When John Calton worked in a pub overlooking the River Tyne in his hometown of South Shields, he would stand at the front door and dream of one day owning his own place on the fish quay just a short distance over the water.
His life has taken many twists and turns since then, but come the beginning of November the 32-year-old’s dream will come true.
For in partnership with wife Kimberley, 31, and friend and former work colleague James Laffan, 28, he is opening his first stand-alone eatery, The Staith House.
Based in what was the Dolphin pub (The Staith House is the 206 year old hostelries original name before being rechristened in 1853), it is due to open next week and will be the latest addition to North Shields Fish Quay’s burgeoning high class food outlets.
The acclaimed Irvin’s Brasserie where Graeme Cuthell – former personal chef to Andrew Lloyd Webber – holds court is just yards away over the road, while at the west end of the fish quay is David Kennedy’s River Café, one of only a handful of eateries in the region to be bestowed a prestigious Michelin Bib Gourmand, which recognises those places offering good food at a reasonable price.
John had hoped The Staith House, currently undergoing a near £300,000 overhaul courtesy of landlord Star Pubs & Bars to turn it from a run-down drinkers’ haunt into a foodie destination, would have opened in the summer.
It would certainly have given John less to worry about if it had. His and Kimberley’s first child is due any day. Restaurant openings are stressful enough without the added hurdle of becoming a first-time father.
In typically understated style John rolls his eyes and says: “It’s not ideal, is it? We certainly didn’t plan to have a baby at the same time as opening the pub, but if we are going to make a proper go of it then we might as well give it our all. It all adds to the excitement.”
As new beginnings go it’s undoubtedly set to be a dramatic one.
But John is well used to kitchen dramas. He was a finalist on the BBC’s MasterChef: The Professionals in 2010 alongside fellow North East culinary star Dave Coulson, who coincidentally has also just opened his first solo restaurant in nearby Jesmond, Newcastle.
Both John and Dave narrowly missed out on taking the top prize, but Mr Calton’s ego and his credentials as a chef worth his salt were given a massive boost.
He had walked away from a job at Otterburn Tower Hotel in Redesdale, Northumberland (where he gained two AA Rosettes), to try his luck on MasterChef.
The series took five-and-a-half months to film, beginning in the February and finishing in June, before finally airing in November 2010.
Living on a combination of savings (“Working in Redesdale there wasn’t much to spend my money on,” John says with a grin), and temporary jobs in London, he managed to stay the course.
Having missed out on the MasterChef crown he then disappeared to France where he hooked up with Morpeth-born chef Simon Scott. The only Englishman in France at that time to have a Michelin star, Simon, who has pledged to be among the first diners to eat at The Staith House, continued John’s culinary education.
The gastronomic journey then took John to work with Michelin starred Martin Wishart on the shores of Loch Lomond and to the renowned Inverlochy Castle at Fort William as well as Le Gavroche in London, garnering new ideas and perfecting his skills.
An 18-month stint at the Duke Of Wellinton at Newton in the Tyne Valley where he succeeded in making it into the Michelin Pub Guide, brought John back to the North East,
He then truly came home when he took up the job as head chef at the Harbour Lights in South Shields, from where he would look longingly over the Tyne to the fish quay.
That should perhaps have brought John’s story full circle.
But he is by his own admission a restless soul and after nine months, he left the Harbour Lights behind for the bright lights of London to work alongside fellow North Easterner, friend and the current darling of the capital’s gastro-pub scene, Chris Slaughter, of Newcastle’s much-loved (but since its demise sadly mourned) Grainger Rooms fame.
Toiling alongside Chris at The Pig and Butcher in trendy Islington, he would regularly find himself helping turn out 100 meals a night and a staggering 400 Sunday lunches.
But John learnt a lot from the curly haired Northumberland born and raised chef who was famed at the Grainger Rooms for his locally sourced, seasonally inspired and pared down menu; notably that even in a pub setting it’s possible to let the quality of the food do the talking rather than the regulars propping up the bar.
“Food doesn’t have to be all frills; not everyone wants that,” John states. “At one time I was hell bent on eating out at Michelin starred places but now I am happy to eat out at pubs.
“There are some great ones doing great things, as Chris is proving in London. I must have eaten at 30 Michelin starred restaurants in the last two years and every time I go I find myself disappointed.
“But go to London and the pubs are fantastic. They interest me much more now.”
So when John discovered The Staith House was being refurbished and a new tenant was being sought he jumped at the chance to head home (hopefully for the last time) and become his own boss.
As he says: “I’ve never been happy anywhere so I suppose that’s why I am going it alone. I’ll only have myself to blame now.”
Giving credit where credit’s due, though, John is quick to point out it was Kimberley who spotted The New Dolphin would be a good catch two years ago on one of the couple’s regular walks along the fish quay from their home in South Shields.
The area’s industrial seafaring heritage combined with the recent regeneration which has breathed new life into the quayside and a ready source of fresh fish, has long held John spellbound.
“We looked at the pub and wondered why nobody was doing anything with it. Then we approached the brewery a year ago and discovered it was up for a £300,000 refurb.”
So having talked James Laffan into coming on board, the trio scraped together the finances to get their name above the door.
Specialising in “meat from the farm, fish from the quay,” John says the food won’t be “fanciful but not ordinary either. There will be quite a bit of inspiration that’s come from London; it will be knowledgeable but not in your face.”
Expect to see an abundance of locally sourced ingredients with rib-eye beef and lamb coming from Matfen in Northumberland, vegetables from the eponymous Vallum-based Ken Holland (who has been working with Chris Slaughter in London), goat (not something you normally see on restaurant menus in the UK, let alone in a pub but John plans to slow roast it for Sunday lunches) from the aptly named The Goat Company at Morpeth, and, of course, plenty of seafood.
While there will be a set menu much of the inspiration will come from what’s available on the day. “We have no problem with fish and we’ve got the smokehouse across the road from us and they’re happy to do some meat for us,” John says.
“The menu will be pretty much split 50% each way between meat and fish with a slight bias towards fish specials on the daily choices.”
Is John nervous about going it alone for the first time? “Nervous but excited,” he laughs. “In many ways I am fortunate that Kimberley and Jimmy are involved. I couldn’t imagine doing all this by myself.”
He isn’t looking beyond opening and the impending arrival of the next generation of the Calton family. But pushed he admits he wouldn’t “mind if a few awards come along. A Bib Gourmand would be nice or a place in the Good Food Guide. That would help attract people from outside the area.”
Kimberley is supportive, despite the inevitable trials and tribulations of motherhood staring her in the face. “I would rather John was working for himself. He has worked really hard over the last decade and he’s done MasterChef. It’s the right time for him to be doing something for himself. He deserves it.
“It’s a massive thing for him to be doing, but I know it will be a quality place.”
The Staith House, 57 Low Lights, North Shields Fish Quay, NE30 1JN, is due to open on November 7. Meals will be served 12pm-3pm and 5.30pm-9.30pm Monday-Saturday and 11.30am-3.30pm on Sundays.
For more information follow The Staith House on Facebook or go to www.thestaithhouse.co.uk