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)

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

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

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...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
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