To mark our 50th edition, Dean Bailey meets restaurant pioneer Terry Laybourne to discuss his 30 years in the business, today’s food scene, and why the Stones have to play Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Think about food in the North East, and you’re never more than two steps from Terry Laybourne.
The 21 Hospitality Group, which encompasses both fine and casual dining, traces its roots to Newcastle’s first Michelin Star, awarded in 1990 to 21 Queen Street. The awards continue to flow and include an Egon Ronay star, the Independent Restaurateur of the Year title, Bib Gourmands and more, along with an MBE for Laybourne.
His personal success is well-documented, but it is Laybourne’s influence on the industry – in terms of dining trends and the hundreds of talented people who have trained under him and gone on to great things – which may well be his greatest achievement.
Not that he’s likely to shout about himself. “It’s like being a football manager, you’re only as good as your last result,” he says as we settle in at his latest venture, Porterhouse, in Fenwick’s Food Hall, Newcastle. “We just do what we do. Awards are fantastic, but filling seats is a better measure. You can set out to win awards, but the challenge is achieving that while you build profit, sustainability and opportunities to evolve. At a basic level, food has to be delicious and nutritious. It can play with you, but I don’t think it should challenge you. There should be an element of familiarity, you should be comfortable. Food is a much bigger experience than eating. I want to create environments where you can sit two or three times a week with friends and family.”
A long career brings its challenges. “It’s like going to see The Rolling Stones. You’d be disappointed if they didn’t play Jumpin’ Jack Flash, wouldn’t you? The repertoire can shrink as you become laden with ‘greatest hits’ and the customer may be disappointed if those hits are not there. The difficulty, and the skill, is in adding new songs to the playlist.”
No surprise, he has seen food change immeasurably from his early days as an apprentice at the old Swallow Hotel in Newcastle. He dreamed of becoming an engineer like his dad. But his father, seeing the decline in heavy industry, advised him to set his sights elsewhere. After O Levels in 1970, he toyed with training as a baker and confectioner, but the course looked dull. Then came a chance meeting with an old school friend, by then an apprentice chef, who showed him books filled with elaborate buffets, butter sculptures and the like, and Laybourne’s focus was set.
“I was captivated by it,” he says. “I wanted to be a food engineer. As a kid, food was just fuel, and I came in with very little experience, but I got an apprenticeship with Bryan Hogson at The Swallow, where I was thrown in at the deep end. Today, we understand the long hours and the stress of the industry, but back then I didn’t know any different. My dad was a union man and he thought it was barbaric, but I had a spring in my step.”
He went on to work in the Channel Islands before heading to Switzerland to work under some of Europe’s best chefs. “I’ve been inspired by people throughout,” he says, and Laybourne himself is noted in the industry for his generous support when his one-time protégées branch out on their own, though he stresses that he fights tooth and nail to hang on to the best.
Of his teachers, he says: “Bryan Hogson was a little guy who shouted like a foghorn, but he had energy and a passion for cooking. Claus Mollin gave me a job in Jersey and opened my mind. He taught me how to eat and I’ve kept that with me throughout my career – every chef has to learn to eat before they can be taught to cook. He also knew how to get the best out of people and he made the whole team sit down at 11.30am to eat together, no matter what you were doing, and I still do that today. Alain Couturier gave me confidence and showed me I could have my own restaurant. Tom Catherall, a chef in Atlanta, used to drive me nuts in Queen Street by hounding me about service. He could get under my skin, but we became firm friends and he showed me how to really recognise opportunities. Franco Cetoloni taught me the importance of being generous and putting the customer first and Heinz Winkler, who went on to become a three-star chef, taught me about detail. I also learned a lot about what not to do from him. He was difficult to work for – he’d pin the menu up in French for a brigade of mainly German chefs and he wouldn’t allow recipe books in the kitchen, but he was a great cook.”
Laybourne’s dreams never lay in a restaurant empire. “I had no grand ambitions,” he says, yet his stable now includes fine dining restaurant 21, laidback Italian kitchen Caffe Vivo, gastropub Broad Chare, Café 21 at Fenwick, Saltwater Fish Co and Porterhouse in Fenwick’s Food Hall, and a partnership with the Lakes Distillery bistro.
He opened 21 Queen Street in 1988 with his brother Laurance, wife Susan and friend Nick Shottel, who is now brand director at 21 Hospitality Group. “I was naive, arrogant and filled with blind optimism,” he says, but by 1990 food was in a revolution and 21 rode the curve. “The Michelin Star was never on the radar though. Stars weren’t for lads from council estates in Newcastle. I got a call congratulating me on it and I told the guy to get lost – I thought it was a joke.
“I think of myself as an opportunist. I’m not particularly creative, but I can be focused. I’ve been lucky, I’ve managed to avoid the traps and I’ve had the privilege of great people around me. We have people who have been with us for 10, 20, 30 years plus and I’ve tried to hang on to the best. All I’ve had to do is come up with the ideas and cook.”
Of those he has supported, he says: “Everyone who has ever worked here has supported me and the business so it’s only right that I support them. I’m not very good at thanking people and patting them on the back, but I acknowledge commitment and I’m more than happy to support them on their journey. It inspires me to have a small hand in things which are innovative and exciting.”
He has contributed to 30 years of change in eating out – from the domination of hotel restaurants to the wave of independent kitchens, and he expects the landscape to continue to shift. “I’m sure my younger peers think I’m an old has-been,” he says. “The change from when I started out in the ‘70s is immeasurable. The hoteliers blew it with greed and that allowed independent restaurants in. Today, we’re at the point music got to in late 1975/early ‘76 when we had pretentious prog rock from Yes and Mike Oldfield. In food now we have big brands and it’s monotone, but we’re about to enter a punk era with the likes of Nick Grieves at The Patricia in Jesmond, Shaun Hurrell [Flat White Café, Barrio Comida] who will find a spot of his own soon, and John Calton [Staith House] who is about to open a bistro in town.
“It’s an expensive game, but these lads will find a way to show their creativity. It’s exciting. We’re not far from having spaces in the city to allow people to explore food without the trappings of a restaurant. I can’t wait to see what happens.”
There are no plans to retire, but he says: “I’m under no illusion that my days are numbered. I don’t know where I go from here but I’d hate to be like a footballer who drops down the leagues as he comes to the end of his career. I guess I’d like to exit whilst I’m still somewhere near the top. I’m also aware of the responsibility of employing a large workforce. Ultimately, I’ll take what comes; I’m in no great rush.”