We all know him as the Michelin-star chef for the North East, but what’s it really like in Kenny Atkinson’s kitchen? Savour gets an invitation to spend an afternoon with the main man himself and his team
Words: Georga Spottiswood | Photography: Sean Elliott
“Table 12 is at the toilet,” shouts head chef Danny Parker as a ticket arrives by one of the runners. He looks up at the TV screens within the kitchen to confirm this. “We don’t want any food being served at the table while guests are away. It could take them five minutes to return and in that time, the food won’t look as it should,” says the 26 year old who’s been with Kenny since House of Tides, on Newcastle’s Quayside, opened two and half years ago.
The heat from the small kitchen is uncomfortably intense and with a team of seven operating with one oven and two stoves, putting out 675 plates of food on a Saturday has to be a military operation. “They’re warriors,” laughs Kenny, “a team of trojans that makes House of Tides the place it is. “I’m no more important than any of them. It’s like a jigsaw, if you’re missing one piece it’s a crap jigsaw,” adds the 39 year old, who grew up in Fenham.
As well as head chef Danny, there’s senior chef de partie Jake Siddle, 23; chef de partie Liam Cavana, 23; sous chef Adam Gladwin, 26; junior sous chef Lee Endrodie, 26; pastry chef de partie Ellie Strickland, 30, and commis chef Jordan Taylor, 21.
“They’re young, driven and passionate,” says Kenny as we stand in his kitchen, his eyes constantly observing the dishes leaving through the doors and out into the 16th-Century building where his guests await service. “Most of them are from the North East, too – which Michelin-star restaurant can say that?” he adds.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and although the restaurant is quiet, the kitchen is anything but.
Dishes are being passed around the team while each member adds something to the plate. It’s like speeded up version of the Generation Game – only there are no cuddly toys here.
“Service,” shouts Danny, who’s the final cog in the conveyor belt, and a casually-dressed waiter appears to take the dish to its rightful owner.
“We have a casual dress code,” says Kenny. “We don’t want to intimidate people by being pretentious. There’s nothing worse then being in a restaurant and thinking you have to whisper. Who wants a stuck up waiter standing over your table telling you how to eat your food? If my old man came in and that happened he’d tell them where to go. We’re in the North East and North East people don’t like being told how they should eat their food,” laughs Kenny, who employs a team of 28.
“When we first opened I had 16 staff and I sat them all down and banned them from talking about accolades, our first year was about surviving,” says Kenny, who likens his staff to a football team.
“I’m like José Mourinho, I have the ideas and vision, but without my players it can’t be achieved. You have to keep your players happy, yes they get good money but you have to show them you care too. We’re getting a new kitchen which hopefully should be finished by October. There’ll be more space and equipment and it’ll be a lot cooler in here. We buy good plates, they’re around £65 a pop, we buy good wines, we invest in good produce. I want the team to feel like they get the best,” said Kenny, who surprised his restaurant manager, Laura Stephenson, with a bottle of Champagne and wine pairing when she visited the Michelin-star Casamia restaurant, in Bristol, for her birthday.
“A few of them went to Aizel in Edinburgh for a birthday and my former sommelier’s leaving do, so I surprised them with a bottle of Dom Pérignon. I want them to eat in nice places, to go and experience other restaurants, not just burger joints. You learn from experience, what the food was like, what the service was like, it fills them with ideas,” says Kenny, who’s not only meticulous about his menu but about the restaurant’s interior too.
“To be fair, it was my wife Abbie who did the interior design. She’s now set up her own cafe, named after her grandma, Violet, who passed away two years ago. But she’ll tell you all about it. That’s her baby and this is mine, and I don’t want to take the shine off her. She’s followed me around and supported me for 10 years, it’s my turn to return the favour,” says Kenny who has two boys with Abbie, Aaron, 10, and Aidan, seven.
Although he made a name for himself whilst he was director of food at Rockliffe Hall, near Darlington, and previous to that as a Michelin-star chef for Seaham Hall, Kenny admits his transformation from chef to business owner was a little nerve-racking.
“Of course I was scared of failure, I still am. If I fail, I’ve lost everything as it’s all tied up in this building, but it keeps you on your toes. Right from the start we had setbacks. The building is 16th Century and it had stood derelict for years, I wasn’t sure on it but Abbie loved it. It’s listed so we had to meet certain English Heritage standards. The main entrance itself took nine months to make. That was frustrating. We went well over budget because of the building but it’s now part of people’s experience here,” says Kenny, who also admits he never set out to get a star.
“The chefs that are so hell bent on getting a star shouldn’t take their eye off the main game: producing top-quality food. And I can’t stand the ones who have a star and all their attention is on getting a second one. It’s bull,” he says candidly.
“The bottom line is that people should taste good-quality food and have a cracking experience. That’s what we do. You don’t mess on with food. You bring the best out of the flavours. Keep it simple,” he adds. Simple it may be to Kenny and his team, but to you and I, perhaps not! Carrots served with beef are cooked for 24 hours in beef fat and herbs and French gariguette strawberries are vacuum packed for 24 hours to get maximum flavour.
“We prep fresh every day. All the produce arrives in the morning and we get to work. Danny speaks to the suppliers on a daily basis, he keeps on top of the game. He know what’s going on, what good produce is out there and what we can put on our menu, as it changes every day,” explains Kenny.
After his first year in business, Kenny sat his team down again – this time with Champagne to thank them for their work.
“We survived it, so we celebrated, and we all took two weeks off for Christmas. Who even does that in this industry?” says Kenny. “It goes back to looking after your team. I shut the restaurant every Sunday and Monday. The guys need time off. I have the same team in every day, that’s paramount, they get to know one another and understand one another. We all banter too. Mostly about football,” laughs Kenny, who says when Newcastle got relegated he sat in his car as Danny, a Manchester United fan, and the lads gave him grief.
“I took the huff and worked in the car,” he jokes. But it seem it’s this camaraderie and team effort that’s getting the restaurant places.
In 2015, the second year in business, Kenny says the accolades just kept rolling in.
House of Tides was awarded three rosettes, nominated Best Restaurant at The Craft Guild of Chefs, Best Newcomer at the Catey Awards, won AA Restaurant of the Year, the Secret Diner voted it the Best Restaurant for 2014 and 2015 and it was in the National Restaurant Awards Top 100.
Then came the Michelin star in September.
“It was unreal,” says Kenny proudly. “2015 was just one hell of a year. The star really put Newcastle on the map. Sure I’d love to see the city get another one. Perhaps Dave Coulson from Peace & Loaf or John Calton from The Staith House. But seriously, come on, that’s like me also saying I’d love Sunderland to win the FA Cup!”