Popping up all over

Pop-up restaurants allow access to the best chefs in interesting places. Rosie McGlademeets John Connell
and Sally Walker, the culinary couple behind Eclectic Picnic

If you haven’t heard of John Connell, well, sorry, it’s like saying you haven’t heard of Terry Laybourne or David Kennedy, fellow kings of the North East culinary castle. 

John, North East Chef of the Year 2012, may not have his own restaurant, but he links arms with the two aforementioned and his pop-ups are very 2013.

He’s a genuinely nice guy, though put him in a black rugby kit and you wouldn’t want to be standing in his way with a ball in your hands, for this is one big New Zealander, with an accent that sounds like he got off a flight yesterday. Not that he did: he worked in top restaurants on the South Island under Japanese and Austrian head chefs before heading to London years ago, before landing in Newcastle in 1997.

“I had a varied grounding, so I can do Japanese, South East Asian, and classical European, so I blend different styles, but it’s not for me to say if I’m good,” he comments modestly at a kitchen table loaded with spectacular orchids brought back, very romantically, from a recent journey via Bangkok.

What he will say is that he’s worked in various Michelin-starred establishments, including as head chef at Terry Laybourne’s original Cafe 21 on Queen Street in Newcastle and in similar roles at Seaham Hall and the Vermont Hotel.

He’s not into the over-used term ‘fusion’, preferring ‘eclectic’, and he and his partner Sally Walker have set themselves up as the Eclectic Picnic, doing outside catering with a twist for weddings, feasts, dinner parties, and pop-ups. The food is fresh and healthy with Asian flavours used in contemporary European style.

One day they’ll get a little bistro, he says, but in the meantime, pop-ups suit family life which includes 11-year-old twins and a 14-year-old daughter.

“It’s something different,” says Sally.  “John has a big reputation in Newcastle so it’s a way of following him and doing something fun at the same time. You have to keep it interesting, so once or twice a month is enough. We’re doing one in Summerhill Square in Newcastle; it’s an old-fashioned bowling club, but we’re making it look like a restaurant for the night.”

It’ll be fairly informal with a tapas-style menu, and if all goes well, there’ll be further events over the summer. A more formal pop-up is planned for the South Northumberland Cricket Club in Gosforth, with a seven-course taster menu featuring lobster, suckling pig and asparagus.

Sally, originally from Dumfries, made her culinary name in Ireland, where she had her own award-winning restaurant, Stepping Stones, and worked for TV chef Rachel Allen as her food production manager.

John has also worked with Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, and Bruno Loubet, while Sally has worked with the Roux brothers. John also has a keen interest in Newcastle College, where he serves as a voluntary mentor for students and runs master classes at the Chef’s Academy (where you can get a five-course supper for £16, by the way). He also spent five years as a consultant for St James’ Park, where the big guns would regularly ask him to cook for private functions at their homes.

There’s a converted garage in their back garden, full of professional kit including blast freezer, ice cream maker, and strange boxes of powders. “I can do molecular,” says John in passing.

You can even hire his home kitchen, a la Rachel Khoo and her Little Paris Kitchen off the telly. He has six businessmen doing just that at the weekend.

Sally says they have their moments working as a couple, but they’re used to it. “The first time we met, in a kitchen of course, we fell out over ‘charlottes’ and ‘shallots’,” says Sally. “He asked me to bring a box over and I said ‘do you mean potatoes or onions?’ It’s quite some accent he has.”

And off they go, into their fine foodie world, making a living from a passion on an All Blacks scale.

Follow Sally and John on Twitter on @sallywalker8

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