Obituary: Fergus Provan

Nearly 30 years ago Fergus Provan achieved renown as a London chef of great flair and invention. Today, in an era when smart new restaurants seem to open by the minute, television cookery programmes are more frequent than situation comedies, celebrity chefs share the spotlight with pop- stars, sportsmen and models and are themselves the flavour of the month, but then, Provan is of special interest having been a most unshowy and self-effacing pioneer.

He first came to prominence in October 1968, as both chef and restaurateur, when at the age of 27 and in partnership with his old friend and fellow Scot, Stewart Grimshaw, he opened a small restaurant next to the Brompton Cemetery in London.

The site Provan had chosen for his first venture was a disused ladder storeroom and much imagination and effort was put into its conversion, with Provan masterminding the kitchen and Grimshaw the restaurant's style. In view of its location, the two partners were originally tempted to name it The Last Supper but eventually this whimsical notion was resisted in favour of the chef's sturdy, no-nonsense Scottish surname.

It was as Provan's that the restaurant opened its doors, quickly achieving fame and success as one of the most popular places to eat out for the young trend-setters of the late Sixties.

Unlike the gleaming, minimalist emporia of the mid-Nineties with their vast seating areas, brisk turnover of covers and now obligatory resemblance to beached transatlantic Thirties liners, Provan's was essentially a crowded, cosy rendezvous. With its bright yellow table cloths, plain decor and rattan furniture it represented the best that a simple restaurant could offer: good fresh food, unpretentious surroundings, modest prices, a high degree of friendly, personal service and a lively and amusing clientele - a clientele which appreciated the huge platters of fresh vegetables which came with every main course and the chef's Scottish specialities such as smoked haddock souffle. In a rare aberrational moment, Provan also invented a camembert ice-cream which proved not to be a great culinary success.

The restaurant's main dining area was a long corridor-like room that gave the not unwelcome feeling of dining in a spruced-up railway carriage, one which agreeably combined both animation and intimacy. It quickly drew a regular clientele from among the bright young people of the time and nearly always boasted a sprinkling of newsworthy celebrities with the chef himself invariably in vigilant attendance, supervising every last garnish on every last dish.

The Beatles were among the restaurant's early customers and so were David Bailey, Twiggy, Donovan, Zandra Rhodes and Ossie Clarke. A frequent diner was the cookery writer Elizabeth David, of whom Provan confessed to be in awe although she quickly became both friend and mentor. Perhaps Provan's worst moment came when he was unable to find a table for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Provan was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire and educated at Paisley Grammar School. After leaving school he completed an apprenticeship in electrical engineering with Macfarlane Brothers in Cathcart, but in 1962 he came to London having decided that he was far more suited to a career in the catering trade. For the next five years he trained at the Savoy Hotel, learning every branch of hotel management, and it was here that he became inspired by the elaborate skills and rituals of a first-class restaurant kitchen.

In the same year he also met the urbane Walter Baxter, which marked a turning point in his life and which eventually enabled him to set up on his own. Baxter was notable for combining two very different callings, being both a best- selling author and a highly successful restaurateur. His novel Look Down in Mercy (1951) was hailed, like Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948), as a pioneering study of gay relationships in a hostile and indifferent world. Baxter's restaurant The Chanterelle, in South Kensington, which specialised in French cuisine, was then one of the longest established and most influential restaurants in private ownership and was to retain its high reputation through another three decades.

Provan became Baxter's long-time companion, entering on a partnership which was to endure for 30 years. Inevitably their lives and work became intertwined, and when Baxter finally retired from running The Chanterelle in 1978 it was Provan who took over his friend's restaurant continuing to run it with his customary skill and attention to detail until his own retirement in 1993. At the same time he continued working at Provan's until it finally closed in 1980.

Unlike the more histrionic, publicity-seeking stars of the new generation of London chefs, Provan was essentially a shy and private character with a great inner simplicity, a man who far preferred to work devotedly and quietly behind the scenes in his kitchen than to indulge in the attention-seeking fits of temperament which have become the stock-in-trade of the personality cooks of today.

Described at school by a contemporary's mother as "a bonnie big lad", Provan's sturdy, big-boned Scottish frame concealed a naturally shy and self-effacing nature, but one of great integrity which offered to others both loyalty and thoughtfulness, making for a lifetime of enduring friendships. In his kitchen, where he could best express himself, he strove always to attain the very highest professional standards.

Derek Granger

Fergus Provan, chef and restaurateur: born Paisley, Renfrewshire 16 June 1941; died Lesmahagill, Lanarkshire 22 July 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones