Chef Profile: Nick Grieves – Building a reputation

Nick Grieves, the man behind Gosforth’s Ophelia and Cafeteria, discusses career switches, creating two new dining experiences following a pandemic, and earning a reputation for unfussy food which impresses diners, critics and many of his North East-based contemporaries

Nick Grieves understands what it takes to build something. Having left a career as a construction project manager in the Middle East to return to the North East, he wound up stepping into a professional kitchen for the first time aged 27. Today he heads two venues in Gosforth and has earned an enviable reputation for his cooking.

“I wasn’t one of those kids who loved being in the kitchen, but when I got to university, I got the bug,” says Nick, who would cook for friends in shared houses while studying at Northumbria University. “I would watch all the TV shows and cook for everyone – that was my thing. I loved creating something. We had no expensive ingredients – making what we had work and taste good was all I wanted to do.”

After university Nick worked in Qatar, but when the economic crash hit in 2008, he found himself back in the North East and in need of a job. With few prospects in construction, he took on the Garden House pub in Durham.

“I was living with my friend Jimmy Llewellyn from Durham, who I loved cooking with. I’d tried a few things – including thinking I’d make millions selling scrap metal to China – and then the pub came up. Jimmy’s dad had been in pubs and clubs for years, and my dad was keen, so we took it on,” says Nick, who was born in Sunderland and moved to Durham when he was nine.

What started out as a dream of running a business with family and friends turned into a full-on job covering everything from the finances to the kitchen.

“We knew the pub and it was getting some investment, so we knew we could bring it back to life. I didn’t want to be massively involved day to day, but things quickly changed and me and Jimmy ended up working there a lot. A few months in, I went into the kitchen to help out… and I loved it.

“One of my best friends, Tom Anglesea, was helping me out loads and I can’t believe he kept answering my calls and texts. I also learned so much from our head chef Richard Davidson. It was a tough job to run the pub and work in the kitchen, but we got it working.

“We had so much fun too. The camaraderie was all new to me coming from construction in the Middle East. We worked hard and we partied hard, as you’d expect lads in their 20s owning a pub to do. It was our playground to a degree, and you sadly don’t see many pubs like that these days.”

The dream was short-lived, however. After two years, Jimmy and his dad left the pub, and after a couple more years, Nick and his dad couldn’t work together any longer.

“It came crashing down in the end – working with friends and family is hard,” Nick says. “My dad bought me out and I took the chance to move away.”
The move, ultimately to London, propelled Nick to a whole new level in the kitchen. After a short stint at Simon Rogan’s Fera at Claridge’s, Nick landed his dream job.

“I learned so much at Fera – about being organised and having a supreme attention to detail – but being a CDP when you’re 30 is really hard in a kitchen like that.

“I’d always loved The River Café, and had learned so much about cooking from Ruthy and Rose on YouTube. I’d dreamt of working there and just popped in one day for lunch and asked if they had any jobs going. The head chef, Sian Wyn Owen, invited me in for a trial and I ended up staying for a year.

“I adored that kitchen and the people in it. River Café is all about quality produce and understanding you don’t have to play around with things. The attitude of the kitchen under Ruthy was amazing as well – there’s a reason people stay there for so long.

“A year was nowhere near long enough to be there,” adds Nick. “I was naive and I should have stayed there a lot longer, but I was desperate to do my own thing and took the chance to come home.”

Backed by his grandma, Patricia, Nick returned to the North East in early 2016 and began looking for his own restaurant. By July, he’d found his dream starting point – an old bathroom showroom with just enough room for a two-chef open kitchen and 32 covers.

“My gran gave me the chance to go out on my own, and she’s the reason I am where I am today.

“We [Nick and sous chef Robbie Davidson] renovated it ourselves, including doing our own – terrible – plastering. We bought the cheapest extractor we could and opened The Patricia on December 16, 2016 just before we ran out of money.”

Nick then got to work building his reputation. A review from The Secret Diner followed by high praise from The Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin in early 2017 catapulted The Patricia into the top tier of Newcastle dining.

“It feels like those incredible, early days are so long ago now,” says Nick. “That place was certainly ours – down to the dodgy plastering and grouting work. The food was also ours though. Of course, it was inspired by where I’d been, particularly The River Café, but we did things right when very few in the North East were.

“You had Terry Laybourne in town, and Shaun Hurrell starting up Barrio Comida on the Quayside in Newcastle, and Adam Riley down in Tynemouth – those were the seeds that grew into what we see in the North East today – they all inspired me and The Patricia so much.

“I certainly made mistakes though, and I can admit now that I was arrogant. Those early reviews gave us such a big hit and we were rammed for six months, but then we weren’t the shiny new place anymore and it became a struggle. We came through it, got it back up to where we wanted to be, and then the pandemic hit.”

Just before the world ground to a halt, Nick teamed up with business partner Dan Smyth and began looking for a second venue. While the sector scrambled to adapt – including Nick launching of a popular Patricia at Home concept – Dan kept his eye out for new venues.

“The Patricia was good, not excellent, but it felt like the right time to grow,” Nick says of late-2019 and early-2020. “Then the pandemic hit, and we went into that crazy period. Out of the blue, Dan emailed me about a property in South Gosforth – very close to where we were both living at the time – and by October he’d bought the building.”

That building, formerly M Steel Cycles at 6-10 Bowsden Terrace, would take more than two years to transform into French neighbourhood brasserie Ophelia – opened in January 2023 – and 1950-70s-inspired café Cafeteria – opened October 2023 – with the offices of Nick and Dan’s GRDY restaurant group upstairs.

“Running The Patricia during a pandemic would have been stressful enough, but project managing a construction project and developing what goes into the building when it’s finished was certainly stressful,” says Nick, who recently gave up the lease on The Patricia to focus on his two Gosforth venues.

“I was living just over the road at the time, and I spent a long time thinking about what I would like to eat just a short walk from my front door.

“I don’t know if it comes from my career or being self-taught from TV and YouTube, but I think my restaurants should have a clear overarching theme. At Ophelia, it’s accessible French food – think steak and chips and a good bottle of wine, which doesn’t cost you the Earth. It’s inspired by the brasseries and bouillons, with the kind of food you’d have in a small place in the countryside or somewhere fast and lively in Paris.

“We’re a year into Ophelia, and we continue to adapt. The menu will continue to develop, but I’ll always come back to the examples set in London – focus on quality produce, present it in an unfussy way, and be incredibly professional in everything you do in the kitchen to be able to create a dining experience this is casual and relaxed.

“I want people to feel like they’re at my home, but eating food which is at another level – a lot of research, prep and hard work goes into creating that.”

“Cafeteria is the café I want to go to,” adds Nick. “Again, the focus is on produce and while some may not like the price tag which comes with using high-quality ingredients in something like a chip butty, or getting your pies from the super-talented Chris Eagle, I think there’s a lot of people who do like it.

“It’s not food to be critiqued and challenged, it’s good food, plain and simple.”

For someone early in their kitchen career, Nick has seen a lot, but his passion for growing the business and developing his food remains as strong as ever.

“I’m in a good place, I’m happy,” he says. “Our guests are amazing and really supportive, as are so many of the incredible people in the industry in the North East. I’m also really happy with the team we’ve built.

“2023 was the toughest year of my career in the kitchen – balancing costs and pricing has been, and remains, a battle. Creating dishes with one eye on the costs is like walking a tight rope, but we have to stay financially variable.

“It’s also been hard to steer two venues, and Vinny’s – our retro, New York-inspired Italian concept which will keep popping up at Ophelia – but we’re on the right track.

“I’ve tried to run it with the idea that I’ll have time to do other things, but that’s hard. I’m not ready to give up being in the kitchen. Managing my time is difficult, but I’m focussed on building a team so I can develop other areas.”

On development, while he has no concrete plans for another venue just yet, Nick knows the North East is ready for more great places to eat.

“The industry is strong in the North East right now, with so many incredible chefs doing really interesting things. I hope we see a lot more independent places – and when something properly good opens it isn’t a surprise anymore, it’s just the norm. If that next super place was a standalone Vinny’s, that would be even better!”

Building a business, and a reputation, takes a lifetime, yet Nick Grieves has managed it in just seven years either side of a global pandemic. Just imagine where he’ll be another seven.

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