For those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to dine at Blackfriars, could you briefly describe the restaurant?
The restaurant is a little haven in the middle of the city centre, it’s tucked behind Westgate Road and China Town. The heritage of the building itself is phenomenal – dating back to 1239, I think it’s the second oldest structure in the city centre after the cathedral. Personally, I’ve been head chef at Blackfriars since 2015.
As head chef, what kind of dining experience do you bring to the restaurant?
We do a relaxed daytime set menu of three courses for £18, which in my eyes is amazing value for money. That’s based on a menu of six starters, six mains and five desserts. We also have a wine pairing package on offer as well. In the evening, we really play on the ambiance of this medieval building with our candlelit dinners. We allow our heritage to influence some aspects of Blackfriars, but we tend to use modern recipes which offer a French twist on fine British cuisine. I try to keep the dishes very basic really. There’s not a lot of ingredients on the menu that come from more than a hundred miles away – probably only the fish we serve, because they’ll swim more than a hundred miles away in their lifetime!
Your menus are always full of great flavour combinations. Where does the inspiration for your cooking style come from?
That’s a really tricky question but I think what inspires me most is the team that I work with, which sounds really clichéd, but it’s true. I’ve got great colleagues that have given Blackfriars a long-standing, high level of service – I know where I stand with them.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef? What has been your journey into Blackfriars’ kitchen?
I’ve been interested in being a chef since the age of 15. It was actually my older brother who was a chef first, working in the Treehouse Restaurant at The Alnwick Garden when it first opened. He got a summer job for me and it kind of took off from there. The truth be known, I got really ticked off with one of the senior chefs one day and I remember distinctly saying to myself, ‘Right I’ll show you’ – and I think I have.
How did it feel to win Taste of the North East 2018?
It was a long time coming if I’m honest! I’ll always be the first to hold my hands up and say, ‘That was a well-deserved win,’ when I see quality, because quality is often better than ‘different’, but when we did finally win it was a relief – we would have really started to question things if we hadn’t. With all the work we’re doing to create a sustainable footprint it was nice to see it pay off. We recycle all our food waste and use all organic recyclable products, to the point where we don’t send anything to landfill. I don’t want to bore you by talking about separate recycling bins, but it’s just one of those little things that makes a huge difference.
What ingredients have you got in the kitchen at the moment that are sourced from the North East?
We use Waterford Farm beef from a farmer and butcher near Ripon, they rear their own cattle and then butcher it themselves. We also have local langoustines and crab from North Shields Fish Quay. As it happens, North Shields is one of the biggest langoustine landing spots in Europe, but because it’s such a diverse and huge market, it all gets shipped over to the continent – particularly to Paris and Bilbao. We try to utilise that market before our friends in Europe get hold of it.
What can people expect from the Blackfriars Cookery School and Tasting Room?
It’s a relaxed environment where you can get a really good insight into the development of cooking. You can take what you want from it really – you can book tickets to spend a day in the kitchen with me and learn all about the restaurant and the cooking industry itself. Whilst the Cookery School upstairs offers a whole range of courses from cooking for beginners, to more advanced dinner party-style cooking. We teach people about using every single part of the animal or vegetable, giving them new ideas about what they can do with their produce.
What’s your favourite ingredient to cook with at the moment?
It’s always based on what’s in season. At the moment, one of my favourite ingredients to use is wild leeks, which I pick from the allotment every morning. There’s an abundance over there. They’re lovely sautéed in butter, or chucked in a soup – the flavour’s just amazing. When you grow your own veg, not only are you saving money, but there’s also no food miles or packaging involved – you’re saving the planet!
What would be your dream meal?
Simplicity and location are key for me. It would be on a beach somewhere in the blazing sun with a really cold bottle of wine. I’d want something really fresh to eat, something that’s come straight from the sea next to me… perhaps langoustines cooked simply in butter and parsley.
What’s your foodie guilty pleasure?
When I’m out in town having a drink I do love a pizza. I try not to eat rubbish when I get in from work, but to be honest when you get home at 11:30pm it can be quite restricting as to what you can cook, so sometimes I do just have cheese on toast and head straight to bed.
What is your earliest memory of cooking?
It was definitely making biscuits and stuff with my Mother on a Saturday afternoon – just the two of us in the house. We also used to make a lot of soda bread which is yeast-free and almost instant to make – even the smell of soda bread now reminds me of those days.
What time-saving tips can you give to home cooks who are looking to host a stress-free dinner party?
You can’t rush perfection ultimately – it’s all about the preparation. You can start a dinner party the day before for instance by peeling vegetables. On the day, pre-cook your vegetables to a certain point and then just finish them off when your guests arrive. Get your oven hot, make sure you’ve got a kettle full of boiling water, and always start in a clean kitchen. I always have clear, distinct work spaces, a sink full of hot soapy water and an empty drainer. Every time I use something, I don’t just leave it in the sink to clean afterwards, I clean as I go – that saves loads of time at the end of the evening.
We’re delighted that you’ll be coming to our LIVE Fair at Newcastle Racecourse this spring, what can we look forward to from your chef’s demo?
It’ll be something very seasonal for the month of May, and I’ll be using local produce. Everything will be prepared right in front of you from start to finish – which isn’t easy in 20 minutes!
When you’re not in the kitchen at Blackfriars, what are your favourite things to do in the North East?
I have a season ticket, so I tend to just pop to St James’ Park from work and come back if I’m honest! But outside the working day, I shoot clay pigeon quite often, which is good fun and great for blowing off steam after a busy time in the restaurant. I like to keep busy – I’ll be doing two 10K runs this year at Bamburgh and Gateshead, which I’m training for at the moment, as well as the Great North Run in September.
See Chris Wardale’s chef demonstration at Living North LIVE, 11am on Friday 10th May at Newcastle Racecourse. Blackfriars Restaurant, Friars Street, Newcastle NE1 4XN, 0191 261 5945 www.blackfriarsrestaurant.co.uk