When well-known North East chef Simon Walsh left the prestigious Close House Golf Resort in Northumberland’s Tyne Valley in January, the news was greeted with some surprise by the area’s close knit food community.
The 39-year-old executive head chef had been at the 18th Century converted stately home at Heddon-on-the-Wall – renowned for its fine dining restaurant, luxury accommodation and the world’s only Lee Westwood courses – for what seemed like forever (it was actually five years but he had made a big impact).
Then, out of the blue, he decided to up sticks and head off into the winter sunset.
His departure coincided with big changes at Close House.
Last year owner Graham Wylie announced plans to close the award-winning hotel and transform it into his family home.
Instead time and money would be spent growing the golfing side of the venture, existing accommodation at The Courtyard and The Terrace, the No 19 Clubhouse with its comforting, home-cooked, locally-sourced food, a villa in Spain and a guest house in Ambleside.
Simon is adamant his exodus was nothing to do with the new direction Close House has taken. His role in charge of food at what remains one of the area’s best dining locations hadn’t changed.
It was more a case of a ‘new year, new me’.
“I left Close House of my own accord. I had had five really good years and loved every minute of it, but I had got to the point where I wanted to do something for myself,” he says.
Since then there has been a deafening silence from Mr Walsh whose impressive CV includes five years working with Tony Binks, owner-chef of the celebrated Barrasford Arms in the Tyne Valley, time at the luxury Lakeside Hotel on Windermere, a couple of years alongside North East culinary star Terry Laybourne and a stint at the Crab and Lobster Restaurant at the eccentrically decorated and thatched roofed Crab Manor, near Thirsk.
People began to wonder if Simon had decided to embark on a new career or had headed off on an extended world tour with his wife, Jo, 39 (who is expecting the couple’s second child any day) and six-year-old son Aidan.
Such rumours have been greatly exaggerated.
Fans of Simon’s fresh, understated and beautifully presented food will be pleased to hear that he has in fact been quietly working away on a new gourmet project for the last six months.
And his efforts are about to bear fruit with the launch later this month (hopefully around July 18, but the exact date is still something of a moveable feast) of his new venture, the Longsands Fish Kitchen in Tynemouth.
As the name suggests, it’s primarily a seafood establishment with a 46 cover restaurant that also offers take-out fish and chips.
Sited on the corner of Hotspur and Front Streets in the picturesque coastal village, it has been converted from what was Roy’s Bakery.
It’s a partnership between Simon and long-time friends Kevin Henderson, who runs an engineering firm, and estate agent Alistair Sundin.
If a fish and chip shop seems a tad downmarket for a man of Simon’s calibre, think again.
It promises to be no ordinary chippy, or fish restaurant for that matter. Simon likens it to a dynamic, Rick Stein-style eatery serving simply cooked but well executed catches of the day both for sit in and eat out diners.
There will be shellfish platters, seafood salads, a signature fish soup, seasonal catches and the usual fried haddock and cod supplemented with daily specials, mostly sourced from North Shields Fish Quay less than a mile from Tynemouth.
Simon and his team – which includes Adam Gladwin who he worked with at Close House – will be using the same eco-friendly fish fryer that Rick Stein favours in his outlets on the take-away side.
But Simon is at pains to clarify that the Longsands Fish Kitchen is not trying to replicate Padstein (as Padstow in Cornwall, where Rick Stein has his cookery school and numerous br#anded restaurants and shops, has been dubbed by locals) in Tynemouth.
“We are not copying Rick Stein,” he says unequivocally over a lunchtime cappuccino at Tynemouth’s Dil and the Bear café, just a few hundred yards from where the last minute touches are being put to his new undertaking.
“What we are doing is taking the concept, with the fish takeaway at the front and a nice restaurant serving locally caught seafood, and creating something that is unique to us.
“I am hugely excited by what the future holds. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel here. I’m just trying to fashion something that people will love. I am hoping to bring something different to the food scene in Tynemouth.
“It’s a very attractive area and the Longsands Fish Kitchen is something different to what is already here, a really cool fish and chip shop and restaurant that will encourage people in to the village, benefit the community and create local jobs.”
Simon could have opened his first stand-alone restaurant anywhere and Newcastle would have seemed the obvious location for someone of his stature.
But he says: “Everybody is opening in Newcastle. When it was decided the Longsands Fish Kitchen was going to be a seafood restaurant and take-away then the coast was the obvious place to do it.
“When Kevin found this place we knew it was the ideal site for our restaurant. It has developed and evolved over the last few months and here we are today.”
Simon is in good company with his latest enterprise.
A number of Michelin-starred chefs now have their own fish and chip shop cum restaurants, including Josh Eggleton, who opened the Salt and Malt at the end of last year near Bristol, and Galton Blackiston, who runs No 1 Cromer in the Norfolk seaside town.
It is a whole new food game for Simon, though; a world away from the fine dining style he has been used to.
“It is going to be interesting,” he says with a laugh. “I am a chef who has done fine dining for years having to learn a whole new skill – frying fish and chips!”
What hasn’t changed is his desire to support local, whether that be the builders, decorators and artists who have transformed an empty shell into a seaside-inspired venue with a coastal colour scheme, reclaimed timber furniture and beach art, or North Shields’ once thriving fish quay.
“If you go down to the south coast, especially in Devon and Cornwall, there are so many high quality seafood restaurants and fish and chip shops that are supporting their local fishing communities.
“The reaction I have been getting from when I have been going around the fish quay is, thank God, someone is actually doing a seafood restaurant!
“The response we have had has been so warm, and that fills me with confidence that the local fishing community is so supportive.
“I am really looking forward to getting the mixed boxes of fish delivered, and knowing that if we only get six Dover sole, then once it’s gone it’s gone.”
It is the intention that Longsands Fish Kitchen will open for breakfasts (smoked haddock and salmon will be just a couple of the options, and don’t be surprised if the colonial Indian dish kedgeree makes an appearance) as well as morning coffees and afternoon teas.
Simon hopes the fish kitchen will become a popular meeting place and complement Tynemouth’s other food and drink offerings.
If he had to sum up Longsands Fish Kitchen’s ethos, what would it be?
“Beautiful fish cooked very simply in a nice relaxed environment where people can come and have a glass or two of wine.”
Sounds like an agreeable invitation.
The Longsands Fish Kitchen, 27 Front Street, Tynemouth, NE30 4DZ, www.longsandsfishandchips.co.uk . The fish kitchen will be open Monday and Wednesday to Friday from 10am to 8pm; and on Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 8pm.