Kenny Atkinson, chef proprietor, House of Tides, Newcastle

The Staff Canteen

Kenny Atkinson is the chef proprietor of the one Michelin starred House of Tides in Newcastle.

Kenny worked for Simon Hulstone and Hywel Jones before heading to the Scilly Isles and achieving his first Michelin star. He then went back to the North East and maintained the Michelin star at Seaham Hall until he left and became executive chef at Rockliffe Hall. He opened House of Tides with his wife Abbie in 2014. 

The Staff Canteen spoke to Kenny about his first solo restaurant, using seasonal ingredients and his plans for House of Tides. (First published in 2015)

How did you get into the industry and did you always want to be a chef?

House of Tides
House of Tides, Newcastle

I fell into it to be honest. My first touch with food was working in The Granger Market on a fruit and veg stall – my upbringing wasn’t full of great cooks! I grew up on chicken nuggets and chips! I wanted to be in the pub industry and my uncle had a pub so I started washing pots there. I was a bit nosey and cheeky anyway so when food was coming back on the plates or the chefs made something I used to pick at it.

I was enjoying flavours I had never tasted before but I always used to say to the chef ‘that could do with a bit more salt that!’ It was always a joke that I had a good pallet. I would help out dressing salads or the chef would put me on a section when they were busy and I just enjoyed it. It was the buzz, being a part of a team, it was something I hadn’t experienced before and I loved that togetherness. That’s when I realised ‘you know what I like this!’

You say you fell into it, do you think that’s the case for a lot of chefs?

If you look at a lot of chefs who are my age now, cheffing back then wasn’t as popular as it is now. In them days I think it was looked down at. It’s the complete opposite, it’s a hard industry and I think most of us just didn’t know what direction we wanted to go with it. For me I was tasting food I‘d never tasted before, doing new things that excited me and it opened my eyes.

You didn’t stay in the north east, you headed to London – what drew you there?

At that time I didn’t know much about Michelin and AA so I started looking in restaurant books to find out which were the best restaurants in Newcastle. Back then Terry Laybourne had Michelin-starred restaurant 21 Queen Street and the Vermont Hotel had three rosettes. I literally just knocked on the door and said I was looking for a commis position – there were no jobs at Terry Laybourne’s place so I started at the Vermont.

scallops by Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides
scallops by Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides

I was there for a year and a half before the chef moved to Evesham and at that time I felt restricted in Newcastle, there weren’t a lot of good restaurants around so I went with him and started working at Wood Norton Hall. I started doing stages as well, I went to The Chester Grosvenor with Simon Radley and that was it, that opened my eyes to what Michelin was about. Talking to the other guys and seeing their drive I knew it was what I wanted to do and I had to go to London.

Did you enjoy your time in London?

The attention to detail was phenomenal and it seriously opened my eyes to what a kitchen should be. Simon opened my eyes to where I wanted to be and the type of chef I wanted to be – I wanted to be a fine dining chef, pushing for rosettes and a star.

London was great but in them days it was hard. I was fortunate to get a job with Hywel Jones at The Mandarin Oriental and he was a different type of chef to what I was used to. Everything had to be pristine, prepped properly and you had to seriously respect the ingredients which were coming through. I’d never had that before.

Did that attention to detail stick with you through your career?

Top restaurant meals:                                  Pollen Street Social- Jason Atherton               The Kitchin - Tom Kitchin                             Hibiscus - Claude Bosi                                       Marcus - Marcus Wareing                           Purnell’s - Glynn Purnell                                       Man Behind the Curtain - Michael O'Hare Black Swan - Tommy Banks                               Le Champignon Sauvage- David Everitt-Matthias

I think I’ve learnt something from every chef I have worked with. How they conduct themelves, the man management, the drive – I’ve taken little bits and moulded myself into the type of chef I wanted to be.

You became a head chef at 26 and then you achieved your first star at the St Martin's on the Isle restaurant in the Scilly Isles. How did that feel?

It was a strange feeling, the restaurant was seasonal so all the staff had gone home at the end of the summer. I had no one to celebrate with! Not being able to share that achievement with them made me realise something was missing which is why I moved back to the mainland. Getting the star made all the hard work and sacrifice worth it – being in that red book with all those chefs I had admired, looked up to and followed was really special.

You moved back to the north east in 2009, was the plan to get another star?

Once you get a star you get the bug and you want it all the time so you have to be consistent and keep moving forward. I was executive chef at Seaham Hall and we got the star back in the first year, we were number 27 in the UK Top 100 and it was going really well. But things started to change and then Rockcliffe Hall approached me and it felt like where I was, it was mid table, and Rockliffe was in the big league. It was a real step up for me and I’d be overseeing three restaurants.

bass by Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides
bass by Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides

I feel like I left Rockcliffe with unfinished business, we just could not get that star. It wasn’t that guests were unhappy with the food or anything like that but in four years we just couldn’t get it.

You took part in Great British Menu in 2009/2010, was it a good experience?

Great British Menu was brilliant. I was a fan of the show anyway and initially I didn’t get picked but then Andrew Pern dropped out three weeks before filming started and I jumped at the chance to take his place. The first time I was on the show it was all focused on the armed forces who were in Afghanistan at the time, my brother was a soldier so it was something I had an interest in.

I don’t think people realise how intense the show is, how hard it is to cook and talk. I’d not really done that before but it was a great way to get my name out there and introduce myself to people as a chef on national TV. It’s a great concept and that year it was all down to public votes.

We were half a point short from the judges but with the votes from the public it was a whitewash. Knowing that all of those people had voted for me that was a nice feeling. And the fact it was soldiers we were cooking for made it even better. Great British Menu changed my career as it made people more aware of who I was and what I was doing.

Your former head chef Danny Parker has also been on TV as part of MasterChef: The Professionals?

Mackerel by Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides
Mackerel by Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides

Danny became part of my team as sous chef, I told him doing MasterChef: The Professionals would be good for him and the business. I knew if he cooked like I know he can he would do well. Now guests come to see him not just me and it’s been very positive for him and for bringing more people into the restaurant.

You’re a big fan of seasonal produce and using local ingredients, has this always been the case?

In London we never focused on local produce, as long as it was the best we never questioned it. At St Martin’s we had to be more savy in our approach and we needed to use local fisherman and farmers. At Seaham Hall we had the same ethos and it grew especially when I took part in Great British Menu where there was a lot of emphasis on local produce. That really made me realise how much time and energy goes into making the produce we use all the time such as butter or cream for example. So we have to support them and put money in their pockets so they can continue to develop – we need them and we need to help them keep moving forward.

House of Tides
House of Tides

Why did you choose to open your first solo restaurant in Newcastle?

I was coming off the back of Great British Menu and I wanted to open somewhere and be like Glynn Purnell is to Birmingham or the Hairy Bikers are to Newcastle. I wanted to open a restaurant where I would have that sort of following and people would appreciate the food that I do. There are very few great restaurants in Newcastle and it’s a city which is growing so it was an obvious choice.

I wanted to come home to the town that I grew up in. I was torn between the idea of a high-end bistro and a fine dining restaurant, I wanted something like Pollen Street in London. It had to be very relaxed, not stuffy – it had to tick all the boxes. The site we picked was an old merchant house, it’s really rustic downstairs and nice upstairs. The location allowed me to do the style of food I wanted to do.

You said there are not many top restaurants in Newcastle, did people understand your dishes and the fine dining concept straight away or did you have to work at it?

We definitely had to work at it. When we first opened we didn’t lease the whole building so we only had a small kitchen and we only offered a tasting menu. The feedback we got was people wanted to come back but they were waiting for the menu to change. Once we leased the whole building we had more room and we now have three menus, people have more options and it’s gone down a lot better.

Tell us a bit more about the menu and the dishes you and your team have created?

Kenny Atkinson, House of Tides

Kenny Atkinson

House of Tides

We try to focus on seasonality, although every chef says that! We just use what’s good and it’s hard to catagorise the style. I like my food to be honest, clean, full of flavour and generous. The dishes are protein heavy and I always try and give value for money.

Do you have a favourite dish?

The mackerel and gooseberries from my second time on Great British Menu. I just love it and everyone seems to recognise me for it – it’s just a nice simple dish and it smacks of flavour. Also we use a whole pigs head, braise it all down and serve it with scallops, I had that on the menu at Rockliffe Hall and the AA raved about it.

Are you hoping to get a Michelin star in your home town?

Everyone jumped on that band wagon when we first opened, we just want to push the food as far as we can and get everything right including the service. Everyone enjoys what we do and if we get a star then fantastic. It will mean a lot more to me as I will be able to share it with the whole team who made it happen and it will be a great achievement as we started from scratch here.

You’re in the Top 100 this year how does that feel?

We’ve been open 15 months so this is really special for us, it’ss the first time in seven years that I’ve been included in the list. Being recognised nationally is very satisfying but we’ve still got a lot of growing to do.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 25th June 2015

Kenny Atkinson, chef proprietor, House of Tides, Newcastle