Simon Preston has come up with a neat new job description for himself – food innovator. It covers all the bases, he reckons, and it certainly describes what he has brought to the Tyneside dining scene.
As director of EAT! NewcastleGateshead, he has opened many people’s eyes – to say nothing of their taste buds – to many forms of culinary innovation. Invariably, his festivals have been a reminder that food should be fun as well as fuel.
But recent changes have taken place. The programme has been split with last summer’s EAT! OUT followed by this month’s EAT! IN.
It sounds like a logical step. The last big single festival in 2013 included 118 events over 17 days.
“It had become a bit unmanageable,” says Simon. “There was so much going on that people were saying we can’t afford to go to everything. We decided it didn’t make much sense, but we also thought there was a dearth of good things to do in the winter.”
At this point Carol Bell, head of culture and major events at NewcastleGateshead Initiative, points out that there was also a third EAT! strand last year – Tea & Cake Planet. “We’ve been doing baking since long before Bake Off,” she says.
We are talking at The Core, the new building intended as a trailblazer for Newcastle’s Science City. “Connect. Innovate. Grow.” is the website motto and all are applicable to this food festival of constituent parts.
“The programme has always been about introducing people to new food experiences and in this case we’re also keen to introduce people to new interior spaces around the city,” says Simon.
One new interior space, of course, is this one. Simon says the reason he keeps popping behind a curtain at the end of the room is that he has a bunch of young student chefs there.
“They’ve come from Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland colleges and they’ve each been partnered with a chef from restaurants including Cafe 21, Caffe Vivo and Broad Chare.
“They’ll work with these chefs on three-week apprenticeships but this is an induction day with different speakers and films.”
As part of festival attraction Future City, Future Chef, they will be seeking to answer the question: What will we be eating in 20 years’ time?
“Once it was all about futuristic food, about space travel and pills. Now it’s about thinking: yes, we’ve got a problem that we need to address. We’ve got more people wanting to eat more meat and fish and it’s not working.
“We need to look at different sources of protein and rethink the whole food climate.”
The young Future Chefs are blazing a trail, looking at alternative foodstuffs that one day they might be cooking and serving to us.
The initiative, which has a competitive element, reaches its climax on February 20 during EAT! IN when dishes created by the Future Chef finalists can be sampled and a winner – chosen by public vote – will be announced.
If that sounds very serious, a lighter touch is supplied by Drink-Along Gatsby Deluxe, taking place at Gatsby’s mansion on Long Island, New York (or, rather, Newcastle’s elegant Lit & Phil library) on February 27 and 28.
Dress up 1920s-style, watch the movie and, during the freeze-frame moments, sample the cocktails the stars are tippling on screen.
The ticket price includes the film, six cocktails, themed food and a party.
Meanwhile the festival will introduce many to the Semibreve Supper Club, hosting its Nature’s Prelude event at the Lit & Phil on February 26.
Chef Pia Castleton will create a four-course menu using foraged and wild ingredients while concert pianist Annie Ball performs an inspiring classical medley and film-maker Christo Wallers shows his film inspired by starling murmurations (which is when they flock together, making patterns in the sky).
And just to prove that even innovators are not afraid to return to a tried and tested formula, EAT! IN again features Secret Paladares.
This is when North East foodies from around the world invite the public to share the home-cooked delights of their particular cuisine.
Participating home cooks are Barbara (Cuban), Irena (Bosnian), Maria (Catalan), Bernice (Jewish), Colin (Scottish) and, closest of all to home, Chris (Geordie).
The idea comes from Cuba where home restaurants were first outlawed by Fidel Castro and then embraced. Here, they have proven to be extremely popular.
“It was utterly unique to begin with, but it has become part of the EAT! journey,” says Simon.
EAT! IN concludes on March 1 with a Medieval Lentern feast at St Nicholas’ Cathedral in Newcastle and the Newcastle Wine Fair in the Assembly Rooms on Fenkle Street (more than 70 different wines on offer from the region’s best independent merchants).
It all sounds a great deal of fun to brighten up days when it’s so often nicer to be inside than outside.
Last word from Simon Preston – his answer to my question: What is your favourite dish?
“Kedgeree.” So now you know.
Find details of EAT! IN at www.eatnewcastlegateshead.com