Obituary: Graham Needham

Graham Percy Lewis Needham, restaurateur: born Welling 28 July 1934; commis chef, Claridges 1954; chef/head chef, Institute of Directors 1954-58; chef de parti, Park Lane Hotel 1958- 60; head chef, Curzon House club, 1960-61; head chef, Falstaff restaurant 1961-63; lecturer, South East Technical College 1963-70; head chef, Scott's restaurant 1970-80; owner/manager, Sweetings restaurant 1980-93; married 1956 Patricia Cracknell (one daughter); died Romford 14 November 1993.

WHEN in 1980 Graham Needham took over Sweetings, the 104-year-old City of London fish and oyster restaurant, he 'pulled it up', said a regular. With his 'mine host' role and his infectious enthusiasm, he delighted customers. He welcomed them at the door, with a slap on the back, a handshake, even a glass of champagne. He was an alchemist who turned inquisitive newcomers into regulars.

The idiosyncratic decor of the old restaurant remained: the faded yellow walls are still adorned with prints and posters and an array of exposed heating-pipes; mahogany counters are spread with white tablecloths, where pin-striped lunchers drink Black Velvet out of pewter tankards and, perched high on bar- stools, eat grilled fish.

An octogenarian devotee, who first ate at Sweetings in 1926 and has lunched there four times a week for the last 30 years, believes that Needham's skill lay in the interest he took in all his customers and in his abundant generosity. For the privileged few, special bottles of wine were magically produced from the cellar and later appeared on the bill listed simply as 'house wine'. Needham was like an old-style publican, always in the right place at the right time, chatting to customers while he opened an oyster or searched for a pot of homemade anchovy sauce.

He had a talent for employing people. A friend supplied him with fresh fish daily, from Billingsgate Market. He had popular chefs, whose judgement he rarely questioned, and was good at choosing friendly and loyal staff whom he could trust to get on with the running of the restaurant. George Walters, one of his longest-serving waiters, was known for his rejoinders - 'Some more oysters while you are waiting?', or 'A little brandy to liven your port?' - and was not averse to helping clients finish their jam roly-poly.

Needham described himself as 'a chef who happens to own a restaurant'. He referred to Sweetings as his 'dugout' and he and his wife, who looks after the book-keeping, were more often than not on the premises. The key to his success as a restaurateur, apart from a natural rumbustiousness and warmth of personality, may have lain in his knowledge of the business both sides of the serving hatch.

Born in Welling, east London, in 1934, he took a catering course at Westminster College. After spending time in the kitchens of Claridges he became head chef of the Institute of Directors in Belgrave Square. He then gained banqueting experience at the Park Lane Hotel, from 1958 to 1960. Aged 31 he took up a lecturing post in classical cooking at the South East Technical College. It was not until 1970 that he returned to cooking, as head chef of Scott's in Mount Street, where he worked in the kitchen and also front-of-house. When he realised his dream in 1980 and bought Sweetings, he had no difficulty in persuading several old pupils from the technical college to help him out.

Sweetings has the timeless character of all City institutions. Faithful regulars among the predominantly male clientele were allowed by Needham to hold an account which was settled quarterly. A City Liveryman who was afforded such a privilege said, 'I felt as if I had arrived.'

(Photograph omitted)

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments