For a lot of people in the world of fashion a good time at a restaurant has less to do with the chef in the kitchen than with the crowd in the banquettes. While food isn't completely irrelevant, what's on the plate often matters a lot less than who's wearing the latest peasant blouse from Louis Vuitton or toting the precious Mombasa bag from Yves Saint Laurent.
Which makes the British designer Paul Smith a bit of an anomaly: He knows how to enjoy a good meal. Though he created a name (and a multimillion-dollar fortune) for himself with boundary-crossing ideas like lining skinny Savile Row-style suits with zingy striped silk, he's applied his quirky design eye to everything from women's and men's clothing to furniture and even plates. He loves food so much, in fact, that while on a trip to Florence to oversee a new women's-wear collection, he'll make a detour to pick up a bushel of tomatoes from a friend's garden in the countryside to bring home.
Having never learned to fend for himself--I went from my mum's home cooking to my wife Pauline's when I was 21," Smith says with a grin--he has relied on relatives and friends to fix what he calls "normal guy food," such as a good steak with fresh tomatoes and a pile of arugula. Thus it was serendipitous that 20 years ago in a restaurant around the corner from his second shop in London, Smith crossed paths with Nigel Slater, today a columnist for The Observer, the host of the BBC television show Real Food and the author of eight cookbooks (his most recent, Appetite, will be published in America next month). At the time, Slater was just starting as a chef in a Duke Street café called Justin De Blank. De Blank was one of the pioneers in England of fresh, seasonal British food done in an accessible, affordable way. In addition to his classic English breakfast complete with homemade sausage, De Blank was known for dishes like turkey potpie and fruit brûlée.