When it comes to pop-up dining locations, Anna Hedworth has never taken the conventional approach.
The 35-year-old food blogger and supperclub host has made a well-deserved name for herself over the last three years not just for her enviable talents in the kitchen but for serving up a potent mix of good food and entertainment in some very unusual places.
These have included the National Trust’s Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island and the beautiful but remote Inner Farne three miles-off the north Northumberland coast.
There is a very good reason why the Farne Islands’ as a whole are for most of the year only inhabited by thousands of seabirds, puffins and seals who are joined over the summer months by a handful of hardy National Trust wardens.
Reaching the islands requires stamina and good sea legs as even on calm days the waters between the mainland and Inner Farne can be choppy with haystacking waves.
It takes an adventurous diner to willingly undertake such a journey. But amazingly Anna’s unique one-off island dining events have been among her most popular, which can either be taken as a huge seal of approval for her culinary skills or the lengths that some diehard foodies will go to in their search for the unusual and memorable.
Given her track record for ensuring her pop-up events live on in the memory for all the right reasons after the last morsel has been eaten and the last drop drunk, both the location and venue of her first permanent gourmet venture should come as no surprise.
She has chosen the Ouseburn area of Newcastle close to the River Tyne as her new business home and two converted 40ft long shipping containers in which to open the Cook House, a café by day and supperclub venue on selected nights.
Using the containers sort of brings Anna’s recent food story full circle.
She first made her name on her native Tyneside holding her guerrilla pop-ups in a shipping container (and a wine shop and a bowling green), albeit one less well-appointed than those now occupied by the Cook House.
There’s a small kitchen, a cosy wood burning stove, seating for up to 30 during the day, a terrace that catches the lunchtime sunshine and a garden where Anna has already started growing an impressive selection of vegetables and salad ingredients for use in her changing daily menu.
The garden has started small in its first year, but there’s been French and broad beans, spring onions, a selection of squashes, radishes, courgettes, salad leaves and herbs.
It is, Anna says, an attractive oasis nestled behind the Hotel du Vin in Ouse Street. “The sun hits the front deck of Cook House as soon as it comes up over the river. It’s a lovely peaceful spot first thing in the morning, sitting on the bench with a cup of fresh pour over coffee.”
The Cook House is ready to welcome patrons between 8.30am and 3.30pm with pop-up evening events by candlelight featuring guest chefs already lined up over the coming months, as well as a food school programme with the likes of the locally-based Ouseburn Coffee Company and a butchery demonstration with Charlotte Harbottle of Charlotte’s Butchery in Gosforth.
Anna has enjoyed converting the containers – the place where she held her early pop-ups, but which she’s now taken on full-time.
She’s dressed them up with “bits I have been collecting and shoving in cupboards at home for years.”
She always felt the setting was as important as the food “whether it’s 20 strangers sharing plates in a candlelit shipping container in Newcastle’s creative Ouseburn Valley or the summer’s main event, dining amongst the castles and beaches of the islands off Northumberland’s beautiful coast with the National Trust.”
Anna has especially enjoyed the move from designing for other people to creating a new, unique and ultimately workable but homely space for Cook House.
Until the end of May this year she worked as a designer and architect by day but lived and breathed food in her spare time. Dubbed ‘The Grazer’ after her food blog, apart from writing, tweeting and growing it and rustling up culinary treats in the kitchen of her Jesmond home, she began running her own curated dining events and even produce fairs and markets.
It was only a matter of time before the self-taught cook decided to take the plunge and turn her side-line into a new career.
“It had got to the point where I was doing more and more food things, and enjoying doing them, so I decided I had to take the chance and go for it.
“In reality, I suppose the last three years had all been building up to this. But when I decided to take the plunge things moved quite quickly. I had always fancied having my own restaurant, but not a conventional restaurant as what I do is all about conviviality and informality.
“I didn’t want to be a head down in a kitchen chef.
“In February this year I was down in London and talked about opening a place and I thought ‘why not scale it right down and do it in the containers?’”
She actually rents them from her former employer. “I couldn’t afford to lay out £80,000 just to get the key to somewhere, so it was a matter of how could I get myself off the ground?
“These containers belong to the architects that I used to work for, but they weren’t being used enough. I approached them to ask if I could leave work and open my own place in the containers instead.
“I think maybe they had guessed that it was going to happen as I had been doing the pop-ups for three years.”
Cook House opened last month and Anna says: “People love it. It’s been so warmly received.”
Not that Anna just dived straight in. It is one thing moving from running one-off pop-up events for 20 people to opening a full-time eatery. Even for a very good home cook (her words) who has built up a deserved reputation for her locally inspired dishes.
But it is ironically this inexperience that drives her to stretch herself in the kitchen and overcome what many may see as impossible hurdles.
To improve her knowledge she took herself off to London for a month and worked in the kitchens of the day-time only spot, Rochelle Canteen, converted from an old school bike shed in Shoreditch, and the Quo Vadis restaurant and private club in Soho.
“I wanted to check that I wasn’t doing anything weird or totally didn’t know what I was doing. But it was reassuring actually. It was very good to learn how to organise myself though and keep everything in check.”
But surely it must be a shock leaving behind a ‘desk job’ and running her own eatery, especially as she’s the cook, waitress and chief bottle washer too.
She only hires in help when she has a special event.
“Yes,” she says with a laugh, “it’s just me. But I have designed the day-to-day lunch menu in such a way that people can just come and get something and go.
“It’s a daily changing small menu full of things like big salads with herbs, toasted nuts, crumbled cheeses and tasty dressings, sandwiches, ham hocks with pease pudding, roast lemony chicken, with homemade mayo and soft salt beef with sweet cucumber pickle.”
The breakfast offering includes poached fruits, yoghurts and granolas with the occasional bacon sandwich and toast with honey from the Ouseburn bees.
“I’m really happy here. It has been busy straight away, so I haven’t had that panic of wondering if anyone would come as I have been building up to it for the past two or three years and already had a bit of a following,” Anna adds.
What she can’t grow or make herself she buys locally. There’s fish from Latimers in Whitburn; vegetables from Ouseburn Farm; Ringtons Tea from Byker; Ouseburn Coffee Company beans roasted just around the corner; sour dough loaves from the Great Northumberland Bread Company and meat from Charlotte’s Butchery in Gosforth.
Anna describes Cook House as “a kitchen hang out with lots going on.” And as everyone knows, the best parties are always held in the kitchen.
Cook House can be found at 20 Ouse Street, Ouseburn, Newcastle. Opening hours are weekdays 8.30am-3.30pm or by appointment. www.cookhouse.org