'There's no-one else doing this in this part of the world, there are no other restaurants like this here'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 24th February 2020

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Alex Nietosvuori is the chef and owner of restaurant Hjem in Hexham. 

When he launched the Northumbrian restaurant, he worried that customers might not make the detour so far away from civilisation. His fears proved to be unfounded. 

Fully booked six months ahead of time, the chef said they recently unblocked another three months, which were snapped up in three hours - six minutes for Fridays and Saturdays. 

If the fact that people are willing to travel so far to dine at the hands of the ex-Maeemo chef's restaurant wasn't enough of a vindication, perhaps it being the most commonly predicted to bag a Michelin star in the 2020 guide by starred chefs was. 

The Swedish chef was well ahead of his own aspiration to own a restaurant before he was thirty, launching Hjem - home, in Swedish and in Northumbrian - with his partner Ally Thompson - when he was just 26. 

But don't let the chef's success deflate you: Alex wasn't always a shining star of the culinary world. Born in Landskrona, Sweden, he went to culinary school, where he didn't fare particularly well. 

"I enjoyed hanging out with the lads more," he laughed. "I didn't do much." 

However, from the moment he devised a plan, the chef became an unstoppable force. Three years with Daniel Berlin were followed by three years at Bror with Sam Nutter and Viktor Wågam (now sous-chefs at Noma) and a stage with Rodolfo Guzman at Boragó.

Then, the chef took on a position at three Michelin-starred Oslo restaurant, Maeemo, where he rubbed shoulders with the rising stars of the day, including Jordan Bailey, who bagged two Michelin stars for his inaugural restaurant, Aimsir, within months of opening it. 

"It wasn't like anything I'd done before. It had been one of my dreams to work there." 

After ten months, the chef headed to London to work with Tom Anglesea at The Laughing Heart in Hoxton.

Not wanting to occupy the already saturated market that is London, but keen to open a business in England, he set his sights as far as he possibly could from the capital, near Hadrian's Wall. 

"I thought: 'open a restaurant out where there's no-one else around you and you could do your own thing without needing to concentrate on other people all the time'." 

When they took over the premises, the couple planned on running the former public house as it always had been and to open a restaurant in due course. 

But in the midst of renovating the dining room, knocking down walls and improving the space came a Eureka moment: "It just turned into something special." 

Three months later, on May 1st, 2019, restaurant Hjem opened. 

Despite having capacity for 24 guests, numbers are kept between 18-20 for a sitting, with three in the kitchen and two people front of house.  

"My dream was always to do twelve seats. But then you realise you're not going to go far with only twelve seats," he laughed. 

The food is very seasonal, simple, using very few ingredients but highly technical in its preparation. Though influenced by his previous experiences and Scandinavian in design, Alex labels his food Northumbrian. 

Technically speaking, Alex enjoys to deep fry ingredients as much as the next chef, but particularly likes to experiment smoking and dehydrating them, and has not only increased the number of courses on the menu at Hjem since he launched, but how complex his dishes are. 

Though one might expect it would be difficult to find enough suppliers for the restaurant, the chef said his experience was overwhelminghly positive: for two months ahead of opening, he travelled the region to find suppliers - to great success. 

"There's no-one else doing this in this part of the world, there are no other restaurants like this here, so people are excited and want to help in making you succeed." 

His favourite local produce? Venison, game birds in the autumn, spring lamb - whatever "the hard working people behind it" have to offer, and not vice versa. 

Leaning into the destination restaurant model, Hjem is tasting menu only. 

"We want to showcase as much of Northumberland as possible in one meal," he explained.

"We get people travelling from all over the country - a few locals from Colbridge, Newcastle, Manchester."

When it launched, all they had were three sets of plates and Ikea glasses on the tables - and it wasn't so much about earning accolades as it was keeping the doors open. Staffing wasn't a problem, as a skeleton team is enough. 

But, with an eye to the future, the only way is up. "Instead of putting money into our savings, we just keep investing into the restaurant, putting in new stuff, doing things better for the staff, buying new equipment." 

"In the beginning of opening a restaurant it's about trying to make it work - but every chef would like a Michelin star.

"Anything more than we have now is just a bonus." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 24th February 2020

'There's no-one else doing this in this part of the world, there are no other restaurants like this here'

IN ASSOCIATION WITH