Sir Terence Conran, whose London restaurant legacy includes Bibendum, Quaglinos, and the now-closed original Blueprint Cafe at the Design Museum, has died at 88. Marked by a deep, earnest sincerity about the values of — Anglo European — simplicity, quality, and taste, his overarching restaurant legacy now reverberates louder in the kitchens of his alumni than those that bore his direct name.
His first restaurant, Soup Kitchen, opened in 1953, punctuating 13 years of rationing with the Provençal attitudes, and more strikingly, the pleasures of Elizabeth David and Richard Olney and the military simplicity of Escoffier, whose time in the French army had been a forge for his attitude to cooking. That was the spur for an empire that, in time, grew to 50. Bibendum, which opened in the Michelin Building with a menu a world away from Claude Bosi’s current iteration in 1987; Neal Street, which served simple Italian food in Covent Garden before being taken over in 1989 by a little known chef called Antonio Carluccio; and Quaglino’s, whose Mayfair glamour Conran redesigned and steered, are perhaps the names that ring out loudest today. But after a 2007 buyout by then management team Des Gunewardena and David Loewi created D&D restaurant group, Conran admitted that “I can no longer take a detailed day-to-day interest in the large number of restaurants we have, which was one of the main reasons for the sale … I am convinced that personal involvement is necessary to nurture a first-class restaurant.” The decline of such a large group came from the devotion to house style that had made it so strong: the restaurants became self-referential and formulaic, unable to flex through the 1990s as modernist cooking and visible complexity came for many London kitchens. Conran himself would much later subscribe to that change, with Bosi taking over the Bibendum building and earning two Michelin stars in short order.
It is perhaps an irony then that Conran’s legacy resounds loudest in restaurants in which he had no direct hand. Jeremy Lee’s Quo Vadis, honed by the chef’s time first at Bibendum with the legendary Simon Hopkinson, and then at Conran’s Blueprint Cafe on Shad Thames, is perhaps London’s best testament to the glamorous simplicity Conran demanded, which according to chef and baker Dan Lepard can be summed up thus: “Conran demanded chefs lead with ingredients and provenance first, and make sure skills and technique only enhanced nature and never masked it.” Clare Smyth, too, spent time at Conran’s version of Bibendum before moving on to Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road, while Orrery Marylebone and his other restaurants in Shad Thames perhaps had greater influences on their places than the London restaurant world. Orrery, in particular, was one catalyst for the arrival of The Ginger Pig, La Fromagerie, and other high-end food businesses in Marylebone.
Jeremy Lee said of Conran:
What a man. What a legacy. We will miss him, his impeccable style and his great bonhomie. I loved him and loved working with him. We loved the same food, beautiful produce, carefully prepared, considered, simply prepared and cooked. and on many an occasion the same wine – more often than not a burgundy chosen by the late great Bill Baker. The Blueprint Cafe was so lovely, beautifully but simply designed.
Sited above the pool of London on the first floor of the Design Museum its elegant simplicity a perfect example of Terence’s approach to good things. It had not the magnificence of Bibendum housed in the Michelin building, where I worked with Simon Hopkinson but the Blueprint had its own qualities which I cherish still. With much love to that magnificent luminary. Much missed but never to be forgotten.
Malcolm John, who worked at Conran’s Bluebird club as head chef from 1997 — 2000, says Conran was one of the first who would “bring the kitchen into the restaurant” and care as much about the equipment and the conditions as the food. That care found an analogue in his design, which turned slow French coffee mornings and chicken roasted in a brick into portable, coveted products; Conran always said that he was devoted to the “style of life” — the slow yoking together of those two words perhaps outpaced him. Wilder, a votive concession to current fashion that opened in his Boundary hotel in Shoreditch in 2019, was Conran’s last London opening: the trio of Parabola at the new Design Museum, Lutyens on Fleet Street, and Albion in Clerkenwell went into administration in 2018.
Conran’s death brought a chorus of tributes, reflecting on both the length and breadth of his legacy:
Oh man. Terence Conran – a man who genuinely did change how we live and eat, and brought joy and voluptuous pleasure at a time when the country was starved of it.
Game-changer: that over-used word for once truly fitting.
— Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin) September 12, 2020