Celebrity chef John Tovey has died in South Africa at the age of 85.
Tovey (pictured with a friend) achieved success as the owner of Miller Howe hotel and restaurant near Windemere in the Lake District. After purchasing the 12-bedroom property in 1971 he became one of the leading lights of the country house hotel scene.
Kit Chapman, director of the Castle hotel in Taunton, Somerset, profiled Tovey in his 1989 book Great British Chefs.
He said: “I am terribly sad to hear this news. John was one of the great pioneers of the gastronomic revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps more than anyone he understood that running a restaurant was akin to being in show business.
“Eating at Miller Howe was like spending an evening at the theatre. Guests were called into dinner, the lights went down, you enjoyed the wonderful view over Lake Windermere and you were served a wonderful, no choice menu. The only choice came at pudding, It was a show. The likes of John no longer exist. He was a real one-off, larger than life character. He was a huge personality and Miller Howe was his stage.”
The chef went on to achieve public recognition with a number of cookery books, including The Miller Howe Cook Book and Entertaining with Tovey: How to Star in Your Own Kitchen, as well as starring in several TV series.
Tovey sold Miller Howe in 1998 for about £800,000 – having reportedly purchased it for £26,500 – and retired to South Africa.
Former employees of Tovey’s, several of who he helped to establish their own businesses, have been among those to pay tribute to him.
Lesley Wheeler and partner Robert Lyons, of the Bay Horse at Ulverston, worked with Tovey at Miller Howe and became close friends and business partners.
Wheeler told The Caterer: “John Tovey loved to be surrounded by people, and enjoyed the company of his staff [who called him Mr T] as much as his celebrity friends and guests. At the end of a hard day’s work, we would all sit down together for dinner with a few bottles of South African wine and talk about the day. We were his family, as he was openly gay and had no family of his own. He encouraged many of us to open our own hotels and restaurants and has been very supportive.”
In the quiet winter months Tovey secured British Airways sponsorship to fly teams of chefs to the USA, Russia or Japan, where they would take over a hotel kitchen and promote British tourism. These efforts and others saw him awarded an MBE for his services to tourism.
Wheeler explained that her former boss would also take all his staff away for an out-of-season holiday in acknowledgement of their loyalty. She and Lyons visited Tovey in South Africa almost every year following his retirement, enjoying his enduring hospitality.
Tovey had great success as a matchmaker, bringing together Ron Jones, former general manager of the Athenaeum and Claridge’s hotels in London, with journalist Eve Macpherson, now Eve Jones.
Eve told The Caterer: “In 1977 as a freelance hotels, restaurants and travel journalist, I was commissioned by The Caterer to write a series of articles called Great British Hoteliers of Today. My great friend John Tovey said: ‘There’s only one man you should write about first and that’s Ron Jones of the Athenaeum hotel in Piccadilly. There is no finer hotelier in this country today.’
“John knew his hotels so I agreed to interview Ronald Jones, who said he’d give me 45 minutes one morning at 11am. We had lunch at 1.30. I returned for supper at 7.30. A few months later we were married in the Queens Chapel of the Savoy. That was 40 years ago this month.
“John was quite proud of playing Cupid. We spoke to him in South Africa from time to time, where he lived quietly with his partner Paolo and we’ve just booked a cruise that will take us to Cape Town in January. On the last call he said: ‘Eve, I’ve never been happier in my life’.
“RIP JT, chef, hotelier, showman – and matchmaker.”
Born in of Barrow-in Furness at the age of 16 Tovey had forged his father’s signature and became a junior clerical officer with the Rhodesian Government, travelling through Africa. Nine years later he returned to Britain and teamed up with friends to buy an old Victorian theatre in his home town, taking a job in hospitality to help support it. Prior to purchasing Miller Howe Tovey worked for Lakeland hotels, where he was promoted to hotel manager.