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Meet the Head Chef and Co-Owner of Durham's Michelin Guide-Recommended Restaurant, Coarse

Head chef and co-owner Ruari MacKay
Eat and Drink
October 2023
Reading time 4 Minutes

Within a year of opening, Durham's Coarse has already been recognised by the Michelin Guide

We catch up with head chef and co-owner Ruari MacKay to find out more.

While he later trained under renowned North East chef Terry Laybourne, Ruari MacKay wasn’t sure what he wanted to do as a career growing up. ‘You hear people say that’s what they always wanted to do, but it wasn’t the case for me. I went from one thing to another. I wanted to be a footballer but I wasn’t good enough, then I wanted to go to university, but there wasn’t anything in particular I wanted to do,’ he says.

After six months at university Ruari dropped out and, wanting to get into health and fitness, he turned to cooking. ‘I thought I should eat better and started to cook for myself and just really enjoyed it. I went to college and that’s where I met Terry Laybourne, who did a couple of nights as a guest chef. Part of the course included doing placements and I worked at a couple restaurants such as the Fisherman’s Lodge and Black Door which were two of the best restaurants in Newcastle at the time. The chefs I worked with had all trained with Terry so naturally I wanted to work for him. I applied to Jesmond Dene House and that was my first full-time job.’

Ruari went on to work for Terry as head chef at the former Bistro 21 in Durham before transforming venues across the North East. With 20 years of experience in the industry, and after settling in Durham with his family, Ruari decided to open his own restaurant. ‘I got married last year and we'd spoken about opening our own place for a while. It was by chance that Craig [Lappin-Smith] who we’d worked with before got in touch and said let’s do this,’ Ruari explains.

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Food being plated up

Identifying a gap in the Durham restaurant scene for a tasting menu restaurant, Ruari and his co-founders launched Coarse in September last year. ‘We like to eat out and we always said there wasn’t anywhere around here which offered a tasting menu. There are different things like Barrio Comida which is a great Mexican, but there’s nowhere to go for a special occasion, or for something a bit different,’ Ruari says.

Coarse has been well received since opening last year. ‘It’s been amazing and we couldn’t have expected it. It was September when we opened, so we wanted to get through Christmas, and into the New Year and see what it was like. We got lucky in that we were in the Michelin Guide pretty much straight away and as soon as that came out the bookings went crazy,’ Ruari says. ‘If you’re Gordon Ramsay and you open a restaurant you’re going to get a Michelin inspector in within the first couple of weeks, but we didn’t expect anything like that. It was just one guy in for lunch one day and he came and asked me a couple of questions which I thought was a bit odd. We never heard any more, but then all of a sudden it was out there. We feel we are a lot better now than we were then, so I think it’s good validation to show that what you’re doing is right.’

Coarse offers only tasting menus (three courses at lunchtime and six courses in the evening). ‘We wanted to do something very different, not copy other restaurants, and just do our own thing and stick to dishes and ingredients we like,’ Ruari says. ‘We wanted to keep it fun because sometimes tasting menus are too formal, and we wanted everyone to feel welcome – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re wearing, you can come in.’

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Ruari also wanted to have a focus on excellent ingredients. ‘When we opened I sourced the best possible meat and fish suppliers, as well as the best fruit and veg, sourcing as good ingredients as we could and then serving them relatively simply and always with a bit fun and a bit different,’ he explains. ‘I’ve just been working on our next menu, as well as our Christmas one, and obviously you’re led by ingredients. Seasonally there are only a certain amount of ingredients you can use so you’ve always got to keep thinking and changing and looking for new ideas. It’s seasonal but we change [the menu] every six weeks, so I look for other inspiration from things which are going on in the world and memories that I or other people might have. Sometimes people say you have to do a certain style, but we look around everywhere and might have a curry dish or be using different spices and it can literally be anything, there aren’t any limitations.’

Offering a new menu every six weeks allows diners to come back and always get to try something new. ‘We get people coming in for every menu, and some have been in more than once per menu, and that’s the support we didn’t expect. We knew we could get people in at the beginning, but it’s the ones who come back – people are totally behind us,’ Ruari says.

As well as the tasting menus Coarse offer wine pairings, which Ruari’s co-owners Gemma Robinson and Craig Lappin-Smith look after. ‘We work with great suppliers like Yorkshire Vintners who really help us with the pairings for the menus and we try and keep it interesting. We send the menu to them and we get to taste all the wines, but we’re still learning ourselves and we’re looking to get better at it,’ Ruari says.

Side Dish

Favourite ingredient?
I like fish and have always enjoyed cooking it. It’s done so badly in so many places and I think it’s an ingredient that, if you treat it well, it’s the best thing to cook.

Food guilty pleasure?
A crisp sandwich maybe?

Favourite local restaurant, café or bar?
We enjoy Barrio Comida which is down the road. I know Shaun and we go there loads.

Drink of choice?
I love beer and when you finish work, to sit down and have a cold beer, that’s the day done.

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