altogether abandoning my responsibilities as a miserably underprepared wine salesman, we got well and truly stuck into the wine list.

By late afternoon, Rupert and I asked for a bill I knew I couldn’t afford to pay.  The restaurant was still heaving as Andrew proffered an opportunity.  “Double or quits”, he said.  After finding out the wager involved arm-wrestling, I knew I was up to the task of walking away from this lunch without having to dip into my pocket.  Having never lost an arm-wrestle, it was rather galling to endure a rather sweaty and painful five minutes before losing to a diminutive waiter.  He looked like he couldn’t carry a tray of gull’s eggs, let alone put me into physio for a fortnight.  Throughout this rather embarrassing episode, Andrew’s customers were cheering and waving.  It only got louder when Andrew drew out a huge kitchen knife and ‘sabraged’ the tops off a couple of bottles of Champagne so they could all regain their lost voices.

Rupert was less than impressed, as he had to pay double the original bill, and it took me a couple of months to pay him back!  Before leaving the restaurant with my tail between my legs that evening, Andrew confided in me that his waiter had been in the Foreign Legion, and he was unbeaten there!

I had been ‘Andrewed’, and these sporting challenges, while not of the arm-wrenching variety but of the blind-tasting sort, continued over the ensuing three decades!

I never did sell Andrew any wine, but within a couple of months, I had thankfully moved jobs from selling wine to a buying job, writing wine lists.  Andrew and I now had something in common, and although I bumped into him at occasional wine tastings, we were always moving at pace and never managed more than pleasantries.  A few years later, a wine merchant friend, Jason Yapp of Yapp Brothers, invited me to a tasting ‘above Andrew Edmunds’.  Of course, I knew where Andrew’s restaurant was, but I had no idea there was an upstairs element to this famous gastronomic haunt.

When I walked into 46, via a door adjacent to the restaurant, I was struck by the shabbiness, unique atmosphere, and peacefulness of this beautiful building.  The stairs to the first-floor landing tilted alarmingly and creaked as I ascended.  Everything creaked – I have lost count of how many rickety chairs have collapsed beneath me at The Academy.

When I entered this magical room for the first time, I instantly knew I wanted to spend as much time there as possible.

 

The simple décor, Andrew’s prints on the wall, and a quaintly dishevelled feel permeated every inch of this tiny club.  Still, it was heart-movingly honest, with a genuine and unforced sense of place and, importantly, the food was sublime and the wine list unrivalled in the value and provenance of its gems.

It was the essence of Old Soho – a place far-disappearing, as chain stores and flashy boutiques had started their assault on this last bastion of our City’s romantic and rabble-rousing history.

I barely heard a word Jason said during the tasting part of our encounter.  I wanted to read the menu, order, and then get stuck into the dozen wines he had brought.  My first Academy long lunch ensued.  It was dark when we left.  I needed to get back as soon as I possibly could.

I have never felt happier or more at home in a Club setting – I immediately felt like part of the furniture.

I learned that The Academy was a literary club, to which one had to be invited to become a member, and that candidates also had to be published authors.  It was a good job that my first book was doing brisk sales and that I was on the brink of being awarded a national column, too.

I phoned The Academy several times over the next few months and asked if I could come in for lunch, promising to keep my head down and not alert anyone to my non-Member status.  My cover was that I would introduce Andrew to fascinating overseas winemakers so he and I could taste their wines.

The hilarious wallpaper in the loo, ‘halfway up the stairs’

We enjoyed many more hedonistic lunches until one day when I was ‘halfway up the stairs’, I returned to my table and discovered an envelope propped up against one of my wine glasses.  I was invited to become a Member of The Academy, and the fee was £100 and a copy of my book.

Andrew never cashed the cheque.  Ever the gentleman, he remembered the arm-wrestling challenge over a decade ago and figured I had already paid my dues.

Andrew & Amelia

Since that day, we have been involved in many hilarious adventures.  I was told by the restaurant staff that Andrew had been banned from having lunch with me after he returned rather refreshed from a particularly knavish session at Bibendum Restaurant.   So we stuck to Lexington Street and I have many fond memories of The Academy.  My first date with my wife, Amelia.  Our engagement, multiple birthdays and celebrations for us and others.  My fiftieth was a high point when The Academy opened on a Sunday for the first time.

17th September 2017

My family and friends gathered for a feast, and Andrew was among the beautiful Academy brigade pouring wine and making merry.  The magnums and jeroboams from this fantastic lunch still sit on the restaurant’s table, stuffed with candles.

The Birthday Brigade

Amelia and I have brought our two boys in, each shortly after they were born, for a quick anointment with a splash of whatever was in Andrew’s glass at the time.

The restaurant, The Academy, the excellent staff, the glorious food and the delicious wine have been a backdrop to our lives for my whole professional life.  They have also been the most enchanting atmosphere for Amelia and my relationship, not least because Andrew adored her as much as he loved endless ‘just a half glass’ tastes with me and my winey pals.

When Seraphina phoned me last weekend to tell me that Andrew had died, I was struck dumb.  Devastated for her and her siblings, her mother and the restaurant family, I also knew how much it would affect Amelia and the wine trade at large.  He was loved by so many people, some who only met him for a couple of minutes, others for half an hour.  I have received hundreds of messages of condolence from winemakers overseas, recalling debauched lunches and magnificent mirth.  Academy Members knew him well, as did legions of restaurant regulars, and his excellent taste, influence, generosity, kindness, fairness, frankness and vision endeared him so profoundly to the wine fraternity.  The wine trade is a very different place than it was back in 1989 when I first met him, but Andrew was a very rare constant, and for that, we all owe him a massive debt of gratitude along with our eternal respect and admiration.

 

With love from us.