How do I look? The big smoke

Sir Terence Conran may be `fat and old', but Britain's leading restaurateur remains as active as ever, currently directing ventures in New York, London and Stockholm. His recipe for success? Pleasing himself - and his customers
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
If you do what I do, running restaurants and shops, designing, and writing books, you have to accept you can't remain private. Being recognised is not something I'd ever go out after, or try to avoid - I'm neither an extrovert nor an introvert - but I accept you have to stand behind your opinions. I don't mind facing an audience and answering questions, but I could never be the patron going round tables muttering sweet nothings to the customers.

Nobody has abused me inside a restaurant; they've abused me outside or in print, and I do worry about being over-exposed. But whatever you do, when you're young and struggling and doing something interesting, you're considered a hero; when you've succeeded you are seen as a capitalist pig. There's this capitalist tool permanently stuck in my mouth to prove it! And I suppose I am seen as something of a bon viveur, although I don't smoke cigars for any other reason than because I enjoy them. Blue shirts don't show the ash as much as white ones, that's why I wear them. I have suits made for me because of my awkward shape, but although I like clothes as design objects, I'm not passionate about them - if I wasn't fat and old I'd probably take more interest.

I'm 68. I tell myself I must stop travelling round the world, but it doesn't happen. I do what I do entirely for pleasure and it doesn't feel like work. I do it rather than play golf or sail yachts. There is a certain degree of self-indulgence in how I'm spending the latter part of my life. Sometimes I behave like a spoilt child. I have a determination to get things right and get really frustrated when they aren't. Then I can appear angry. But I don't pretend to be things I'm not, and generally I'm fairly well organised, content, happy, energetic. I would very much care if people thought I was unpleasant or dishonest or money-grabbing because I don't think I am. Underneath it all I'm really quite a pleasant person.

It surprises me that I am identified with the restaurants. The business is a brand that happens to bear my name, but I don't feel branded myself. My name isn't on them, and what I've tried to do is create a collection of restaurants that have their own personalities. They are not just about me. I'm embarrassed to be talking as if they were. Originally each is in my image. I come up with the idea of the type of food we're going to serve, the atmosphere and design, but restaurants are a combination of skills. In New York, Stockholm and London, we have a lot of activities going on at the moment, and I've taken a major role in each. Aurora, the grand dining room of the Great Eastern Hotel in London, opened this week and it is the opportunity to produce very fine cooking in an incredibly glamorous room. But when this, or any restaurant, is up and going, it's out of my direct control.

I'm the captain of the team and I perform a very useful role. I would never say I was entirely responsible for projects, but even so, I take criticism worryingly personally. I should be used to it, but if you're an artist, a designer and architect, and someone says they don't like your building or the colour of the walls, you are fractionally wounded - unless you are an entirely over-confident person, which I'm not. Inevitably, of course, I want to please people - it would be a very odd person who didn't want to be liked. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to go into my restaurants and see people having a good time. I'm not opening them for business reasons but because something inside me finds these projects thrilling. It's the best, the most exciting way of spending my life.

Getting the restaurant experience right is a great art form. In everything I do, I'm trying to provide a style of life. I've tried to make better ways of life available, to say: "Look I've been very lucky, I've seen an awful lot of things, I have a certain amount of talent and I can put things in front of you that you may like." It sounds incredibly pretentious when I say it like that - and I hate pretentiousness - but all I'm doing is offering things people haven't been offered before.

Aurora is at The Great Eastern Hotel, Liverpool Street, London EC2 (0171- 618 7000)

Comments