He’s worked in some of the UK’s top kitchens, but now Alan O’Kane is at the helm of one the North East’s most iconic venues – which has undergone a £10 million restoration. Marie Westmoreland chats to the executive chef about his new role.
Alan O’Kane shrugs his shoulders modestly as I reel off his impressive list of culinary achievements, including three AA Rosettes and four red stars, which he achieved in 18 months at Wynyard Hall.
Yet chasing honours is no longer on Alan’s agenda. Instead, he’s going back to basics in the kitchen at one of the North East’s most iconic landmarks: Spanish City, in Whitley Bay, where he’s executive chef.
“Of course I’m not going to turn an accolade down if we get one,” says the 43-year-old, who’s worked in some of the UK’s best kitchens, including The Savoy in London, and Foxhills in Surrey. “I want everyone in the kitchen to go back to basics. To understand old-school techniques – how to work with a venison haunch, fillet a fish, cook lobsters and crabs properly.
“Some chefs don’t even know how to fillet a fish, so I’m teaching them and sharing techniques and they are really embracing it.”
When news that Spanish City – a Grade II listed building – was undergoing a £10million restoration by North East hospitality group, Kymel, it was a no-brainer for Alan to take the culinary helm.
“I’d get on the bus with my school pal and come here [Spanish City] to go to the funfair. It would have been a travesty to knock it down,” says the Sunderland-born chef, who’s loving being back in the region.
“It’s a pleasure to work here. There’s a beautiful vibe along the coast, especially in Tynemouth, and that’s spreading along to Whitley Bay – so I wanted to be part of that,” says Alan.
He would love to cook for Dire Straits’ frontman Mark Knopfler at the venue, which was immortalised by the band’s 1980s hit song, Tunnel of Love. Now the magnificent leisure facility is home to luxury restaurant 1910 Steak and Seafood, Trenchers of Whitby, Valerie’s Tearoom, Waffle and Pancake House, plus a chic champagne bar and event and banqueting suite.
The ‘big challenge’ for Alan is managing a diverse team of 40 staff along with head chef Mark Percival and head pastry chef Kristian Branch.
“I’m also teaching Mark the management side but we are constantly hands-on in the kitchen, we really look after our staff.”
Mark, 33, heads up 1910, a casual restaurant with picture-perfect, panoramic sea views. It’s his first restaurant opening since leaving a head chef post at Langley Castle. “I’ve learned a lot from Alan, he’s done multi-site operations before. For me, this is the first place I have opened and I don’t think I’ll open any bigger,” says Mark, who loves cooking ‘anything from the sea’.
On the menus at Trenchers and 1910, dishes include crispy traditional fish and chips cooked in beef dripping, as well as fresh lobster.
“We are blessed to be working with Dennis Crooks [a Whitby-based fish merchant]. The fish we get is a pleasure to cook with and it comes from a sustainable source.
“The native lobsters are full of flavour and the fresh haddock and pollock are stunning. We even know what boat it comes from and that’s very exciting. I’ve never seen fresh fish like it in my life.
“It’s the best you can get and it’s cooked in a simple way. We don’t mess around and put micro herbs on the plates here, it’s not that kind of food. It’s not about powders and foams. You look at chefs such as Nathan Outlaw – he uses three components on am plate and he’s still achieving Michelin stars.
“At Spanish City, we’re all about good, honest food, cooked simply and from artisan suppliers who are passionate about what they do – and we’re proud to be working with them,” says Alan.
A fan of traditional methods, Alan fondly reminisces over visiting marts and talking to old-school farmers about the best cuts of meat and ‘chewing the fat’ with a butcher over a pint during his time at The Angel, Corbridge.
“I get excited about food finds such as a brilliant butchers. I discovered G Scott of Ponteland recently.
“I had a little tour around the kitchen and there wasn’t a vac-packed bag to be seen. All the beef was hanging and dry curing,” says Alan. Guess who has the contract for Spanish City’s meat supply now?
Along with Alan and Mark, Kristian Branch has joined the Spanish City team. He’s the icing on the cake when it comes to the impressive chef line-up. The head pastry chef – who left Jesmond Dene House after 10 years’ service to embark on this new venture – offers an abundance of delicious desserts to devour.
The 41-year-old, from Newcastle, says: “It’s a challenge to be providing desserts for a restaurant and tea rooms but it’s great, I never get bored.” As a pastry chef, Kristian ‘fell in love’ with the aesthetics.
“You can make something that’s very simple look amazing. I love making cakes for afternoon tea because when you put them together the contrasting colours and textures look so beautiful.
“There’s a lot of experience between myself, Alan and Mark, so I can’t wait to see how the rest of the year unfolds. I’ve already started to work out how many Christmas puddings I need to make.”