I’M sat chatting to chef Richard Sim in a dining room at Newcastle Falcons’ rugby club in Newcastle when we’re joined by dozens of ravenous rugby forwards, “the big lads”, who proceed to tuck into breakfast with relish.
Anyone could be forgiven for losing concentration for a moment, surrounded by muscle men in their prime, but actually Richard’s tales of feeding the rich and famous during his fascinating culinary career are more than enough to sustain interest.
Since we’re on the rugby lads’ turf at Kingston Park, Richard explains how “the big lads” are fed and watered in style, with no greasy fry-ups allowed. “Everything is very little fat, high protein, low carbs, fresh fruits, lean meats, lots of eggs and beans.
“They have bacon as a treat. Some have to lose weight, some have to gain weight. Their needs have to be catered for with no starch or flours.”
It’s just one of the interesting diversions our chat takes as I catch up with the hard-working chef in a window in his busy schedule one morning at 9am. He’s six weeks into his new role as executive chef at the rugby club looking after their match-day corporate dining and major functions.
The rugby post is an important strand in a busy career for the local food champion.
The 44-year-old is just back from catering at a starry 50th birthday bash near Manchester on Saturday for a client involved in organising concerts for some very big names.
Famous faces partied on down until 4.30am. And the famous Take That elephant from the band’s 2009 Circus tour took pride of place in the host’s garden …
Richard’s lips are admirably sealed, though, when it comes to naming names.
“It was a Roman-themed party and they wanted wood-fired pizzas and a fresh seafood bar. It was very lavish, very rock ‘n’ roll!”
The day prior to the party he was at the kitchen helm at the Falcons overseeing a four-course gourmet evening, paired with fine wines. Guests tucked into lamb cooked three ways and white chocolate panacotta.
He explains: “I’m doing two days a week on the functions and corporate side at the Falcons.
“At the end of August the season starts with a couple of friendlies. I want to up the game with the corporate side. It’s had a few years in the doldrums. It’s a huge side of the business.”
Richard will be looking to make his culinary mark with his trademark style of unfussy food, using local, seasonal ingredients.
“It will be modern, classic kind of food with a strong link to local. Everything is centrally purchased at the moment. I’m changing that and in the next few weeks I will be talking to local people to supply direct.
“I’m freshening up the menus, using the best of what we have locally. It lends itself ... you have the affluent farming set and corporate clients. They are interested in food and drink, people are so aware now. Gone are the days when you could chuck on a 3663 buffet.”
Richard is a director of Fresh Element, the North East-based gourmet catering company he co-founded eight years ago with Peter Hunt and Andy Ross.
“I’m the chef one that came in! They were at uni and it started off as a project for online ready meals and outside catering.”
Today as food and drink partner to contemporary art gallery Baltic at Gateshead, they operate the critically-acclaimed roof-top Six restaurant, the Café Bar and events in the building’s private hire spaces, as well as the swish newly-opened Garden Kitchen eaterie in Eldon Garden in Newcastle, and the sister establishment Garden Shed takeaway.
The day-to-day running of Six he leaves to head chef Adam Hegarty. He’s more involved with the ‘big picture stuff’ of going forward and talking to suppliers, he says. “It’s more running a business now.”
He sold his shares in Zecca Italian restaurant in Amble, Northumberland, last October, but still looks after the foodie side of The Jolly Fisherman pub at Craster on a consultancy basis.
The rugby thread runs through his life – he used to play himself when he was young – and his nephew, Shaquille Meyers, plays for Bedford Blues.
The Jolly Fisherman is owned by David Whitehead, an ex-professional rugby player who used to play for the Falcons.
“The investment is coming October/November time,” says Richard. “We struggle with planning permission.”
Richard, who is separated, has a son, Rowan, 12, and lives in Alnwick.
He loves hunting and fishing and has an appreciation of where good food comes from. He looks after a number of private clients with a similar love of the land.
“I was brought up in Alnmouth and my background is the countryside. Both sets of grandparents were farmers. I was brought up with farms. Dad was an agricultural merchant. The Baltic (once a working flour mill) was one of dad’s biggest clients.”
Richard trained in London, working at places like the Berkeley Hotel and Le Meridien Piccadilly and InterContinental.
His first head chef role was at The Angel in Corbridge ... ‘it was the flagship of S&N’.
“I owned my own restaurant in Alnwick and left there and worked for Centurion and Urbium, ending up as their Northern executive chef.”
In more recent years he worked for the Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick Garden doing consultancy at the Treehouse restaurant and the Pavilion Café.
“I keep busy. It’s good to have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies.”
He caters privately from time to time for a few footballers, including former Newcastle United goalie Shay Given, now based outside of Manchester. “I do a bit for Stevie Harper and Alan Shearer.”
On the sorts of dishes he serves, he says: “Everybody’s on diets! They like the local produce, they eat good food.”
Richard also cooks for some high-profile hunting and shooting names like Lord James Percy, brother of the Duke of Northumberland. He describes Lord James Percy, who owns Linhope estate in the Cheviots, as the ‘Alan Shearer of the shooting world’.
Richard Kelvin Hughes of Knarsdale estate in Northumberland is another private client.
He explains it’s between Alston and Brampton, and offers thousands of acres of moorland, so fertile ground for shooting.
The shooting season sees him out on the fells sorting elevenses and lunches. “From August 12 to the end of October I’m out there every day or one of my boys is up there looking after them. We cook with a lot of game. It’s truffles, Iberico ham, they love Lindisfarne oysters.
“I go out on the shoots. They have huts on the fells. I do breakfast, elevenses, lunches, it’s all lobsters, dressed crab, roast beef, and then dinner about 7pm. I love it.”
And a perk of the job is he’s sometimes invited to join in the shoot.
Local food heroes include Northumberland lamb farmers and Lindisfarne Oysters. “When you take the oysters on to a grouse moor everybody comments on them. They are world-class.
“The lamb in Northumberland is second-to- none. And there’s the cheese people at Doddington.
“For me it’s all about the best. For example Iberico ham has to come from Spain. We do have some fantastic producers in the North East but you would struggle to just use produce from a few miles. A lot of it is to do with climate. But I can pick up the phone and get what I want. We have some great butchers and veg men.”