In 2005, our founder Sir Terence Conran was named Britain’s most influential restaurateur – and for good reason. While we champion his unbeatable eye for design, Sir Terence has worked within the restaurant industry since the 1950s. Having succeeded in altering British food culture in many different ways, his influence remains palpable today, almost 70 years after his introduction to the industry.
Having published more than 30 books on interior design and food, it’s not surprising that the two disciplines cross paths more than once throughout Sir Terence’s career, indeed the two have converged more than might be imagined. We follow Sir Terence’s lifetime in cuisine from the origins of the Soup Kitchen to the legendary Chicken Brick, and look to the future to see how his influence resonates throughout younger generations.
In 1953, with the UK struggling through its 13th bland year of rationing, Sir Terence Conran returned from an extended trip to Paris with a satiated appetite and a mouthwatering idea. Soup Kitchen was a brand new concept that completely contrasted the greyness of post-war Britain, dishing out steaming lentil soups, torn baguettes, chunks of French cheese and flaky apple tarts – and that’s without considering the décor. In Sir Terence’s signature style, Soup Kitchen boasted black and white floors, tiled tables and the UK’s second ever Gaggia coffee machine.
With Soup Kitchen’s opening, London was introduced to a taste of the continent, which continued in Sir Terence’s stores The Conran Shop and Habitat. Shop floors were filled with artisan-made terracotta pots, woven baskets and unique kitchenware that brought the kitchen out of the utility-first war era. Meanwhile legendary items like the Chicken Brick fought against the notion of tasteless convenience meals, without making cooking inconvenient.
Citing Elizabeth David’s Classics as his desert island cookbook, Sir Terence was inspired by David’s depiction of Provençal cuisine, and emulated its simple yet flavourful recipes throughout his career. A year after launching Soup Kitchen, Orrery opened its doors on the Kings Road, Chelsea, followed by Neal Street Restaurant, which he opened with his sister Priscilla and her husband Antonio Carluccio – now a household name. In 1987, Bibendum Restaurant came into being in the show-stopping setting of Michelin House, which still to this day houses both the restaurant and The Conran Shop’s flagship store. Bibendum’s opening led the way for many more: The Design Museum’s Blueprint Café, Le Pont de la Tour, Quaglinos, Butler’s Wharf Chop House, Coq d’Argent, Floridita and Boundary made up more than 55 restaurants on Sir Terence’s roster, all with a heavy dose of his signature ‘Plain, Simple, Useful’ ethos reflected in the décor.
The presence of cookery and food has been passed down throughout Conran generations, with many of Sir Terence’s children being involved with the industry to this day. Caroline Conran, mother to Sophie, Tom and Ned Conran, wrote The Conran Cookbook, while Sophie and Tom hold supper clubs and Sophie herself launched Sophie Conran Pies. Both Tom and Ned are professional restaurateurs, while The Conran Shop Chelsea and Marylebone stores still host beautiful restaurants within their four walls, as well as the newly renovated Conran Kitchen on Marylebone’s ground floor.
Sir Terence’s spheres of culinary influence continue to have impact today and look even further into the future; when laying the foundations for the newly opened Design Museum in Kensington, Sir Terence buried a time capsule in the ground, to be opened in 100 years. In it he placed an iPhone, so that an object of current cutting-edge technology can be looked back on as an antique, a bottle of burgundy – he is praying 2012 is a good year for the French wine – and a tin of anchovies, a delicacy he believes may taste even better after a century of maturation. Whichever way we view it, it’s clear that the future of Conran looks delicious.