Kenny Atkinson is the first to admit that 20 years ago working on a fruit and vegetable stall in Newcastle’s historic Grainger Market, he little imagined one day he would become, not just an acclaimed Michelin-starred chef but be on the verge of opening his own fine dining restaurant in his beloved home city.
But on January 24, the romantically named The House of Tides on the Newcastle Quayside will welcome the first paying diners.
And as far as the North East food scene is concerned it could already rank as the restaurant opening of the year.
As soon as the shock announcement was made in April last year that Kenny had parted company with the Rockliffe Hall luxury golf and spa hotel at Hurworth, near Darlington, where he had been director of food, the rumour mill went into overtime.
If not Rockliffe, with its award-winning Orangery restaurant where Kenny had held court for three years since leaving behind his Michelin-starred days at The White Room at Seaham Hall, then where?
As one of only a handful of North East chefs to have been honoured by Michelin, everyone wanted to know what the “number of new opportunities” and “challenges” Kenny was said to be pursuing were all about.
Had he been poached by a rival hotel or restaurant group? Was he again leaving the region to broaden his culinary horizons? Or, was he about to see his dream of running his own fine dining restaurant come true?
It wasn’t until July last year, however, that the 37-year-old father of two sons aged four and seven, took to Twitter to finally reveal his plans to open his own eatery.
At the end of September, both the name and location in a 16th Century Grade I listed building on Newcastle Quayside known as Buttress House, which lies in the shadows of both the High Level Bridge and the old city wall, was finally disclosed.
Now nine months after Kenny waved goodbye to Rockliffe Hall, he is at last stepping back into the environment where he feels most comfortable: the kitchen.
The cooking maestro who earned both his and the Scilly Isles first ever Michelin star in 2008 in his first full season at the Tean Restaurant on St Martin’s 28 miles off the UK mainland, is understandably animated about the opportunities set to come both his and wife (and business partner) Abbie’s way.
As he looks out over the fast flowing Tyne and its bridges from the first floor dining area of Newcastle’s newest restaurant, Kenny smiles and says: “Yeah, I’m pretty excited. I’ve got the fire back in my belly that I had a few years ago.
“This is very special to Abbie and me as it is my first stand-alone restaurant. This is our savings and we are putting everything into it. That is why we are so determined to ensure it succeeds.
“But also both Abbie and I want Newcastle to be able to compete alongside the likes of Edinburgh, London and Birmingham when it comes to fine dining and Michelin standard restaurants.
“James Close is doing a great job at the Raby Hunt (the region’s only current starred restaurant), but that’s down near Darlington.
“I can’t believe we haven’t had more Michelin success up here. We have everything in place for it and if you are asking if I want a Michelin star again then the answer is yes, both from my own point of view in terms of getting one on my own at my own restaurant rather than as part of a team at someone else’s place, and also for the North East.
“I fully believe that Newcastle is one of the best places in the country and I believe it is the ideal place for a top eatery that can get a Michelin star.”
It’s fighting talk and the sort of spirit that Kenny, Abbie and third business partner, family friend Richard Dye, have needed in generous measures since deciding to lease two floors of the five-storey Buttress House, which is owned by North East comedian Bobby Pattinson.
He has been renovating the building which, over the years, has been home to no less than five mayors of Newcastle before almost ending its days as a warehouse.
Called The House at the Water’s Edge when it was first built as the Tyne virtually lapped the front steps, it is a rare survivor of the city’s past and retains many of its original features, including the 16th Century flagstones on the ground floor.
But transforming such an historic building into a restaurant has understandably been fraught with planning problems.
The House of Tides (Kenny’s father-in-law came up with the name because of the building’s close links to the tidal Tyne) was due to open last August. But with no modern drainage system in place, the need to preserve the fabric of the building and uneven walls and floors, which has meant all the fittings from the freestanding bar to the bench seats in the lounge have had to be handmade, the opening date was pushed further and further back.
With all the problems the Atkinsons have encountered it is a miracle the project has only cost around £150,000.
And it’s easy to see why when Kenny first saw Buttress House in April last year he initially shied away from leasing the property, despite having set his heart on opening on the Quayside. “I was scared of the building when I first saw it. I thought it was too big a responsibility to take on and that there was too much work to do.
“Then I came back with Abbie, she loved it, told me to stop being a wuss and get on with it.
“I won’t say it has been easy and there have been a lot of frustrations, but I wanted somewhere that was unique and different and I have found that in Buttress House. I wanted to make a restaurant that will attract people from all over the country and where we can create our own niche in Newcastle.”
With Kenny in charge of the kitchen, diners can expect the very best food, but without a price tag to match. The six-course taster menu will cost between £35-£40 with the eight courses coming in at £50-£55.
The House of Tides will offer fairly relaxed dining in a fun and vibrant environment where the chefs will be encouraged to go out into the restaurant and meet the diners and where the menu will be changed regularly.
This is necessary, although Kenny has always been a champion of local, seasonal produce (Ken Holland of North Country Growers vegetable fame, Pumphreys coffee and fish from Hodgson at Hartlepool are just some of the regional names that will be on the menu).
There is no cellar, so there will be no draught beer, with bottled ales, spirits, cocktails and wine being offered instead. And the nature of the building means there is little storage space either, so food will have to be brought in fresh daily.
There will also be an element of theatre to proceedings with an open kitchen in the restaurant area where dishes will be finished off in front of diners.
Kenny believes this relaxed, more affordable and accessible approach is what guests now want.
“It will be fine dining in terms of the execution and high-quality ingredients, but the food will be served in a much more laid-back way,” he explains.
“The House of Tides will be about great food made using the best ingredients that will take diners through the wonderful produce the North East has to offer, served up in a fun environment that we hope people will want to keep coming back to.
“What we aren’t going to do is pressurise our guests or get to a point where we are seen as stuffy. I know people aren’t going to keep coming back to us every week. They will go to Terry Laybourne’s places and the likes of Peace and Loaf in Jesmond and Sachins.
“But by showing people they can enjoy good food without having to pay £80 or £90, keeping the menu fresh and the atmosphere informal, hopefully we will give diners a good reason to keep coming back.”
Thanks to his Michelin status, winning TV appearances on the BBC’s Great British Menu and slots on James Martin’s Saturday Kitchen, Kenny is that rare breed of North East chef whose name is known beyond the region.
Does he feel under pressure to hit the ground running with his new venture? “I am well aware of what I have achieved in the past and what people’s expectations will be. I do feel a bit like a footballer coming back to play for his home town.
“But I just have to look back to when I was 16, getting up at 5am and working in the Grainger Market on a YTS at £35 a week to see how far I have come.
“I went to work as a kitchen porter and moved to London and the Midlands and then the Scilly Isles where I got my first Michelin star.
“Then I moved to Seaham Hall and got another star and did the Great British Menu twice running and suddenly found myself with this celebrity status.
“I’ve proved myself and life is brilliant. I have a beautiful wife, two amazing kids and am about to fulfil a dream of opening my own restaurant.
“I am proud to be a Geordie, proud of my home city and now I can’t wait to start cooking and showing people everywhere what we here in the North East are made of.”
:: The House of Tides, 28-30 The Close, Newcastle, NE1 3RF, is due to open on January 24. Go to www.houseoftides.co.uk for more information or find Kenny Atkinson on Twitter @kennyatkinson1.