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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor