Obituary: Fergus Provan

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The Independent Online
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.