Chef Profile: Shaun Hurrell – The journey

Shaun Hurrell

Shaun Hurrell has taken a love of Mexican flavours and a childhood spent in the UK, Australia and the US, and turned it into two restaurants in the shadow of Durham Cathedral. Dean Bailey finds out why we’re lucky to have Barrio Comida and La Mesa in the North East.

Finding inspiration can be very difficult, can’t it? For Shaun Hurrell, it came to a teenager who dropped out of high school in northern California at the age of 13 and wanted to work in one of the only things which sparked his interest – food.

Having been intrigued by food by his grandmother, who would allow him to take home a cookbook from her collection on each visit, Shaun got his first job in the industry at Bill’s Farm Basket – an organic fruit and vegetable stand – where he got to interact with local farmers and chefs.

“My grandmother was a big food lover, not a cook, but she loved restaurants and cookbooks. I’d see her a couple of times a year and I’d get to take a fancy cookbook home. Those books, by chefs like Alain Ducasse, really inspired me.

“I worked at Bill’s until I was 18 and learned about the value of produce. From there, I went into the kitchen, working in a little wine country bistro and then a creole seafood restaurant.”

With little prospect of getting into culinary school in the US without finishing high school, Shaun flew to the UK – where he’d been born before moving to Australia and eventually the US as a teenager.

His CV in the UK doesn’t necessarily read like the creator of a Mexican neighbourhood concept – where fast-paced small plates and a plethora of tacos, quesadillas and burritos are served in a dining space buzzing with energy – but those first steps have certainly helped.

He first joined the kitchen at Jesmond Dene House in 2005 before heading to London, where he worked at the two Michelin star Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, then Kitchen Table, and St John Hotel.

“It was such a learning curve,” says Shaun. “I never got bored. I’ve never minded hard work, and when the pressure was amped up it felt important and meaningful. In all those kitchens, there was so much importance on what we were delivering. I thrived in it.”

Having experienced London kitchens for six years, Shaun – and his partner Victoria, who met at Jesmond Dene House – returned to the North East following the birth of their first child. 

Wanting to build a business of his own, and having briefly worked at St Mary’s Inn before creating the Trial Shift pop-ups with friend Tom Anglesea, Shaun was searching for the spark which would become his big break.

“As a chef, you’ve got an amount of years on your feet and you have to build something,” he says. 

That something was Barrio Comida and the food Shaun missed from California. Having maxed out a credit card to buy equipment, he started doing festivals before teaming up to help launch Flat White Kitchen in Durham – which gave him a space to host monthly pop-ups. From there, he would forge a friendship with Adam Riley, which led to Barrio Comida securing its first location beside the pop-up beach on Newcastle’s Quayside.

“That year on the Quayside was great and proved the concept could work,” says Shaun. “Having closed on the Quayside, we searched for a site until Victoria’s cousin, Stew, began developing a block of student accommodation in Durham and went looking for a tenant.

“I took one look at what was a hole in the ground and managed to convince Stew to lease it to us,” adds Shaun. 

It’s a beautiful site, right by the river, and we got to design the space from scratch, just as we wanted it. So much thanks have to go to Stew for this opportunity.”

The space – in the shadow of Durham Cathedral – is filled with energy by students and families, and is where all of Shaun’s experiences are brought together. There’s a precision to the cooking and setup of the kitchen which nod back to his time in Jesmond and London; an energy drawn from the festivals and street food markets; and a love of produce which goes all the way back to northern California.

While Barrio Comida was born from missing Cal-Mex food, it has grown far beyond that through years of research and travelling.

“As I read more and visited the different regions of Mexico, I realised how varied the cuisine is,” says Shaun. “It felt like learning to cook again as the techniques are so different form my training. There’s also so much variety in the flavours. The best comparison is probably with Chinese cooking – that’s how vast the differences are between the regions’ traditions and the seasonal produce. There’s so much more depth to Mexican food beyond what you see in the US, and certainly in the UK. Mexico is a melting pot of Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Spanish cultures, all of which is layered on top of the native food traditions.”

While his influences come from Mexico – and he uses specific ingredients imported from Mexican farms with generations of tradition at great expense – Shaun is very clear on the level of authenticity he can achieve in his food.

“We’re thousands of miles from Mexico,” he says. “We import the produce which stands up to the travel. Importing heirloom corn, working with the small holdings and farmers who’ve got generations of experience, then nixtamalizing and stone grinding it ourselves, wasn’t the easy option, but it was non-negotiable to have a great masa [flour] and a great tortilla. 

“We also bring in fantastic Mexican chillies and beans. Everything else comes from British suppliers. Our dayboat fish is from Cornwall, meat comes from North Yorkshire… we’re never going to do authentic Mexican food this far away, but we’re inspired by Mexican food traditions and respectful to them.”

Having found success with Barrio Comida – where the condensed Cal-Mex menu features tacos, quesadillas and burritos alongside a small number of seasonal specials, it’s downstairs in the 20-cover space occupied by La Mesa’s dining room and open kitchen where Shaun is diving deeper into combining Mexican food traditions with seasonal British produce through a tasting menu priced at £59 per person and available on Friday and Saturday evenings.

“We’re just a couple of months in, but it’s great,” he says on the new concept. “It’s certainly different, and overcoming the street food style and price point which people have experienced from us before is going to be a challenge. There is a mentality that non-European food should be cheap, I think Italian food can come up against the same issue. But, when you push that boundary, showcase the depth of a culture, and use really great produce, the price point will increase.”

La Mesa is Shaun’s chance to explore, with the tasting menu an opportunity to try dishes and combinations which he hopes can both juxtapose and validate Barrio Comida.

“La Mesa is the passion project, the place to experiment and utilise things which we can’t use upstairs,” he says while shucking oysters.

Having found his home in Durham, Shaun’s food and restaurants undoubtedly add a great deal to the region’s dining experiences.

So much has happened in his career and while that journey has brought many challenges and a few opportunities, it has been one hell of a ride.

“I don’t pause and reflect too much, but it’s great to have this space where it is,” says Shaun as we head outside to take in the view across the bridge to the Cathedral. “When you’re building something, it’s difficult and stressful. Then it opens and you have to put bums on seats. From there you grow, add more services, and on it goes. The excitement never stops – we’re always moving forward.” 

Oysters with Aguachile Verde

Tuna Tostadas with Chintextle and Peanut

Sign up to our news
You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us.