You started out at Siemens when you left school.
I didn’t enjoy it. The factory was sort of dying. You’d do one job and then you probably wouldn’t do that job again, so you weren’t really learning anything through repetition. The base used to have 500 blokes in; when I was there, you were lucky if you found three working on a job. So you could see the industry going down the pan.
So circumstances and opportunities came together at the right time.
That’s it. I took the summer off once I got made redundant, and I was sitting in the back garden. I was tired of getting my wrist slapped for turning down engineering jobs, because I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to get back into, and at the same time my mate said, ‘Why don’t you become a chef? You like doing the barbecue.’ When I went to the job centre they said there was an initiative, the Jamie Oliver Fifteen. I jumped on board that.
As part of the Fifteen scheme, you went to the Copthorne Hotel – how did you adapt to it?
It was sink or swim, really. A couple of lads quit early on. You see with your own eyes that it’s a revolving door industry: if you couldn’t keep up, you were gone, you know. But it was good, I actually enjoyed the intensity of it.
Landing in such an intense scenario can be polarising.
You could see the guys who were institutionalised by it. I was lucky that I’d done something else for five or six years, but you could see the lads who’d been in kitchens since they were 15; somewhat focused, but also somewhat lacking a little bit of what the world’s about. I think that can create the atmosphere that kitchens are infamous for. When you go into top kitchens now, it’s all guys who got into cooking when they were 25, and they’ve chosen wisely which kitchens they want to work in and what they want to learn; it’s a much calmer environment now.
Then you moved on to Jesmond Dene House when Terry Laybourne was setting it up.
That was the first kitchen I’d worked in where it was a proper kitchen full of dedicated chefs; everyone was there to learn. It was a good environment to get into as a second kitchen. You were learning technique and the reason behind it, in a fantastic environment, rubbing off on each other’s knowledge. Everyone was eager to learn and pass on knowledge. It was a kitchen where kids were going home and reading cookbooks; they weren’t just going out on the lash, like you get with some kitchens with a sort of laddish image.
Then you headed to Sydney for a year: how does Australian food culture differ?
Everybody eats out there. Eating out isn’t sort of a birthday or anniversary thing, so the city’s awash with brasseries, Thai places – really authentic places with being that close and massive Asian communities. You were getting fresh udon noodles just down the street, or you were getting great Turkish bread round the corner. It’s just an exciting place: the food’s vibrant, lots of seafood, lots of Asian influence. Before I went there, fusion food was a spring roll with a cos lettuce salad, you know?
Then you got into cooking for touring bands – who did you travel with?
All sorts really: one of my first ones was The Human League with Level 42 and ABC, and then we did Sting, Al Green, Van Morrison, a little bit of Muse, The Script. The guys from Muse have their own chef who cooks almost a macrobiotic diet for them. Sting eats healthy, but he’s not a real nut just eating seeds. He loves his duck and lamb, so you’d cook him healthy dishes including those ingredients. But a lot of them are on the road so they want cottage pie or a good lasagne.
When you set up The Roxburgh, why did you pick Whitley Bay?
It was just the local knowledge of Whitley Bay and how these things go full circle: since I’ve been drinking, it was the Bigg Market, then it was the Quayside, then it was Jesmond, then Central Station, then Tynemouth. With Tynemouth fit to bust now, it’ll come together with all the investment, all the Lottery funding at Spanish City and along the coastline, they’ve made a real effort to bring the place back. Whitley Bay’s full of independent businesses as well, and not just the main street. It’s slowly regenerating. It’s an exciting place to be, and over the next five years it’s going to become a really popular destination again.
What atmosphere were you trying to create at The Roxburgh?
There was nowhere playing the Velvet Underground and serving bone marrow, so I wanted to create somewhere that was happening. It was just taking on all influences really: the café bars in Melbourne and Sydney, the dive bars in St Petersburg, little eateries I’d been to in New York City; an amalgamation of what’s going on in London and what’s going on in New York. Cosy and informal.
What’s on The Roxburgh’s stereo?
It’s really eclectic: some old RnB, some soul and a bit of indie and Eighties; stuff that people listen to. I worked somewhere which was the whole kit and caboodle – picture postcard, they used to rear chickens and pigs – but they used to have Coldplay on repeat all day long. Nothing against Coldplay, but it’s an aspect that some restaurants overlook. They almost put panpipe music on sometimes.
Finally, why spend so much time on making homemade dog treats to sell in The Roxburgh?
We were cooking the bone marrow and realised we were left with a lot of fat coming off them, so we put them in the dog biscuits and they turned out to be like crack for them. They just took off!
48 Park Avenue, Whitley Bay NE26 1DJ
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