Expert finger in the pie: Sir Christopher Bland

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The Independent Online
SOME television moguls, with a pounds 7m fortune from a shareholding in LWT, might be tempted to blow some of it on a themed restaurant, the way Arnold Schwarzenegger did with Planet Hollywood. But not Sir Christopher Bland.

'I don't believe in dabbling in restaurants, just as I don't believe in dabbling in films, or greyhounds. Unless you're the greyhound, or you really know what you are doing, it's no good,' says the former chairman of LWT, who left earlier this year after a takeover by Granada. 'You don't want to be dependent on the vagaries of fashion and having to be in the place every night.'

But Sir Christopher believes the food business can be fun, and that, along with expected profits of around pounds 120,000 on turnover of pounds 800,000, has led him to take a 70 per cent shareholding in Leith's School of Food and Wine. He bought it for around pounds 1.5m earlier this summer from the French hotel and luncheon voucher group Accor. Accor had acquired it last year from its founder, Prue Leith, who started out in catering in 1962 from a bedsitter in Earl's Court.

Sir Christopher had been a director of Oddbins, the off-licence chain, but that was the closest he had got to the food and drink business. So when Caroline Waldegrave, the principal and managing director of Leith's School, told him that Accor was more interested in the contract catering business to which the school was linked, he took a closer look.

'I had known Caroline for quite a long time, perhaps 10 years,' he explained, 'and the school is a nice business. It is a well-known name and has excellent premises in Kensington. I do not see demand for this kind of teaching falling off.'

Despite the school's reputation for taking in hand dippy girls who can barely make a slice of toast, Sir Christopher insists that it delivers marketable skills.

'It's not for people in their gap year learning to fry an egg and find a husband,' he said. 'It's for people who want to earn their living in catering.' The pounds 7,500 diploma course is clearly serious stuff: chef's hats, white jackets and check trousers are compulsory.

The diploma teaching earns a steady stream of fees and accounts for much of the turnover. But the school also attracts interested amateurs, more and more of them male.

Its other offerings include evening classes and Saturday morning demonstrations ( pounds 38), one-week intensive courses for beginners ( pounds 315), lectures on starting a restaurant ( pounds 303 for the series of 10), and specialist lessons for people who want to be able to put together a delicious dinner in about 45 minutes ( pounds 320). 'You'll think nothing of serving hot goat's cheese souffles with walnut and parsley at the last minute]' says the brochure, a touch optimistically.

The good name of Miss Leith is what keeps business coming through the door, although the competition includes the hardly obscure Cordon Bleu schools, where Miss Leith herself once trained, and Tante Marie. The restaurant, still owned by Miss Leith, and the school have agreed joint rights to the use of the name, but it is impossible for one to protect itself completely against any loss of reputation caused by the other. 'Either side could withdraw if the other started fish and chip catering,' said Sir Christopher, but that's about as far as it goes.

The other main risk is that Mrs Waldegrave could leave the company to start up a rival establishment. 'That's why she's got up to 30 per cent of the company, on advantageous terms,' Sir Christopher said.

But he is not in this merely to help a friend. He expects a pre-tax return of 15 per cent 'and it will make that'. He thinks it should be possible to finance other schools out of cashflow and retained earnings, although not for a while.

Sir Christopher says that there are at present no great plans to expand, but then adds that he would like to open up in Paris. 'I think there has been a transformation in food in Britain, in London anyway,' he declared, 'and there are things they can learn from us in France, though they don't like to admit it.'

Janey Orr, responsible for marketing, said: 'Opening in Paris would be news to most people here. Why not California or New York, where the food's more exciting than France?'

Sir Christopher is clearly not a full-time evangelist for British food, and for the time being the Paris idea is just one to muse on after a particularly good lunch. Meanwhile, media gossips natter about what this respected and well-connected 56-year-old might do next.

'Plenty of people in the media world have never heard of Life Sciences International and would not know what it was if they had. But it is a pounds 240m company,' said Bland tartly of the quoted scientific equipment firm he also chairs. 'I have been there for seven years and I will go on doing that. I am also chairman of an NHS trust, the Hammersmith and Charing Cross, which has doubled in size and currently takes up more of my time than LWT did. I am too old to go looking and, if it doesn't sound too ponderous, I am in the happy position of not having to. If something interesting and exciting turns up, then by the end of this year there will be more time available.'

For now, there is nothing under consideration. But it is unlikely the New Year will find him hanging around the kitchen. If he is to spearhead the drive to teach the French how to cook, Paris will have to wait.

(Photograph omitted)

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