Malcolm Walker, the founder of frozen food chain Iceland, has commandeered the bar in one of the restaurants he co-owns in Central London and spread out his wares.
He has brought pheasant, venison, duck eggs, shrimp, upmarket crisps, a prize-winning bar of dark orange-flavoured chocolate, lobster thermidor and an array of delectable-looking posh French cheeses.
‘At one time this was the food you would have seen on the dinner table at Downton Abbey, not in ordinary homes or being sold at Iceland,’ he says. ‘Britain is going upmarket unstoppably in terms of food. You only have to look at how tastes have changed since the war.’
Walker’s own social trajectory, like the food he sells in his freezer cabinets, has been upwardly mobile.
Iceland’s Malcolm Walker, pictured, who steers the company to 2.8bn sales, says the group is ‘democratising’ good food like lobster and fine wines
He was brought up in Grange Moor, by his own description a ‘godforsaken’ Yorkshire village. He is now a rich-list fixture, having built Iceland from one shop in Oswestry, Shropshire, with start-up capital of just £30 to a business with sales of £2.8 billion.
Earlier this year he reached the rarefied heights of being invited to a small, select lunch with the Queen and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.
And despite his reputation for being outrageous, the encounter must have gone well because shortly afterwards he was putting on his top hat and tails to receive a knighthood for services to retail, entrepreneurship and charity.
‘There were only eight of us at the lunch at Buckingham Palace. The Queen was very chatty.
‘I can’t remember what I talked about. I had chicken, it was delicious. I don’t know if they have Iceland food at the Palace, I doubt it somehow.’ Is he hoping for a Royal Warrant? ‘No, no,’ he says, as if modesty forbids.
Although it was the first time he had met Her Majesty, he says he had encountered the Duke of Edinburgh several times.
Malcolm Walker receives his knighthood from Prince William, pictured, for services to retail, entrepreneurship and charity
Once was at a reception with my daughter Caroline. I told him she runs a chain of organic supermarkets called As Nature Intended.
He said: ‘Look, would you rather have salad that has been covered in a nice clean chemical or one that’s been covered in manure?’ ‘ Walker laughs.
Even without a Royal Warrant, it’s not bad going for someone who failed his 11-plus and has been sacked from two of the only three jobs he has ever had.
The first dismissal was from Woolworths, where he started his career, for moonlighting at his own business.
The second was from Iceland in 2001 when he was embroiled in a share dealing scandal that was first revealed in Financial Mail on Sunday.
At that stage, he had declared his intention to retire and had recruited new boss, Bill Grimsey, to run Iceland. He sold £13.4 million of shares and went off on holiday to the Maldives.
But while he was sunbathing, Grimsey cut the forecasts for the business from an expected £130 million profit to a £26 million loss, casting a cloud of suspicion over the timing of the share sale.
Walker was fired and spent three years under investigation before being exonerated in 2004. After clearing his name, he came back to lead Iceland, but he still has a grudge against Grimsey.
His story is the antithesis to Sir Philip Green’s, I suggest, in that he has gone from being vilified to being festooned with honours, rather than the other way around.
‘Well,’ he nods, ‘You can’t get better vindication than a knighthood. Bill Grimsey will be seething.’
He celebrated his investiture by Prince William with a boozy lunch at the Savoy. The only sad note was that his wife of 40 years, Rhianydd, was too ill to accompany him, though he took his three children, Alexia, Caroline and Richard. Rhianydd, or Ranny as he calls her, thought up the name Iceland – Malcolm wanted to call it Penguin.
She has been suffering from Alzheimer’s since 2010 and lives at home with a full-time carer.
Malcolm likes to project a bluff Yorkshire persona, but as a self-made man worth more than £200 million, he lives a very different life from many of his hard-up customers.
Home is a vast timber-framed house in Cheshire and he also has a house in Chelsea, a holiday home in Majorca, plus a Bentley, a corporate jet and a yacht.
As he sees it, Iceland is democratising good food and wine, providing lobster and Chablis at prices virtually anyone can afford.
‘What wine do you expect to buy from Iceland?’ he demands. ‘Yes, Blue Nun or Liebfraumilch, that’s what you’d think. Wrong. I have recruited a top wine buyer called Ed Kerrigan, because we want to sell good wines and increase our sales.’
Is Malcolm a wine buff?
‘Well, I drink it in vast quantities.’ Another key recruit was chef Neil Nugent, who worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and on the Heston Blumenthal range at Waitrose before his current job developing new dishes for Iceland.
‘It took me two years to hire Neil Nugent. He went skiing in Tignes once and I even followed him.’ Wasn’t Nugent put off by the stalking? ‘I think he was quite flattered.’
As well as Iceland, Malcolm along with Tarsem Dhaliwal, Iceland’s chief executive, and another associate Stephen Walker (no relation), has a restaurant business with 40 outlets. He has teamed up with TV chef Gino d’Acampo.
Malcolm is 72 in February, but says he won’t be throwing a party. ‘I ignore birthdays. There is nothing to celebrate about getting older,’ he growls.
‘I have no plans to retire, no. Tarsem runs Iceland day to day, I just interfere. I don’t do boring things, just bigger stuff, setting the direction, the strategy.’
Iceland has, he says, had ‘three tough years’ because of competition from discount stores such as Aldi and Lidl and pound shops. The most recent accounts show sales were up 4.4 per cent to £2.8 billion and profit before interest and tax of £43 million.
‘It’s tougher than it’s ever been, massively so. We had a really good run from October to this August when it came off again.’
Malcolm holds 20 per cent of Iceland. Dhaliwal and one other colleague own a chunk and retail investor Christo Wiese, whose empire ran into trouble last week, is the only major outside investor.
He admits that he still has a way to go to achieve ‘middle-class acceptability’ for his shops.
‘A lot of folk won’t be seen dead going into an Iceland, but if we can get them in, then that’s it.’
As for Christmas, he says ‘we just have to wait and see’. He’ll be celebrating at home with family and friends, but he won’t be having an Iceland luxury 3.5kg ‘gilded turkey’ for £15.
‘I can’t because we’ve sold out, so I will have to make my own. I can do that,’ he says.