A taste of France has come to the Tyne Valley, courtesy of restaurateur Greg Bureau. Jane Hall found out more.
WHEN Frenchman Greg Bureau arrived on Tyneside it took him six months to understand the Geordie for “yes” and “no”.
“It was quite an experience,” the affable 31-year-old says with a reminiscent shake of his head.
A decade on and Greg has not only mastered the “very strange” Scandinavian-based dialect that North-Easterners have made their own – adding an intriguing Geordie inflection to his Gallic mother tongue in the process – but has favourably revised his once low opinion of English cuisine.
The French have for generations famously derided our skills in the kitchen. Only two years ago, former French President Jacques Chirac caused a political storm in a very English teacup when he was overheard telling the then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin: “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.”
Greg is the first to admit his own view of English food was no more promising when he arrived on these shores.
The son of a French restaurateur, whose life has revolved around food – he worked in some of his homeland’s top kitchens before crossing La Manche – he was prepared to be scandalised by what we regard as a decent meal.
While he believes there is still considerable room for improvement, Greg by no means shares Jacques Chirac’s other assertion that after Finland, Britain “is the country with the worst food”.
Indeed, he has come to love many of the traditional dishes for which we are regularly mocked.
“When I thought of English cuisine I thought of jelly wobbling on a plate,” Greg explains. “That is the idea of what English cuisine is all about in France.
“But it doesn’t take long to discover it’s not like that. I really enjoy food – it is my passion – and while there are still many bad things about English food, there’s a lot that is good too. You know what I really love? A good plate of fish and chips – fantastic batter and chunky chips. You can’t beat that.
“British food is comfort food. But comfort food can be very good. I love your Sunday lunch with roast beef and a big Yorkshire pudding and gravy.
“And I love British beef and lamb. I know it has its critics and there have been problems, but I have always found British meat to be very good in general. English food gets a bad press, but you have much to shout about.” Greg may be turning into an Anglophile, having married a local lass, Clare, 26, with whom he has two children, Kieran, eight, and Manon, two, and setting up home in Wallsend, North Tyneside, but he is still proud of his French food roots.
Having allowed himself to be seduced by English fare, he is now returning the compliment by introducing local diners to the best in French country cuisine.
But he has chosen to open Bouchon Bistrot not in cosmopolitan Newcastle where he worked first for restaurateur Terry Laybourne before moving to the Black Door and Grainger Rooms, but in rural Hexham.
Raised eyebrows all round. For just as the French can be snobby about English food, so city dwellers can be stuck-up about rural restaurants.
Greg’s gamble to quit Newcastle seems to be paying off, however. Tyne Valley people have taken to the newcomer in their dining midst comme un canard à arroser (like a duck to water). Bouchon is fully booked for weeks, proving that good food will always sell, no matter where.
The bistrot is in the three-storey stone built former home of Roué restaurant, opposite Hexham swimming pool in Gilesgate. A few minutes’ walk from the town centre, it’s not somewhere the casual visitor is likely to find in passing. But Greg is not deterred. “It is a fantastic location,” he raves. “Yes, it is a bit quieter than being in the heart of the town, but I like that. To come to Bouchon is to relax.”
And as he points out, as he sips an espresso in the downstairs dining area after the now customary lunchtime rush: “Our location hasn’t stopped word getting out about us.”
Greg admits he hadn’t intended to open his first business in Northumberland. Because he lives in Wallsend he had been looking for a place closer to home. “I had been looking for the right place for a while and couldn’t find the right site. Newcastle is a tough place to open a restaurant. I thought I would look elsewhere and I saw this place. It is perfect and I have no regrets coming to Hexham.”
Just as diners have fallen in love with Bouchon’s French feel, so Greg has grown fond of Hexham with its ancient abbey and market place. He is considering converting the top floor into a flat for his family and swapping urban life for rural.
It would end his tiring daily commute and mean he would see more of his children. Whatever the outcome of those plans, he is about to see an awful lot more of Clare. She is preparing to give up her job as a nursery nurse to join her husband front-of-house at Bouchon.
How will Greg find working with his wife? “My parents used to have restaurants in France, which is how I got into this. They lived together 24/7 and it was a total disaster. But we thought we would give it a try,” he says with a wry smile. “Clare is quite easy to work with – I’m not. But I think she will be OK. She has never worked in catering before, so I’m going to mould her. I will not have anything but perfection!” he adds, slapping his hand on the table in mock severity. “If it starts getting mad, we will look at taking a different route. But it does mean we will actually see something of each other. It is insane at the moment. I’m working from 10am to midnight Tuesday to Saturday. We are closed Sunday and Monday at the moment, but that may change. We are doing up to 80 covers a time, but we could go to 100. Certainly the demand is there. I keep Sunday as a family day. It is important to have family time. … If I didn’t, I would go crazy.”
The family is central to life in France and children are encouraged to eat out with their parents. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said in the UK. While many restaurants at least make an effort to accommodate youngsters, many still don’t.
And often the food leaves a lot to be desired, with children pushed towards “special” menus featuring nothing more appetising than chicken nuggets and cheap sausages with mashed potato. Not so at Bouchon. Children are genuinely welcome, as long as they eat what’s on the main menu. “We do smaller versions of what’s on the menu or can do side orders of things like macaroni cheese,” Greg says. “I refuse to serve anything other than fresh, French food. I was never brought up eating rubbish, I’m not bringing my kids up like that and I don’t see why others should be forced into that corner.”
Perhaps that explains Bouchon’s popularity: Greg’s insistence that his restaurant should be somewhere the whole family feels comfortable. “It’s important we create a warm, friendly atmosphere to make Bouchon a restaurant which people regularly frequent, not just for the quality of our cuisine, but for the relaxing ambience and affordable menus. The whole experience is about having fun and being relaxed. This is the essence of the French bistrot.”
Capturing that essence doesn’t include checked red-and-white tablecloths, candles in bottles and Edith Piaf warbling away in the background, though. Greg has opted for what he calls the classy end of the bistrot market. Bold canvases depicting Camargue ponies and sun-baked French villages complement the predominantly burgundy colour scheme in a glow from Lalique-style lamps.
The food is made where possible from local ingredients, but for some he goes farther afield. “After all, there aren’t many snail farms in England.” French onion soup with garlic croutons and Gruyère cheese is on the menu, with such delights as pressing of Provençal vegetables, coq au vin and navarin of lamb.
Greg – who has swapped the kitchen for front of house duties – is operating with two chefs and three support staff.
Starters and desserts come in at an average £5, with mains at £12 to £15. “You can eat here for £22 per person,” he says.
Bouchon Bistrot is at 4-6 Gilesgate, Hexham, (01434) 609943.
Name: Greg Bureau
Born: Loire Valley, France
Lives: Wallsend, North Tyneside
Family: Wife, Clare, 26, and children Kieran, eight, and Manon, two
Career: Started out as a chef in France but says: “I realised that while I enjoyed the food I didn’t really enjoy being stuck in a kitchen for 16-17 hours a day.” He then moved to front-of-house and 10 years ago arrived in Newcastle to work for Terry Laybourne at what was 21 Queen Street.
“Why Newcastle? I had been working in a Michelin star restaurant and the wife of the owner was from Newcastle. They knew Terry Laybourne very well and introduced me to him.”
He then worked with David Kennedy at Apartment and Black Door in Newcastle before moving to the highly acclaimed Grainger Rooms.
What’s kept you in the North-East?: “I met my wife early on and it was the usual scenario; girlfriend, kids, a mortgage. But I really, really enjoy it here. It is a beautiful part of the world and on the food and wine front there is room for me.”
What’s your perfect restaurant?: “Bouchon! I think I have created what is my ideal restaurant. I go to so many restaurants and it’s either good food and poor service or average food and a cocky waiter. With Bouchon it’s the old scenario of price, novelty, quality food and very friendly service.”
Where do you like to eat out?: “I have always had a lot of respect for Terry Laybourne. I would go to Cafe 21, and I love Bistro 21 in Durham. For Sunday lunch I love the Barrasford Arms in Barrasford near Hexham.”
Who cooks at home: “Me! My wife can’t cook, which is something I didn’t find out until after I married her.”
Kitchen tip?: “Try to stay to your level of cooking otherwise you will make a fool of yourself.”
Are you now living the dream?: “I believe so. I feel lucky I’m doing what I love to do. You need passion. I was born and brought up in this environment and now I’m working in it. Every kid who starts here I say ‘please enjoy what you do. If you just do it for the money, then go and work in Tesco.’ You have to enjoy it.”