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Best Known for His Design Work, Sir Terence Conran Was Also a Restaurant Visionary

Conran gained international attention with the launch of Habitat, but the designer and restaurateur also had a monstrous impact on London’s dining scene, arguably leading the charge to make the city’s culinary scene what it is today.


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Sir Terence Conran, who died in England on September 12 at the age of 88, was almost certainly our era's most important designer and purveyor of home furnishings and household goods, influencing taste not just throughout his native U.K. but in the U.S., continental Europe, and beyond.

The furniture and objects he created at every stage of his long career were contemporary, unpretentious, and functional, often with the tonal subtlety of a Morandi painting (whose colors they sometimes echoed) or a Debussy prelude. Habitat, the furniture company he founded in 1964, evolved into an international chain of modern lifestyle stores that, as Elle Decor once wrote, "created a retailing template that has been copied around the globe, from Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn to Target, and launched a new era of design accessibility." After he sold Habitat and several related companies, he expanded on and refined the same themes with his Conran Shops.

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I met Terence, through, not through design, but through his other great passion and area of influence: food. A world-class bon vivant, he was also a restaurateur of remarkable prescience, boundless energy, and unerring understanding of—and appreciation for—good, honest, mostly French cooking. His many restaurants—he opened more than 50 over a 66-year span—introduced good eating to a new (younger) clientele, created a modern aesthetic for restaurant interiors, produced scores of subsequently prominent chefs, and promoted the use of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients when many of his counterparts were still opening cans. While this was hardly his only accomplishment in the restaurant world, it's safe to say that London wouldn't have become the international gastronomic capital it is today without him.

I met Terence in 1992, the year he opened a 27,000-square-foot Conran Shop on the Rue du Bac in Paris. I'd been assigned by the short-lived U.K. edition of Metropolitan Home to write an article on "Conran's Paris" to coincide with Shop's debut. This involved the not at all unpleasant task of following Terence around the city for a day with a photographer while he pointed out some of his favorite neighborhoods and their shops and restaurants.

He had lived in Paris as a young man, and as we walked, he mentioned that he'd once worked as a dishwasher in the basement of a restaurant called La Méditerranée on the Place de l'Odéon. The restaurant was (and is) still in business, and we decided to take a picture of Terence in front of the place. Then I had a better idea. I went in, found the proprietor, and talked him into letting us shoot Terence downstairs, at his old post. Terence played along, even taking off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves, and gamely aiming the spray hose at a sauce-caked plate.

"Paris made me," Terence told me later over choucroute garni at Brasserie Lipp—the kind of old-school restaurant he loved most. The city shaped his tastes and lit his creative fires, he said—especially the little shops on the Left Bank and the city's venerable bistros and brasseries, like Lipp, Allard ("wonderful duck with olives"), and Chez Pauline ("where the food has wonderful gutsy qualities"). At La Méditerranée, he told me after we'd eaten and were leaning back with little snifters of poire Williams, savoring (pre-smoking ban) Hoyo de Monterreys, "A cockroach got into my blood, which has kept me in the restaurant business ever since."

His first effort, when he returned to London, was a modest canteen called The Soup Kitchen, which he opened in 1953 and which grew into a small restaurant group. The stylish Neal Street Restaurant (menu designed by David Hockney) and other places followed, but he came into his own as a major force on the dining scene in 1987 when he opened Bibendum, an elegant French-accented dining room in historic Michelin House, the former U.K. headquarters of the famed tire (and restaurant guide) company. Late in life, he called the restoration and opening of the building—which also included a Conran Shop and the offices of the book publishing house he ran with his Michelin House partner, Paul Hamlyn—his "happiest moment."

Two years after opening Bibendum, Terence embarked on the challenging transformation of a 19th-century warehouse complex at Butler's Wharf, just over Tower Bridge on the south side of the Thames, into what he called a "gastrodrome." His idea, he said, was "to make the whole area a collection of different restaurants and food shops worth the detour." He started with the Blueprint Café, which he installed on the top floor of the Design Museum, which he also founded. In 1991, he opened a warm Anglo-French restaurant and grill called Pont de la Tour next door. This was soon joined by Cantina del Ponte, an Italian trattoria, as well as a smoked fish and shellfish shop, a specialty grocer's, and a wine store. His final restaurant there was a traditional English place he dubbed Butler's Wharf Chop House—a name he chose, he told me, because it had occurred to him that "chop house" was the only common English term for an eating place that wasn't French in origin (think restaurant, café, bistro, brasserie, diner…).

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Over dinner there one evening—rock oysters and grilled ribeye steaks—I asked Terence what was coming next in his restaurant portfolio. "I keep on being tempted back to where I began," he said, "with the Soup Kitchens. Soup really isn't such a bad idea. Everything else I'm involved with seems to be up-market, though that wasn't my original idea. I'd like to do something more democratic. I don't think there's any reason why something well designed has to be restricted to a small number of people."

Instead, as it turned out, he went on to open, over the next couple of decades, a few dozen large-scale restaurants at which soup played a minor role if it appeared at all. Full of glamour and inevitably characterized by hearty, straightforward cooking, whatever the particulars, these included a reboot of the historic Quaglino's, with a theatrical staircase entrance and a dazzling display of raw seafood; Sartoria, an easy-going Italian restaurant on the sartorial holy ground of Savile Row; and the Bluebird complex on the site of the old Blue Bird racing car garage, which Terence envisioned as a second gastrodome, complete with a private dining club, two public restaurants, and a food shop. (His sole American enterprise, Guastavino's, which opened in 2000 in a soaringly beautifully, gloriously tiled space under New York City's Queensboro Bridge, never found its audience and closed in 2005 to reopen as an events space.)

In 2007, after his restaurant empire had gotten too big for him to manage with the kind of hands-on attention he preferred, he sold most of his properties (though not Bibendum) to his long-time management team. Then he formed a new partnership with restaurateur Peter Prescott and started opening more new places, among them Parabola in the Design Museum (which had moved to a new location), Lutyens in Fleet Street, and a café and dining room in one of his more ambitious later projects—the Boundary Hotel in the trendy East London neighborhood of Shoreditch.

When he wasn't in London, Terence lived with his fourth wife, Vicki—herself a designer and artisan printer—in Berkshire, about 60 miles west of the capital, on a 145-acre estate called Barton Court. In 2000, I wrote an article for Saveur about an elaborate summer lunch prepared there by Terence, Vicki (who "cooks rather well," he allowed), and Jeremy Lee, then chef at the Blueprint Café. We ate cold poached vegetables from the garden, served with aïoli; a cream-based lobster soup full of peas, fava beans, and baby carrots (Terence described it as "a showy sort of party-cake of a soup"); cold poached chicken with a tarragon gelée and boiled potatoes; sliced rare sirloin steak with a garlicky anchovy-parsley sauce; an assortment of English cheeses; and three desserts—gooseberry tart, summer pudding, and a berry custard galette. The repast seemed to me a vivid (and delicious) encapsulation of Terence's culinary sensibility: freshness, elegant simplicity, ingredients both luxurious and commonplace, a counterpoint of flavors and textures, British tradition with Gallic accents—it was all there.

More than one article about Terence over the years has noted that he didn't suffer fools gladly. He was a notorious perfectionist, and had what he once called a "rather poor temper." Perhaps because we almost always met over good food and drink, I never saw that side of him. He was always agreeable, and stimulating, company to me. I described him in Saveur as "a solidly built, vigorous man…with a seemingly permanent (and usually amiable) ironic sparkle in his eyes and a complexion that suggests something between a lifelong suntan and a healthy interior glow." He also had a wry sense of humor. When we were having lunch one day at Pont de la Tour, I noticed that two well-dressed businessmen at a nearby table had just ordered their second bottle of pricey Château Léoville-Las Cases. "They're bankers," Terence said, "and they've had a busy morning foreclosing on widow and orphans."

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Because we both often criticized the overworked frou-frou food that seemed to be appearing more and more in restaurants and because we both liked eating earthy game birds, I used to say that Terence and I had shared many a grouse in both senses of the word. The last two meals I had with him, in fact, were built around the edible kind. The first was a banquet in honor of his 80th birthday, held in an immense temporary structure on the Barton Court grounds, where the Irish chef David Burke (not to be confused with his American namesake) somehow managed to turn out perfectly roasted grouse with all the traditional accompaniments for about 200 people. The second, five years later, was a much calmer lunch for my wife and myself and Jeremy Lee at the big old Barton Court kitchen table. This time, Vicki roasted the grouse, no less perfectly. Terence seemed a little shaky but was as alert and wry as ever, and he addressed our meal—complete with one beautiful Burgundy after another—with uncompromising relish. When we left in a haze of poire Williams late in the afternoon, we agreed that we should enjoy another meal together before too long—which I realized later is the kind of thing people tend to say when they know they'll likely never meet again.

In 2007, when he was 76, Terence told Women's Wear Daily that he was "quite eager to see what dying is like." His idea, he maintained, was "to give a great party in all my restaurants along the Thames and to have the most fantastic fireworks display with my ashes going up inside the biggest, noisiest fireworks.” He didn't plan to just sit around waiting for his fate in the meantime, however. "I want to cram in as much as I can before the inevitable happens," he added. He certainly managed that. He opened Wilder, his final restaurant—his 52nd, by some counts—just last year in the Boundary Hotel basement.

“What a trooper," Jeremy Lee wrote to me the day after Terence's death. "What a legacy. He had a unique role in all our lives and I can’t help feeling we are going to miss him very, very much more than we know.”


Chef and Writer Simon Hopkinson Shares a Personal Story About Sir Terence Conran

The man in charge of the Bibendum kitchen when it opened was Simon Hopkinson, a one-time private chef and restaurant guide reviewer who'd been cooking at a popular bistro nearby called Hilaire. Hopkinson clearly liked, and was able to consistently produce, the same kind of food that Terence did: abundant, honest, hearty, simple, and at least spiritually if not always literally French. Hopkinson retired from Bibendum in 1994 to concentrate on writing (his book Roast Chicken and Other Stories was later named "Most Useful Cookbook of All Time" by Food Illustrated magazine), but during his tenure he not only made the restaurant an absolute essential for food-lovers but trained a number of chefs who went on to elevate London dining in their own places—among them Bruce Poole (Chez Bruce), Henry Harris (Racine), Phil Howard (The Square), and Jeremy Lee (Quo Vadis).

I asked Hopkinson for a reminiscence of his former employer, and he recalled a week he'd spent at the farmhouse in Provence that Terence and his third wife, Caroline, had bought and restored.

"It must have been early October of 1986," Hopkinson wrote. "I was staying with Terence for a week—just the two of us—at his house near Saint Rémy. We had had photographers in the house for a couple of days from a French ‘lifestyle’ magazine at the start of the week, mostly in the kitchen. Here, I prepared several dishes that Terence and I had agreed would represent our mutual ideal: Provence at its most true.

"I had put joints of rabbit into a simple marinade: a little local wine, the now renowned olive oil from the nearby village of Maussane les Alpilles, ‘garrigue’ herbs, garlic, shallots, bay, lemon…etc. I then grilled the rabbit over smoldering vine roots on a grill, close to the beginning of a splendid terrace that stretched upwards to an expansive garden. I also roasted red peppers with tomatoes and garlic; made brandade de morue and fish soup with aïoli; and grilled some aubergines. A thin apple tart offered the singular sweet note, offered with a spectacular raw milk crème fraîche from the Maussane market. Local rosé lubricated the proceedings.

"What occupied the rest of the week for me, however, was to begin to compile recipes that would eventually appear in my book Roast Chicken and Other Stories. After our simple nightly suppers—a tiny leg of milk-fed lamb, roasted with anchovy, rosemary, and garlic, say, or a fine sea bass baked in sea salt crust, or, be honest, grilled rabbit all over again simply because we loved it so—I began to make notes.

"I wrote the recipes in pencil, in a ring-bind exercise book on the kitchen table each evening until quite late. Once I put my pencil down, I would join Terence at the other end of the house. A log fire was burning in the sitting room (it was October). The voices of Bessie Smith or Lena Horne would be singing from the stereo. A glass of poire Williams—or three—and a game of chess would complete the day. I rarely won, but rarely have I ever had a happier time in my life than that special week with Terence."


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