Monday, June 2, 2008

Jim's Inn, Dad, and piccalilli

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 flambĂ©-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.

6 comments:

Justin Souter said...

I think I like this one the best, genuinely touching, also in the context of the other articles...

Anonymous said...

I graduated in Newcastle in '72 and celebrated with my folks at Jim's Inn.
I am returning with my wife to Newcastle after 35 years away....and thought of Jims Inn, and with the magic of google found you.We will will still pay homage but now forewarned.

Jim

Anonymous said...

I too graduated but in 1971. I took my Dad to Jim's Inn and (if I remember right) we both had superb steaks served on a wooden board. We left the selection of wine to a nice old man (who may have been the guy's Father) and it was perfect! My wife and I are up to Newcastle this week-end and I went on Google to see if Jim's Inn was still operating. The Blog from the North has answered that and also brought back some warm memories of that night out with my late lamented Dad.
Dave

Anonymous said...

I rememebr Jims Inn in the 1960s. I had a graduation meal there, and later a wedding dinner for a small group. It was run by someone caleld Giovanni who also had a place in Allendale. I jsut looked it up becuase I am meeting a group of peopel in Newcastle. Sorry to ehar it is empty!
Sally Evans (facebook sallyevanz)

jimmypa100 said...

my granny worked there as a pastry cook from i think it openend right up till about 1974 ,aunty florrys home made apple pie plus her other delights i use to help out in the kitchen aswell ,granson jimmy

Gary Martin said...

My God...how absoloutley amazing to find this article.
I worked at Jims Inn twice.
I remember "Mr Gutteridge" well. Mr Pink Gin. I always wondered what he found to do all day sitting on the top floor in an office over looking North Street/John Dobson Street. Never hear a word from him until lunch time then he'd have his lunch (with half a dozen Pink Gins) and that was it. 5 days a week, same thing every day. He'd come in the kitchen, thank everyone then back upstairs. I always thought he was an accountant because the "Manageress" was Mrs Pigg but I was allowed to call her Edna and she once told me he did Accounts for a few businesses. (Obviously he had something to do with Jims Inn)
I remember Florrie the pastry cook and her daughter Shirley. Two of the nicest women I've ever met jimmypa100.
I wish I'd found this article sooner