Sir Terence Conran: The man who ate the world

He's Britain's leading restaurateur, serving more than two million plates of designer nosh each year. Now he's written a book explaining how he does it.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sir Terence Conran has an "unfounded belief" that "at some time, 92 per cent of the population has entertained the notion of owning a café, pub or restaurant". Maybe this figure is a touch on the high side, but it's certainly true of me. My oyster bar, did I ever tell you about it? The idea is that it would simply sell oysters at modest prices, either raw or cooked on the half-shell in half a dozen simple but enticing ways. The wine would be cheap but honest, the decor ungussied, the service swift. A sure-fire hit. Sadly, I've got no further than doing the research, which so far has taken the form of eating the aforementioned bivalves in prodigious quantities.

In order to coax me and other pipe-dreamers into action, Britain's leading restaurateur has produced a glossy volume called Terence Conran on Restaurants (Conran Octopus, £25). Part picture book, part how-to manual, part celebration of the business, its essential message is: Come on in, the water's lovely.

I told Sir Terence of my pipe-dream at his HQ overlooking a muddy inlet near his Butler's Wharf complex at Tower Bridge. His third-floor office is a simple rectangle partitioned by a glass wall from a bustling design studio. The only allusions to his restaurant empire are several antique Michelin men (Bibendum has been a jewel in the Conran crown since 1987). They do not resemble their owner, somewhat slimmer than you might expect. He has exquisite diction and, surprisingly, an occasional, very slight stutter. It is the voice of a worldly prelate. A nasty cold did nothing to eclipse his legendary charm. "I think you'd make a very good oyster-bar owner," he beamed. "You have the right sort of zeal."

This is no small commendation since, by my estimate, his empire includes at least five oyster and crustacea bars. We old shellfish hands agreed that the right way to enter an oyster is not by inserting one's knife in the side, but via the hinge. "They have this terrible idea in France of breeding oysters with beer-can pullers inside them," Conran hooted. "God almighty! It would take the French to think of something so absolutely appalling as that."

Having enjoyed our fruits de mer starter, we turned to the meat of the book. I suggested that his tome underplayed the importance of training. After a biographical introduction, the first chapter is about finding the right location which, it seemed to me, ought to come later. "I stress location because I want to focus people's minds on the fact they should think of catchment areas," he replied. "Very often, people start up in a very amateur way in a country town. They get excited that there are lots of customers at weekends, but you can't run a restaurant on weekends alone."

Conran does get round to training later in the book, but insists: "The best start of all is to be passionate about it." Like Orwell, he worked as a plongeur (washer-up) in the early Fifties in a Paris kitchen: "indescribably squalid, a small, poky suburb of Cockroach City... In those days, many chefs were fairly brutal individuals." I asked him about the enduring tradition of the foul-mouthed chef-de-cuisine, exemplified by Gordon Ramsay, seen at a rolling boil in a recent docu-soap? "I understand that sort of tension gets to chefs in their search for perfection and I'm all for passion," he announced. "But if any of our chefs were to behave in that manner, they'd be out on their ears. I wouldn't tolerate it!"

The information in Terence Conran on Restaurants, though interesting, is not always of tremendous relevance to entrepreneurs on a smaller scale. His view that the ratio of front-of-house to back-of-house should be 50:50 (it is 40:60 in the posher Conran joints) will be the stuff of dreams to many hard-pressed wielders of the skillet. The same goes for his breezy revelation in a section on the importance of having fresh vegetables: "In summer months, our restaurants make good use of my herb garden in Berkshire - twice a week the chefs fax their orders to the head gardeners." Still, it is intriguing to know that the chairs he chose for Quaglino's are also to be found in American high-security prisons. "They're very durable and light, and easy to carry over diners' heads."

Despite operating at such a stratospheric level, Conran acknowledges that successful owner-run places are "truly miraculous". "If you look at other activities that go on in the world, running a restaurant is up in the top 2 or 3 per cent of the most complicated management jobs to do. Every meal is a separate performance with intense peaks and intervening troughs. To get that balance of making enough, making the right quality, making it on time and delivering it to the customer hot enough is extraordinarily demanding. I always remember that Egon Ronay came to one of our restaurants and sent his soup back, saying it was too hot."

Warming to his theme, Conran said one of the aims of his book was "to say to people what incredibly good value a restaurant is. When you think what the restaurateur has to do for the £25 or £30 you're paying, compared to what you pay a dentist, really, it is one of the best values you can get anywhere. People never think of it that way. They say: 'It's outrageous! I paid £25! Twenty-five pounds! How much would it have cost if I'd done this at home?' But they never include the heat, the rent, the decoration, the laundry, the washing-up... Where else can they get the same sort of service or pleasure for that amount? Then they moan and groan at paying 12.5 per cent service charge!"

For anyone who is considering setting up shop in France, Conran's account of the travails he encountered while creating his Paris restaurant Alcazar in the shell of a former transvestite nightclub makes salutary reading. When it emerged that the roof needed replacing, he was faced with the choice of either buying an inordinately expensive replacement from one of two approved suppliers or building his own roof plus an identical copy, which would then be burnt to a cinder to make sure it was OK. "I'm saying - don't let your romantic ideas run away. There is an awful lot of bloody EC bureaucracy. The point of my book is not to put people off, but to open their eyes to what it is really like."

To be honest, there isn't much sign of entrepreneurialism being crushed at Conran Holdings. In the past four months, Sir Terence has opened the 267-bedroom Great Eastern Hotel, plus five associated restaurants in Liverpool Street, and Guastavino's, a breathtaking complex combining brasserie, restaurant, bar and shop in the cathedral-like tiled vaults beneath New York's 59th Street Bridge. In addition to his current concerns, in which 2,000 staff serve over two million meals a year, he is in the process of expanding the Zinc Bar and Grill concept, first tried out near Regent Street, to Manchester, Liverpool and "a few other places" in London. Then there's a "big restaurant project" in Rome.

Considering that Conran restaurants are profoundly urban, it struck me as curious that provincial ventures are a recurring theme in his book. "It is a common dream of people who are passionate about restaurants," he replied. "More and more people are saying 'I know I'm not going to make very much money out of it but I want to open a restaurant in Abergavenny or Ludlow.' It's a much pleasanter lifestyle than you get in London, though dodgier from a financial viewpoint."

"I can't see you in Abergavenny," I said.

"No," he conceded, a trifle sadly.

But this is not to say that Conran isn't considering returning to a more intimate involvement with a restaurant. "I wouldn't mind having a little place of my own. Somewhere quite small that was entirely mine and not involved with the organisation. I'm a pretty good cook and I'd like to do it again professionally. I'd particularly like to cook offal - but I suspect it wouldn't be a money-making concern if we only served offal. I haven't found this dream place yet. But I know it's there somewhere. It could be my 70th birthday present to myself. Would you like to run the oyster bar?" Hmm. Conran & Hirst's. Hirst & Conran's. Which do you think sounds better?