On 29th September Middlesbrough’s eateries will be in the spotlight at the start of the first ever Middlesbrough Restaurant Week. An initiative that has been tried and tested to great success elsewhere this will be an opportunity to explore the culinary delights that the town now has to offer. With lots of exclusive deals to the week what better opportunity could there be to get out and perhaps try something and somewhere new.
There restaurants signed up for the week long offers include gourmet burger and cocktail bars, Asian, Italian, bistros and brasseries. In other words, hopefully, something for everyone.
In this blog I speak with Peter Volans from the Brasserie Hudson Quay. A fabulous location on the waterside and as well as its regular diners known to many that pass by the sign on the way to the Riverside. In fact football fans, did you know that you can park for free for the match if you spend £10 or over in the restaurant?
Peter and I had a chat over a cup of tea whilst basking on the comfortable chairs near the bar. I could see the waters lapping up on the quayside beyond. It was probably just about as relaxing and picturesque as it gets in down town Middlesbrough.
Q: How long have you been open?
Peter: Just over a year.
Q: Why did you decide to locate to Middlehaven? It might not seem the most obvious location to many?
P: We believed in the Middlehaven area for development for the future. We think that Middlehaven in general is going to be a serious destination point for the town for the future. I think a lot of the facilities of the town centre will ultimately move over into the Middlehaven area. Over by Middlesbrough College, the redevelopment there, with the new gardens. It is very spacey this area for new developments to come along. For instance the latest that we have heard of is potentially an indoor ski slope and a sky diving unit and rock climbing. There’s the opportunity for water skiing out on the dock. These are all things that we took into account when we were looking for development potential in this site.
We were also working very closely with what was then Fabric who are extremely keen to bring people to an area which would not otherwise be visited. Why would you want to come down to Middlehaven unless there was something specific you wanted to for? It is not a natural destination. And Fabric are now part of the Thirteen group, our landlords, so it seemed like a good marriage, a concept to bring a destination restaurant to this part of town.
I think to open a restaurant like this in the town centre itself, Linthorpe Road, which is the major eating area, one there was not right size property, this is a large restaurant. The car parking is limited. The Linthorpe Road restaurant style, the town centre style is primarily trading for people who are already in town and on the pub circuit in town to have a night out whereas we felt very strongly that we wanted to create a restaurant that is a destination where people spend the night here and not call in as a part of their night out.
So most of the people that come to us here come specifically to here from here they go home, they don’t go on into town afterwards. That was part of our concept, and where we want to go.
Q: And hence when you step in from outside you step into a different world in this restaurant.
P: Completely. There are restaurants like this throughout Europe and everybody is used to going to restaurants like this when they are on holiday. We thought, why can’t we do that at home?
There are a lot of nice people living in Middlesbrough and the area and all too often the Middlesbrough people are pilloried and done down from Channel Four to the news in general and it is wrong there are a lot of nice people around here. I think Middlesbrough needs a nice place to go to where they can come and have a little holiday.
The music is chosen specifically to run through the whole thing, we don’t have a music profile that runs in the background, you can actually hear it. And it is all European music, it’s all the kind of music you hear if you are in Spain, Italy or France and that music is very carefully chosen.
The design for the place came really from the classical European café restaurants where you have a long bar, a relaxed seating area and you have a garden and you have got a quality dining area. We couldn’t put the garden out on the quay so we brought it inside. We have taken those four classic elements of the European restaurant and brought it into the 21st century. That’s it, nothing clever about it. It’s common sense. Those restaurants that you see when you go to Europe have been around for a couple of hundred years, so they must be doing something right. I am a guy from Middlesbrough, I am not going to reinvent the wheel and put myself up against what has been a centuries old tradition, I am not that clever, none of us are.
Q: And of course you have a stunning outlook.
P: Yes, a stunning outlook.
Q: So many people walk past the dock and remember it perhaps as a working dock but maybe are now looking at it again.
P: That is what we like. Looking out of our windows you have got the dock in front of you, you have got the modern architecture of Middlesbrough College, you have got the iconic Transporter Bridge, which hopefully will be lit up again soon. Then you have got the famous three sided clock and you have got this fabulous piece of art, Temenos. So you have got the old, the historical and the new in one picture window which I find absolutely fascinating.
When people found out what we were doing they couldn’t figure out why we were building a restaurant, as they say on the docks. Why do you want to build a restaurant on the docks? Really, come and see what is here now because the old perception of the other side of the water, over the railway lines…
Q: Over the border.
P: Over the border.. that has gone and Middlesbrough Council have done a tremendous job over the years slowly evolving this part of the town. And the people that haven’t been down here are the ones that will probably still be wary because they haven’t seen it and are still going back on the memories of it instead of what it has become and what its future is going to be. Frankly my view is that this area is going to become over the next few years the heart of Middlesbrough.
Q: Return to being the heart again.
P: Return to being, absolutely right as it always was.
Q: And because of the football club next door and Middlesbrough College thousands come to this area every week.
P: Absolutely and it is an amazing development. It is the only quayside I know of in the north of England that is not being developed into a thriving centre for restaurants, hotels, cafés and the like. Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds along the canal side, Hartlepool marina, they are all being developed. Here they don’t call it the quay they still call it the dock. It is that, that needs to move forward I think.
Q: What about the food you serve here? We have talked about the concept and the location but the food is obviously very important.
P: The food is very important. We won’t serve any dish that is not associated with Europe. In other words we would not do a Thai chicken curry; it is not our thing, for instance. Equally so we wouldn’t put in an American dish, it has to be something that is European, and which people associate as being European.
I know people associate the burger as being American but its not, its origins were Italy and before that it was Germany. So the Germans had the first burgers, they were developed in Italy and exported.
P: Absolutely, says it all, European. So we put burger on the menu. But equally we try to provide a food that people want to eat. We try not to be clever with it. People want to know what it is that they are eating. They want to recognise what they are eating. They don’t want to have some confusing jargon that sounds nice but they don’t understand what it is. So, we try to keep our food good quality, simple, well cooked, well prepared and we source as much as we can locally. The meat is all local, we use farmers from the Dales. We use local suppliers for our fish. All of our fish is locally caught. The only thing that I think we have that is frozen is prawns and the skinny fries. Everything else is fresh, never been frozen. We would never present a piece of meat that had been frozen, never, it changes the texture of the meat and changes the flavour of it. So, for instance, we don’t import New Zealand lamb, it is local.
Q: We are sitting here on a morning and lots of people are here drinking coffees etc.
P: It is a meeting place. It is somewhere to go. We are doing as much trade now during the day time as we do in an evening. Corporate trade is now expanding hugely. Historically when there was the crash in 2008 a lot of the corporate trade dried up nationally, companies were cutting down on their expenditure, I think the tax laws changed and discouraged people from entertaining clients. The perception of the economy now is more encouraging. People are more upbeat about the future from a business point of view, from a corporate point of view. Because of that we are getting growth which is rubbing off happily for us because people are starting to have meetings over lunch. People are starting to come out to places and get away from the office and meet the clients and sit down where they can have a quality cup of coffee in an area that is not an embarrassment to your corporate image. And we are in town, which is good. And we have parking spaces, which is great and basically ten minutes from everyone that works in the town centre.
Q: You very accessible from the A66.
P: Absolutely, again a big factor for being here, the road communications are absolutely perfect, they were built that way for the stadium we’re simply the other side of the road from the stadium. We have piggy backed on those facilities from the stadium as far as road access is concerned.
But the corporate trade, just to finish off on that side, is expanding rapidly now. We have been putting on a fast track lunch, an inclusive lunch if people tell us when they arrive they want to fast track, in other words I’ve only got a limited time period. We queue jump them, we pass people who have got more time to spare.
Q: Or who want to spend more time.
P: Yes, who want to want spend more time. Who want to sit and look out of the window and watch the seals fishing. A lovely way to spend a couple of hours over lunch. Whereas if you are corporate and want to be in and out and only have a limited period of time we offer that facility. We put on a specific menu. It gives an inclusive starter/main course/sweet for less than £20 and it is quality stuff again, really good food. Whatever we do, even if we do a shorter or simpler dish we always focus on the quality.
Q: Do you have many staff at the Brasserie?
P: When we opened here we created 32 new jobs. Plus we created four apprentice assistants as well because part of our charter is to not only to integrate with the local community but also to provide a work opportunity that would not otherwise have existed. So we work closely with Middlesbrough College, we are partners with the college in giving development opportunities for young people who want to come out into the catering trade.
We have at all times four apprentices working with us, two front of house and two in the kitchen. And we also do placements from the college just for work experience. So we take on a full year’s apprenticeship and if they come through at the end of that, they don’t always stay the course, then we will offer them a full time job. That is part of what we are about. That works very well for us; the down side is that sometimes our service to the customer may not be as efficient as what they would like it to be. So we occasionally tell people the young person is an apprentice and we are training them, just give them a bit of slack. From the professional point of view it is to our detriment to have the young people. It takes time; there is a lot of information for these young people to absorb before they become a fully proficient waiter or chef.
Q: I’m guessing a lot is also confidence.
P: A lot of it is confidence, yes. They can take everything on board but their confidence takes months to develop. But we just let people complain, it doesn’t matter. On the full scale of things I am sorry but if people can’t bear with us to teach young people then I am not going to listen. I am not being arrogant I am just so determined that we do provide an opportunity to young people, otherwise they won’t get a chance. What can we do except to help the young kids coming out of school, there is a lot of unemployment. There is a very high proportion of young people out of work here, it is the highest in the country at that age and these people are starting jobs and lives. These are such formative years for them.
Q: We need the young people to stay here not have to leave.
P: Thank you, absolutely right. So that is again part of our charter, part of what we believe in. We will do that no matter what, I don’t care about how much we get criticised.
Q: Are you looking forward to Middlesbrough Restaurant Week starting on the 29th October?
P: Yes, I think it is a great initiative and I think it is laudable that the council has put that together and has come up with that initiative to develop that within Middlesbrough. It works well within cities; it works well in Newcastle for instance. They started it about six years ago and now they do it twice a year. It has become a big thing for them now and it brings people into town who wouldn’t normally come. So, from a restaurateur’s point of view it would give us exposure hopefully to people who wouldn’t normally come out midweek. And from the town’s point of view again it shows people what the town has and what it can develop. How it can be. That’s wonderful. So we are enjoying being part of that.
Q: And will you have a special menu for the week?
P: Yes we will have a couple of special meals. The corporate menu we have at lunchtime, where that is an inclusive £17 for two courses, £20 for three courses for restaurant week we are doing three courses for the price for two. So you will be able to get a quality three course lunch for £17. That is good value and it is good quality stuff. It is discounted what is already discounted.
For Sunday lunch, everyone that has a full meal with us will get a free glass of wine thrown in. Let’s at least give something back. Again everything is discounted down before and then we are throwing in a glass of wine as well.
Q: So the week is all about people experimenting and hopefully trying something and somewhere new isn’t it? It should be good for your restaurant and good for Middlesbrough.
P: I think it is good for Middlesbrough and that is the main thing. What is generally good for an individual restaurant is good for the area as well, it has to be.
Middlesbrough Restaurant Week Monday 29th September – 5th October
Akbars, Al Forno, Bahia Bistro, Central Park, Eliano’s Brasserie, Hot Wok, Kebabish Original, Manjaro’s, Nando’s, Oodles Noodles, Pixies Diner, Purple Pig, Taste of Arabia, The Brasserie Hudson Quay, Waterside Brasserie.