Diners are being invited to eat their way along the Northumberland coastline from today [FRI] as a Seahouses restaurant relaunches its menu to focus on local produce. Jane Hall reports.
For years Sam Brown endured the hustle and bustle that characterises for Londoners the grinding daily commute to work.
Having left his native Northumberland as a 17-year-old to make his name as a chef in the kitchens of some of the capital's top hotels and restaurants, the idealistic young man happily threw himself into living life in the fast lane. Two decades on and the thought of braving London's crowds as just another nameless face five days a week and working to someone else's tune, no longer fills him with the same enthusiasm. And it's easy to see why.
Clocking on for the day now takes no longer than the 30-second walk downstairs from the flat he shares with wife Lisa, 38, and children Jade, 18, Max, 16, and 10-year-old Saffron.
The view once he arrives is better too. Granted, the weather beyond the picture windows of his new workplace is often as grey, windy, wet and cold as in his previous existence. But that only adds to the undoubted drama of the vista.
And it's a view hundreds of people a week are prepared to pay handsomely to feast upon too - in both senses of the word.
For Sam's new home-from-home is The Seafield Restaurant on the spectacular north Northumberland coast at Seahouses, which not only overlooks the Farne Islands two miles out to sea, but also affords a spectacular view of Bamburgh Castle standing proud on its rocky outcrop. Come rain or shine, few would complain, supping against such a backdrop.
Coffee mug firmly clamped in his hand, Sam stands in the dining area and says: "I'm at the window now, 20 metres from the cliff watching the waves crashing. To the front of me is the Farne Islands, to my left is Bamburgh Castle."
The 38-year-old makes a sweeping gesture with his arm and smiles. Just as a simply prepared dish is often the best, so more words are superfluous. It may be a cool, changeable June morning, but the vagaries of the British climate - come winter or summer - only add to the drama of the ever-changing scene.
Whether it's a gloriously hot day with the sun glinting off a calm seascape, or a storm-tossed and freezing February with snow lashing against the low-slung, stone-built restaurant, it is always worth a look.
And it's a view that has changed little for hundreds of years: one that is as much a part of the North-East's rich heritage as the hardy fishermen, farmers and other food producers who for centuries have fed and watered their local communities.
It is only in modern times that we have become divorced from the land, ignoring what is on our doorstep in favour of intensively farmed foodstuffs from across the globe. Our carrots come from France, our potatoes from Egypt, our broccoli and courgettes from Kenya, our milk from `southern England', our prawns from Honduras and our cod from Iceland.
Change is afoot, however. As worries about climate change grow and food scares abound, `local' is coming back into fashion. And restaurants are leading the vanguard.
From today, The Seafield's menu will have a new look - being built predominantly around the use of local, speciality produce, much of it sourced from within a 20-mile radius of Seahouses.
Local produce has always had its place on The Seafield's big, white plates, since Sam and business partner Lisa opened for business in 2002. But the increasing array of seafood, meat, vegetables and dairy products available on the doorstep (The Seafield is only a pebble's skim away from the seafood-rich North Sea and fertile lowlands of an area of outstanding natural beauty), means Sam and head chef David Barella have been able to take the final step towards going truly `local'.
The restaurant's famed seafood platter - a glistening pinnacle of Lindisfarne oysters, lobster and crab fresh from Seahouses quayside, fat local langoustine and juicy, freshly-steamed mussels - has now been joined by dishes such as Piperfield of Lowick ham terrine pressed with parsley, complete with pease pudding, and Carters of Bamburgh rib-eye beef steak with a molten slab of stilton atop and fat pont neuf chips made from Border Estima potatoes.
Other local produce supplying The Seafield includes Sunny Hill Farm free-range eggs from Belford and cheeses and ice creams from Doddington Dairy at Wooler. Most of the fresh fish comes from Seahouses harbour.
The restaurant's stand has already seen it earn the right to use a special `Passionate About Seafood' logo on its menus - adapted from One NorthEast's current `Passionate people, Passionate places' campaign which is promoting the region as a fantastic place to live, work, study, do business, and visit.
It's not just sit-in patrons who can take advantage of the new menu.
Sam has also launched a take-out service for visitors to the area which includes an array of starters, main courses, desserts, sauces, side orders, shellfish and stand-alone ingredients, such as fruit, vegetables and cheese - freshly prepared in the kitchens - that can be cooked back at the holiday cottage or caravan within a matter of minutes.
Sam - whose two eldest children work part-time in their parents' business - is proud he is now able to keep his food miles down and support local producers:
"Previously we've struggled to source quality local products but all that is changing and I would say that a good 70% of what we are now using is local. We live in an area bursting with special, local produce - the quality, the taste and freshness of which takes some beating as the national awards won by our suppliers prove.
"Some people say Welsh Salt Marsh Lamb is the best in the world. But is it? There is a lot of lamb, from around Rothbury and Wooler, we use that I believe stands up against anything.
"We want our diners to experience a connection with the food they are eating and the local area which is stunning in its own right and enjoy food that is in season, hasn't notched up hundreds of food miles, can be easily traced and has the added benefit of supporting local businesses."
It is a move that has won the support of Northumbria Larder, the North-East regional food initiative set-up in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis. A spokesman for the group says: "There is undoubtedly a growing demand for good quality local produce and in a popular seaside resort like Seahouses, which attracts thousands of visitors every year, The Seafield Restaurant is in an excellent position to meet the needs of the market place."
Throwing in his lot with local producers will push-up Sam's costs. "It is more expensive," he admits. "Sunny Hill Eggs, for example, cost £15 a box for 15 dozen, the same price as I would pay for a box of 30 dozen ordinary eggs. By going local I am doubling my costs, but it is a quality free-range product."
But customers will not be paying more for the privilege. "You can't push prices up as you will turn people away," Sam states. "Most of our starters are between £5 and £6 and our main courses around £10. We also do bar meals with fish and chips at £6.95 and a £5.95 kids' menu for two courses which runs to things like home-made chicken goujons and fish bites made with whole whitebait, plain pasta, Bamburgh bangers and mash and chocolate fudge cake."
The Seafield is a 200-cover restaurant and will in the next two weeks open an outside dining area where dogs will be welcome.
Is Sam riding on the back of a trend, or does he believe `local' is here to stay?
"I think this preference for local is going to continue and grow. British supermarkets are the most profitable in the world as they've the most buying power. I think that is all going to change very soon. I think local people and village shops want to stick by local suppliers and vice versa."
The Seafield is popular with locals and visitors alike. "That is another reason I've been persuaded to go down the local route," says Sam. "Our diners deserve the best and I think those on holiday expect to eat local food. They don't want a lasagne that 500 other places do.
"At the moment we can't get enough dressed crab, monkfish, halibut and langoustine from the harbour to satisfy our diners. We are going wholeheartedly down the route to local - and I don't for one minute think we will regret it."
Name: Sam Brown.
Family: Wife Lisa (also known as Jane), 38, and children Jade, 18, Max, 16, and Saffron, 10.
Lives: Above The Seafield Restaurant in Seahouses, Northumberland.
Born: Ashington, Northumberland, but raised in Amble.
Education: Left Coquet High School in Amble at 15 with no career ambition. Fell into being a chef as his elder brother was already trained in the profession, and completed the City and Guilds catering course at Ashington College.
Career CV: Landed in London as a 17-year-old where he worked in the kitchens of a number of five-star hotels and restaurants, including La Palais Du Jardin, Covent Garden (where he was executive chef), Bleeding Heart Restaurant, Hatton Garden, Mezzo and the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge. Also spent 18 months in Barbados as head chef at the Tamarind Cove Hotel to build up his international expertise, and 18 months at a hotel near Balmoral in Scotland, where he earned a red Michelin. Opened The Seafield Restaurant in 2002 in partnership with Lisa.
Kitchen capers: "We recently had a woman return her sea bass saying there was glass on top of her fish. When we looked it was sea salt! She was very embarrassed. Another time a know-it-all customer told me I had only served them half a lobster as there was no meat in the head. I had to explain that was where the brain had been...."
Top tip: "Never start the day without a strong coffee!"
Local producers supplying The Seafield:
* Swallow Fish, Seahouses.
* The Sutherland Family, Beal.
* Piperfield Pork, Lowick.
* Sunny Hill Eggs, Belford.
* R Carter and Sons family butchers, Bamburgh.
* Borderfields Limited, makers of Oleifera extra virgin rape seed oil, Bamburgh/Belford.
* Davy Shiel, lobsters, Seahouses.
* Davidson's Dairy, Chathill.
* Doddington Dairy, Doddington, Wooler.
* Tritlington Fresh Produce, Tritlington, Morpeth.
* Border Potatoes, Scottish Borders.