Rain and the recession have seen the demise of many restaurants. But top North East chef David Kennedy is bucking the trend as he opens his third dining outlet with the creation of 15 jobs. JANE HALL spoke to him.
IF FORMER North East Chef of the Year David Kennedy had £1 for every person who said his first stand-alone restaurant was doomed to failure, he’d be a very rich man.
It was 2004 and he’d just opened the Black Door restaurant on Clayton Street West opposite the cathedral church of St Mary near to Central Station in Newcastle.
In those days, it was an unfashionable and insalubrious area of the city, many of its rundown neo-classical buildings lying empty and boarded up or converted into cheap flats.
No one thought the chef, who had worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants in London before heading north to join Terry Laybourne’s team, stood a chance of making the fledgling culinary venture work.
The pessimists gave him six months, the optimists six-and-a-half.
It eventually closed its doors four years later in 2007, but only because Kennedy had outgrown the Clayton Street West premises and instead moved to larger and more contemporary surroundings at what was then the new Biscuit Factory commercial art gallery on the other side of town in Shieldfield, another once prosperous area that had become rundown and neglected.
“No one had thought the Black Door would work because of its location,” Kennedy smiles wryly as he casts his mind back almost a decade. “The restaurant was very much out on a limb.
“In those days it was the Quayside and the heart of Newcastle around Grey’s Monument and Grey Street that was the trendy place to be, and Clayton Street West was seen as a block too far.
“Work had been moving on apace to regenerate Grainger Town and return it to the prosperous commercial and architectural centre of Newcastle, and to encourage people to once again live in the heart of the city, but Clayton Street West felt like the outpost of some vast empire.
“It was somewhere people were vaguely aware of but didn’t bother going.”
But hard work coupled with Kennedy’s undoubted flair in the kitchen, paid off. Against the odds he proved his critics spectacularly wrong.
“We very quickly made a name for ourselves. We achieved two AA rosettes as well as the UK award for excellence from the Hardens guide, county restaurant of the year from the Good Food Guide and Metro restaurant of the year.
“Michelin came and told us that within the next six months we would probably get a star.”
But by then Kennedy had closed up shop and gone to work his magic at the Biscuit Factory.
In between times, however, Clayton Street West had come up in the world and been transformed from the shabby haunt of some of Newcastle’s less desirable elements to one of the city’s up-and-coming quarters. The success of Black Door with its menu full of traditional and classic British dishes given a contemporary twist using the finest local ingredients, was in no small part responsible for the transformation.
Now Shieldfield too is booming. Millions has been spent on building a new ‘student village’ to serve both of Newcastle’s universities. And Northumbria University’s state-of-the-art City Campus East has opened just a few minutes’ walk from the Biscuit Factory in Manors at what had been the site of the Warner Cinema complex.
With his seemingly uncanny ability to pinpoint the ‘next big thing’ in both food and fashionable postcodes, Kennedy’s star has likewise risen.
He now runs the critically acclaimed David Kennedy’s Food Social (formerly Brasserie Black Door) from the Biscuit Factory as well as an outside catering arm.
And last summer he opened David Kennedy’s River Café on North Shield’s Fish Quay with Paul Scott, whom he first worked with during his Terry Laybourne days, and Scott’s partner Michelle Dickie.
And Kennedy is preparing to open a third restaurant as well as a farm shop in association with Scott at Vallum, just off the A69 in Northumberland. The venture at the farm-based food and business hub run by Vicky and Peter Moffitt on the Military Road at East Wallhouses, is due to open in the middle of this month and will see the creation of 15 jobs.
It will bring the number employed by the rapidly expanding David Kennedy empire to over 40 and, if all goes well, push annual gross turnover for the combined businesses to nearly £1.5m, no mean feat with the UK in the midst of a double-dip recession which has seen scores of other top restaurants going to the wall.
But the 42-year-old chef who originally hails from the West Country and came north to be with his Geordie wife, is confident the David Kennedy brand can continue to buck the trend.
So much so he is predicting increased pre-tax profits for 2012-13. “Food Social is currently turning over £550,000 gross a year but we expect to see that rising by £50,000 in the next financial year,” he says.
“River Café is coming to the end of its first year of trading and is on target to make £300,000 gross turnover. We have just completed stage one of a major refit at River Café and are looking at edging turnover up to around £425,000 in the next 12 months.
“We’re predicting a combined turnover for Vallum with the restaurant and farm shop of £600,000 gross, while David Kennedy Outside Catering is currently bringing in £25,000 annually.
“That will be the next area ripe for development. We’ve never really done anything with the outside catering wing, but know there is more potential.
“We’ve been working with PricewaterhouseCooper as well as Newcastle University and Gateshead Council and are building up the weddings and other social functions, but we know we can be doing a lot more.”
If Mr Kennedy sounds as if he’s on an ego trip, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality the man crowned North East Chef of the Year in 2007 who then went on to take a runners-up spot in the prestigious national Knorr Chef of the Year competition, is self-effacing and, until recently, eschewed the limelight. But he is intelligent enough to know that if he is to keep his head above water in the current tough trading climate, he needs to be seen as well as heard.
Being a ‘name’ is no guarantee of culinary success when times are hard, though, as a host of well-known chefs and restaurateurs who have seen their businesses flounder, will attest.
What is it, then, that makes Kennedy stand out from the crowd for all the right reasons?
“What we offer is well priced, well executed, diverse and fantastic value for money,” he says.
“As an example, we offer a credit crunch three-course menu at River Café for just £4.95 alongside the a la carte.