Restauranteur Terry Laybourne is branching out into a business enterprise which will see the region’s leading chef whet the appetite of foodies in the Lake District.
The award-winning star of Cafe 21 - who was dubbed the “uncrowned king of Newcastle” by visiting celebrity chef Marco Pierre White last week - has agreed to create the menu for what’s set to be England’s largest whisky distillery with 55,000 visitors a year.
The Lakes Distillery, which has a North East management team and office base in Gosforth, will be opening its doors in Cumbria next month and marks yet a new challenge for the creator of the 21 Hospitality Group.
Laybourne be at the helm of the 70-seat bistro, courtyard dining area and bar element of the whisky, gin and vodka distillery - five miles equidistant from Keswick and Cockermouth - which also will be offering tours.
And if just a fraction of those annual customers take the opportunity to try his menu, the kitchen currently being installed will certainly have its work cut out.
“I had no intention of doing this!” says Laybourne, who has known The Lakes Distillery chairman Nigel Mills for years and first intended just to invest in what he considered a great project.
“I told him I’d think about it but I didn’t really need to think about it. It was an exciting project and I was keen to be involved,” he adds. “It was a local opportunity to invest in something that interested me. Then we had another chat about investment - and I came away with a job! I thought ‘hang on, what happened there’!”
He laughs: “I’m pleased I did: it’s a great project and there are some great people involved.”
Among its local suppliers are CNG from Gateshead which is currently installing the kitchen with cutlery coming from Crosby’s in Newcastle; and Abercrombie’s of Jesmond which has designed the distillery’s boardroom, an extra private dining area for 30 people where the casks of maturing whisky can be viewed.
Laybourne has also picked the key team to run the kitchen and is still on the lookout for a pastry chef, promising a great opportunity for a local talent keen to make his mark somewhere new.
The new head chef is Raymond Blanc-trained Andrew Beaton, eager to take up a new challenge after seven years at the Miller Howe Restaurant in Windermere.
He says there’s nothing like this in the area and is currently at Cafe 21 to learn Laybourne’s signature style of cooking and develop dishes.
“We’ll focus heavily on local products and suppliers and on the seasons,” says Laybourne. The Lakes has quite a larder - “lamb is the big, big thing” - and he’s found a great local bakery which happens to use flour from Gilchesters Organics in Stamfordham.
A range of cocktails has been created to showcase the in-house spirits and a sophisticated wine preservation kit will enable them to offer a wider range of wines by the glass; on the basis that customers will be driving to its rural location “so if people are only going to drink one glass, we want it to be a really good glass”.
Laybourne adds: “We’ll trade from 11am-5pm, running with pretty much a casual unstructured all-day menu so if you want to come in at 11 and have a coffee and piece of tea loaf that’s fine; or at 11.30 for a sandwich, that’s fine too; or at 12 and have a three-course meal, that’s even better.
“Then at 5.30pm it morphs into more of a conventional restaurant.”
The outdoor courtyard, so sheltered “it’s like a micro climate”, will cater for 30 more diners while the private dining room, suitable for supper, family celebrations and business dinners, will accommodate a further 36.
It’s a big undertaking for Laybourne, whose eateries include The Broad Chare on the quayside, but after the intense opening stage he’s expecting to be able to reduce his presence to perhaps two days a month.
“My role is to set it up,” he says.
“It’s not a restaurant that will have my name over the door. That’s not what I want or what they intended. It has its own personality.
“At the start I’ll be there - you’ve got to go and live it and breathe it and understand it.”
He adds: “The challenge is doing it at arms’ length. I’m very much a hands-on, lead from the front operator. This interested me but I had to question myself ‘can I do this; can I do this from a distance?’
“It’s like you are this Premiership striker and your knees have gone and all of a sudden you’ve got to be a coach and when the game’s in play you’ve got to stand on the touchline and offer pearls of wisdom instead of getting on the pitch and scoring goals yourself!”
His focus is to win over local people so that out of tourist season “we can fill it on a wet Tuesday night in February” and he says: “It will develop its own reputation, I’m confident of that.”
With already plenty on his plate, he says: “It’s hard to say no! It’s in my blood, it’s what I do - creating things.
“It’s great to start with a blank canvas and bring all the pieces together.
“I do enjoy that. I must say it’s challenging. It keeps you up at night sometimes but it’s very satisfying and when you see a team come together and running it’s a real joy.”