IT was definitely a case of slow burn for chef John Connell who seized the coveted prize of North East Chef of the Year 2012 on not his first or second attempt, but his fourth stab.
“I’ve entered four times ... I couldn’t be bridesmaid again,” says John, with a smile. “After three times I wasn’t going to do it again, but I entered a fourth time. And finally I won! I was a little bit relieved to be fair. The judges said to me I was the most professional on the day.”
High praise indeed when you take into account the high-profile judges included Paul Gayler, executive chef at The Lanesborough Hotel in London and Paul Bates from InterContinental Hotel in Mayfair. It’s a well deserved – some would say belated – win for New Zealand-born John, 43, who has racked up considerable professional experience, having worked at a string of top-class restaurants over the last two decades.
He reels them off and they include the likes of The Savoy, London, a stint working for Marco Pierre White, who he knows personally, Seaham Hall, and Terry Laybourne’s Michelin-starred 21 Queen Street in Newcastle, back in the day. And then there was his work at NUFC as a consultant with Terry’s 21 Group, the De Giorgis from Newcastle, the Vermont Hotel, and more recently the Black Horse gastropub at Beamish.
He served his apprenticeship with the esteemed five-star Hyatt hotel group in Australia and new Zealand.
John is well known on the North East foodie circuit, having worked at so many well-regarded restaurants over the years. He hails from Dunedin in New Zealand and is a father of three, Emily, 14, and twin boys Owen and Gareth, 11, and lives in Fenham. Sadly his wife died in 2004 from cancer.
These days John is relishing getting his teeth into his role at The Meat Merchant in Jesmond, Newcastle, where he works as in-store chef and shop manager for managing director Nick Bennett.
It supplies both the public and trade with vacuum-packed meats, and sells a range of deli produce. The shop on Hazelwood Avenue specialises in Northern Irish meat, supplied by the famed Hannan Meats, which supplies hotel groups and restaurants in the UK.
John also ploughs his own furrow with his private dining and chef demonstrations with themes.
He will be showing off his famed culinary prowess when he takes to the mobile kitchen at The Journal’s Taste food fair at Northumberland County Show in Corbridge on Bank Holiday Monday, June 4.
He will take to the stage at 2pm to perform a demonstration for watching crowds.
John will be joined by other chefs who will each take a turn at the stove, including Jo Hampson of Smoky Jo’s in Shap; Journal food columnist Jane Lovett of Wooler; Andrew Laurie of Barluga, Morpeth; and Lee Campbell of The White Swan, Alnwick, who is also North East Chef of the Year winner 2010.
Catching up with John at The Meat Merchant shop, I find him modestly low-key about his title win.
Nevertheless, it has given him a fillip. “It’s a good feeling. It affirms what I’m doing.”
He dishes up a bowl of slow-cooked lamb tagine for a customer, declared melt-in-the-mouth. The meat falls apart.
It’s just one of the tantalising taster dishes – complete with recipe – on the go in the shop every Saturday to tempt customers.
He explains: “It’s a butcher’s shop, everything’s vacuum packed beforehand, but the beauty about it is you can come and get cooking advice.”
The shop opened in November and John has been there since September.
The shop also stocks specialities from other Northern Ireland artisan producers, including bread from the Yellow Door Bakery, speciality cheese from Fivemiletown Creamery, Red Dog seasoning salts and relishes, and infused oils and reductions from En Place Foods, Hannan’s award-winning sister company.
He adds: “The meat in the shop is sold at wholesale prices. We know where the meat is from. We have the confidence in it. We sell Irish, a bit of Continental stuff and a lot of different breeds like Hereford, Shorthorn and Dexter beef. Quite a lot of it comes from Poland.”
When pressed on the lack of local produce he’s disarmingly honest. “We try to do local but it can be expensive.”
He continues: “We make all our own sausages, burgers and dry cure all the bacon. Everything is made over in Northern Ireland near Belfast.”
John is keen to promote his private work too. “I do private catering too, like weddings. I also do two chef demos a month.” These take place in the kitchen housed in the premises.
John runs the demos with his chef partner, Sally Walker. The demos cost £40 each and usually take place from 7.15pm to 10pm.
John explains Sally used to work as production manager for TV chef Rachel Allen when she was breaking into TV in Ireland. “Sally used to replicate dishes for Rachel. She was her right-hand woman for TV work.”
Sally also does consultancy on the food side at Barter Books in Alnwick.
“We keep the classes small. We have room for six people in the kitchen on the premises. Last month I did local fish and I’m just about to host two world curry demos, incorporating Indian, Indonesian and Thai flavours.
“I love to do what I do. I like people who like cooking. And passing on the passion through demos is great.”
That passion was much in evidence at the North East Chef of the Year cook-off in Newcastle this month.
Eight chefs battled it out, MasterChef-style, in the contest organised by the North East Culinary Trade Association.
John impressed judges with his crab starter, dry-aged beef with ragout of shin and morel mushroom crumble, followed by dessert of “chocolate garden textures”.
The crab starter was a last-minute change of dish from the advertised one, explains John. Nevertheless, the crab in Vietnamese spring rolls with green mango and crème fraiche and crab tea, was a winner.
The title, John admits, will help to raise his profile. “It helps me and Sally to grow the business we want to grow. It helps to raise my profile. The meat I used was all from here. It gets people talking about the shop.”
Looking ahead, John says: “We want to be doing in-house meals, making stuff like the lamb tagine and packaging it. No chemicals or stabilisers, just a fresh product with three or four days’ shelf life.”
For more details on the Taste of the County show visit www.northcountyshow.co.uk