Last week's experience of working for a day in a professional gastropub kitchen brought back many childhood memories.
My father used to manage a restaurant in Newcastle called Jim’s Inn. It was a Steak Diane/Lobster Thermidor type of eaterie. You know the sort of place: black-tied waiters with faces marbled by alcohol, cocktail barmaid with heaving cleavage, tables lit by tiny candles, black walls and red leather, an air of forbidden opulence. For a 15-year-old, it was utterly addictive.
Dad had worked in the food industry all his life – he was a food technologist, working for companies like Heinz. He was on the team that developed Heinz Sandwich Spread and I still have his recipe for piccalilli at home, which might be really useful if ever I need to make 40 gallons of the stuff. Later he was a consultant for Tyne Brand in North Shields (strapline: “No lumps of fat or gristle guaranteed”) and for a company called Jaunty Foods that sold minced chicken resembling dog food.
Dad had the most sensitive palate, particularly for fine wine. So to be asked to manage a restaurant at the age of 70 must for him have been heaven. For me it meant that if I wanted to see him before bedtime I had to go into the dark recesses of the cocktail bar, and our Christmas lunch was always off the set menu. In its day, Jim’s Inn was the place to be. All the stars at the Theatre Royal piled in after the shows.
Mind you, there wasn’t much competition. I experienced the other end of the scale first-hand. Like the Park Hotel in Tynemouth where I worked as a waiter in the holidays. There was a terrifying chef who treated his staff even worse than the unfortunate pieces of meat he offered his customers. There was a Portuguese waiter who resembled Manuel from Fawlty Towers and one day, while serving a formal lunch to twenty of the region’s bank managers, he presented a huge tray of overcooked lamb chops to the guest of honour, and in the process poured two pints of scalding hot gravy onto his trouser crotch. The banker leapt into the air, sending the entire table, laden with liebfraumilch, skywards. The waiter burst into tears and ran out, never to be seen again.
I also remember working at the Everest restaurant in Tynemouth. I was asked to help out because on Christmas Day they’d optimistically sold two sittings for lunch. When I turned up, I was the only one with any waiting experience (and that was derived from my six weeks at the Park Hotel). Unfortunately the Everest's chef had quit the night before, so they hired a replacement from an agency. He turned up drunk at 10am and the turkeys were still in the freezer. The first hundred customers arrived at noon, and at 3pm they were still waiting for starters as the second lot were banging on the door. There was blood on the carpet that day. The owner, a charming but inept Indian gentleman, was in tears. North East food has come on a lot since those days.
Dad died in 1972, but those last flambé-filled years gifted me my fascination for catering. From time to time I scan the leases for sale, wondering if I should take the plunge, but I know that it would lead to ruin. I like food too much to serve anything but the best or to cut corners. It’s in the blood – my mother was a food industry expert as well. It’s one of the reasons I love being back in the North East: our ingredients and local supply chain are second to none. We could still do with some good restaurants, though.
25 years after his death, I was filming in Newcastle and made a pilgrimage to North Street to see what had become of Jim’s Inn. Amazingly, surrounded by new development, the little Victorian black and white building was still there, boarded up but otherwise untouched. There above the front door was the small plastic sign: “Herbert Thomas Gutteridge, Licensed to sell Beers, Wines & Spirits”. That night I borrowed a screwdriver from my hotel’s concierge and surreptitiously unscrewed it from the doorframe. I mounted it on a smart wooden plaque and my mother has it to this day.
That was ten years ago. The building still stands empty. Every time I pass it I smile and think of Dad, and how proud he’d be of my cooking in a real restaurant, even if for just one night. Forget television, the awards and the rest: food was what really mattered to him. Mind you, despite his amazing palate, he was really just a meat and two veg man. All my complicated sauces would have been pushed to the side of the plate. But he would have loved the Galloway beef.