For those who haven’t yet discovered it, the Chefs’ Academy at Newcastle College is a revelation.
Here in the heart of the Scotswood Road campus is a stylish third floor restaurant - all black tableclothes, cream seating, mono photographs on the walls - which would not look out of place among the city centre’s best.
What’s more it has stunning views across the city.
It’s here that restaurant-standard lunches and dinners, whipped up by the college’s catering students, are served up most week-days to those who have uncovered the hidden gem.
Many are now regulars but, with room for 50 covers, more customers would be welcome says restaurant manager Dave Simpson, especially as students have been picking up the pace in the kitchens in readiness for Restaurant Week, now in its fifth year.
Its return today sees the college’s catering students play a part for the first time in the twice-yearly event as they join Newcastle’s finest restaurateurs in offering fixed price deals to attract customers in the quietest weeks of the year.
As well as providing the young talents with vital hands-on experience and a chance to showcase what they can do, the event is seen generally as a great way for foodies to try somewhere new and some of the best food around without breaking the bank.
Newcastle’s first Restaurant Week proved “a runaway success” recalls Stephen Patterson, director of communications at NE1.
Over the past five years the number of restaurateurs wanting to take part has grown from 13 to 80 with 25,000 people now taking advantage of their offers.
No wonder other cities across the country have tried to imitate the city’s recipe for success but Newcastle was the first, says Stephen, and it’s still leading the way.
Recalling its origins, he says: “In April 2009 we started having discussions with a lot of the city’s top restaurateurs as we felt we had a cluster of really top-end restaurants that we wanted to promote in some way so we got together and had a chat and Terry Laybourne at Cafe 21 mentioned that New York did this restaurant week and we should look at that as a basis.”
Their take ended up slightly different: they wanted fixed-price lunch and dinner menus and deals that customers would not otherwise find.
Stephen says: “Fixed-price takes the financial side out of the decision-making for customers then it becomes about the food.
“You’re not thinking where has the best value but where has the best flavour. It has to be about the food.
“And we wanted to provide the opportunity for chefs and restaurants in the city to show off their talents and welcome a lot of new customers through the door.
“We’re all creatures of habit: we park in the same car parks when we drive into town, we tend to eat at the same restaurants when we find one we like and what Restaurant Week means for me is an opportunity for people to go out there and discover new places for not a lot of money.”
He adds: “It was accepted wisdom at the time that people would not come out and spend money in restaurants in January, after the excesses of Christmas and New Year and before they had their first pay packet when they thinking about fitness and exercise and were in the doldrums. So we didn’t know if it was going to work.
“We did it as a trial and put a lot of effort into getting the message out and lo and behold it was a runaway success.
“The following week restaurants were straight away saying they wanted to do a similar one in August which was a quiet time as well.”
Restaurants welcome the chance to turn new customers into regulars who right now are spoiled for choice with “quality and diversity” as businesses shake of past economic gloom.
“We’ve seen fairly consistent growth of the Newcastle restaurant scene over the last four years and it’s really picked up over the last year when we’ve seen a lot of new exciting restaurants coming into the city, with two or three smokehouses opening up like Bierrex and Hop and Cleaver and the Sausage Emporium and The Herb Garden all bringing new things to the city we haven’t seen before.
“Without a shadow of a doubt businesses are more optimistic at the moment. Even going back six months, there have been a lot more discussions about plans for the future and talk about businesses investing in new venues and expanding venues and you hear of more businesses taking staff on.
“It’s generally a lot more optimistic. It’s a fantastic time to be a restaurateur in the city and we have exciting things happening.”
The difference now compared with five years ago is largely thanks, he says, to the Alive After Five initiative which has opened up the city to a more mature clientele looking for a very different night to students out for cut-price drinks.
“Restaurants have very much responded to that,” says Stephen.
“When we launched Alive After Five we had a number of restaurants saying they had to hire additional staff to cope with the business they were getting during the week. It was absolutely fantastic.”
And now word is out about the boost Restaurant Week can deliver, new kids on the restaurant block are keen to get in on the act alongside the established restaurants.
Stephen says: “Having started with 13 of the city’s top restaurants, we’ve got 80 for the first time and we’re now getting 25,000 people coming into the city centre taking advantage of the offers.”
As for the new college recruits, he’s full of praise, saying: “Restaurateurs speak very highly of Newcastle College. The idea of the Chefs’ Academy is to turn out work-ready qualified students who can go straight to work in the kitchen and because of the growth of the sector that’s really needed.
“People booking tables there will be expecting the same quality they will get in the city centre.”
Among the Chefs’ Academy students preparing to deliver is Philip Robson, from Hexham, who is in the second year of his contemporary hospitality course and will be busy front of house.
“I’ve always liked cooking, from a very young age,” says the 17-year-old who developed his interest at high school then completed a catering course at the Academy last year.
Now, also working part-time at Slaley Hall, he is setting his sights on being a general manager of a hotel and running a restaurant.
He’ll be helping to serve up the Restaurant Week menu which includes £10 lunch and £15 three-course offers, including wine and featuring such treats as a starter of locally-smoked haddock, risotto of winter herbs, poached egg and herb foam and a dessert of iced limoncello parfait, fruit compote and chilli syrup: all designed to show off a range of culinary skills.
“We’ve had to put a special menu together that fits within the budget which was more down to the level three professional catering students.”
Those behind the scenes in the kitchen include level two hospitality students and Eljerih Puertos, from Lobley Hill Gateshead; Samantha Rogerson, from Killingworth, who at 31 is making a career for herself after having children, and 17-year-old Michael Keegan, from Gateshead, who says: “I’ll be taking part in the actual service and I think it’s going to be a lot busier than normal!”
But if they are nervous they don’t look it. Training has paid off according to Dave Simpson who used to work as a chef before returning to college then going into management with his first manager job being at Blackfriars.
He says a busy Christmas period helped as did their already firm ties with the industry which involve vital restaurant placements. “It’s great that we had that busy period to prepare our students. Since September they’ve been working really hard to get up to industry standards and we’re getting there.”
Among other venues gearing up for a busy week is Harry’s Bar in Grey Street which will be offering its usual menu at heavily-discounted prices with two courses for £15.
General manager Thomas Gibbs says: “If it’s anything like August’s event we expect to be incredibly busy.
“We were absolutely rammed then and now we’re more established we expect to be doubly busy.
“Being involved helped draw in diners and promoted the restaurant only months after its opening.
“So far bookings are up and we welcome the support events like NE1 Restaurant Week give to our business.”
And Ollie Vaulkhard, owner of Barluga down the street and managing director of Fluid Group, says: “We look forward to NE1 Restaurant Week and have been involved since the event was launched.
“It gives people something to look forward to in January and creates a great buzz in the city with more people dining out mid-week.
“We work hard to make sure that everyone who visits us during the week has a good time and makes Barluga one of their regulars in the future.”
The region’s leading chef and restaurateur Terry Laybourne needs no telling how well the concept he saw in New York works over here.
The owner of 21 Hospitality Group says: “NE1 Restaurant Week has become a keenly anticipated calendar fixture among foodies and general diners.
“It’s a great opportunity to go out and try several restaurants they might not visit otherwise for a fraction of the normal cost and at a quiet time of the year.
“I’m delighted the New York concept I enjoyed all those years ago has become such a big hit across the city. It’s great to see those passionate about food and hospitality working together to promote Restaurant Week.”
The week’s deals run until Sunday. For a full list of participating restaurants and offers and to download the vouchers visit www.getintonewcastle.co.uk