Terry Laybourne, Chef Restaurateur, 21 Hospitality Group

The Staff Canteen

Terry Laybourne celebrates 30 years in business next year. His first restaurant, 21 Queen Street, brought Newcastle its first star in the Michelin Guide UK. 

He opened 21 Queen Street in Newcastle in 1988 ‘out of frustration’ because he wanted to develop the way he wanted to develop. Since then he has achieved a Michelin star, a first for the city (a mantle he is happy to now pass on to Kenny Atkinson) and an MBE. He now owns six restaurants in total; 21, Caffè Vivo, Café 21 at Fenwick, The Broad Chare, Ko Sai and Saltwater Fish Company plus consultancies with the Lakes Distillery and Fenwick LTD. But what is the secret to his success and how easy is it to make the transition from chef to restaurateur?

The Staff Canteen spoke to Terry about taking risks, keeping young chefs’ feet on the ground and how he misses being in the kitchen.


So it’s 30 years next year since you opened 21 Queen Street!

Ouch! Yes it is, on one hand it feels like yesterday but sometimes it feels like it’s been an incredibly long and arduous journey – but (laughing) I suppose we all suffer these emotional rollercoasters!

Although it has now moved location, as it was your first restaurant, do you still have a soft spot for 21?

I guess so, 21 Queen Street morphed into a bistro when there came a time that the location we were operating in wasn’t quite right anymore for a one star restaurant which was ambitious. I felt we had developed it as much as we could, I failed to find a new site for it and through time got my head around it actually being a great site for bistro. The transition was a huge success but with a basement kitchen the building still wasn’t really fit for purpose so after a couple of years of refining the Bistro concept we moved to a much bigger purpose built site. I still gravitate towards 21, I’m there most days and the whole business is driven from there. We have a production kitchen and bakery within it which supplies our other restaurants.

What’s the key to being so successful?

We’ve grown organically, there was never a grand plan. Initially I didn’t have a plan to have my own restaurant, it came out of frustration as at times I wasn’t able to do the things I wanted to do or develop the way I wanted to develop. With hindsight, I suppose the first restaurant was a bit fancy and high end, I eventually found that a little restrictive because I had an open mind in terms of what I liked. I was into restaurants and I still am full stop, and that meant I was into more casual places too. The first bistro we opened was a real success and it was just such a good fit, we chanced upon a site, I had people in the team who were ready to head up their own place and that was us on the road.

You have to take a risk and back your own judgement – I’m not someone who is driven by the fear of failure, I’m naturally quite optimistic.

So you didn’t open the restaurant looking for a Michelin star then?

I just did what I wanted to do, I tried to do it as well as I possibly could and I thought that people who had Michelin stars were

Cafe 21 at Fenwick's Cheese and Spinach Souffle

Cafe 21 at Fenwick's

Cheese and Spinach Souffle

super stars! Then the star came along…it was a all a bit embarrassing really.I was embarrassed because I didn’t think I was good enough. But I guess a little bit of insecurity is what drives you and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this. I hadn’t worked in any starred restaurants and there weren’t that many in the country at the time; those that were there were more often than not, headed up by French lads and it was in their blood. So it was difficult to accept and I didn’t know what the hell to tell the guys at work.

It was the first Michelin star for Newcastle, looking back now that’s a fantastic achievement.

That year we were the only English city centre restaurant outside of London that had a star. But it’s yesterday’s news, people keep harping back to it but it’s history for me. It was nice at the time but I don’t think there is any comparison now between a starred restaurant in today’s market and back then in 1992.

You are now a restaurateur rather than a chef but do you miss the kitchen?

I miss it terribly. But I came to the conclusion that it’s something you can’t dip in and dip out of. I’m there on the side-lines and offer input – if I’m needed I’m happy to go and do a bit, but the truth is I’m not exactly ‘match fit!’ These big services, it's a young man’s game.

What input do you have in terms of menus?

We collaborate, some of the restaurants I need to get more involved in than others. We have a policy of promoting within so if we have a head chef who is new to being head chef I’ll obviously provide a lot more input than with say my chef at 21 who has been with me for 17/18 years.

This is pretty much what I’ve built the business on, this DNA of it’s always our own people who move across the sites, they get it and understand what I want and share my vision.

Info Bar

Top five restaurant meals: This is a really difficult call, there's been so many. However here's a punt at five, for one reason or another, really memorable meals

Jamin, Paris 1991 - the last stop on a 14 day binge. Arrived with a jaded pallet and an empty wallet and was still blown away! Robuchon at his best. 

Le Moulin de Mougin, 1982 - our first three star experience on honeymoon, I can still remember every dish.

Any one of many over the years at The River Cafe - probably my favourite restaurant ever.

Umbuntu, Napa. 2010 Quite brilliant vegetable cookery from Jeremy Fox.

Le Timbre, Paris 2011-12-13 - Because I love Bistros!

Five most influential chefs:

Michel Guerard

Roger Verge

Eckart Witzigman

Joel Robuchon

Raymond Blanc

Although you have a number of restaurants now do you still have signature dishes?

The food has evolved massively but we do drag things back every now and again and have a bit of fun with them. There is a terrine I make with ham knuckle with a big slab of foie gras through the middle and a quenelle of peas pudding on the side, which started its life as me poking a bit of fun at some over-zealous foodies who took themselves far too seriously.

Terry Laybourne
Terry Laybourne

In the past 30 years you’ve obviously seen the food scene in the north east change significantly.

It’s great that Kenny (Atkinson) came home and did what he did and did it the way he wanted to do it, and it was successful. It took the weight off my shoulders! It did become a little tiresome the Michelin star chatter. There still needs to be a lot more independents, there has been quite an upsurge over the past 12 months which is nice. We’ve been infiltrated by all the national operators over the last three years and there has been a bit of fightback by the independents which is lovely. Some are better than others but they are all approaching it with loads of enthusiasm.

Then there is James Close, what he’s done is quite remarkable – it’s a bit of a fairy-tale really.

How has social media effected the restaurant industry in your opinion?

The whole food world is different now and it’s all down to modern communications. There are huge positives attached to that as the awareness is now sky high but it’s the inevitable double edge sword. Used correctly and appropriately it’s a wonderful tool but equally it can be incredibly divisive. I think it can at times confuse young cooks, when I was learning there was just one path and that was through classical cookery books, there were very few different schools of cookery so it meant you learnt in a very logical and methodical way.

Saltwater's Hake.jpg.640x480 q80
Saltwater's Hake

Now there is information overload, young chefs bounce around wanting to be American BBQ cooks one day and Rene Redzepi the next.

Do you think this means young chefs are missing key skills?

Yes, it’s something I wrestle with on a daily basis. Being able to give these guys a good grounding and a proper education, trying to protect them from all of the white noise that’s going around and then at the same time not presenting myself as a boring old codger!

What advice would you give to young chefs who are ready to do what you did and open their own, independent restaurant?

Just go and do it! I’m quite blasé about it, I had a real solid team around me so all I did was go and cook. I make it sound very easy but it was easy because I just did what I had done previously but with so much more freedom. So in terms of advice I’d say surround yourself with the right people, who share your vision and who you can communicate well with. Interestingly I went to a place in Newcastle the other day, called The Patricia, and it’s exactly that scenario.

It’s a young guy who has a bit of a background and he’s doing what he wants to do. He’s put it together for about two bob but it doesn’t matter, he cooks beautifully and it really is my style of food. Three or four things on a plate, beautiful ingredients and by god does it taste good. It took me back to the glory days of Alistair Little, Simon Hopkinson and Rowley Leigh, what he is doing is almost a back lash against foams, smears, swipes and ‘textures of’. It’s back to real cooking.

At the start of your career you cooked in the Channel Islands, Germany and Switzerland – how different were those kitchens in comparison to those you worked in when you were in Newcastle?

Vivo's Mushroom Risotto
Vivo's Mushroom Risotto

They were very different to what I had experienced. They were much more disciplined and focused with a greater breadth of luxury ingredients. I had the opportunity to go to Germany and Switzerland or go to London, where I would have lived in a bedsit. Going to St Moritz and living in the hotel, earning twice the money – it was a no brainer, I could almost do with going back!

Those kitchens absolutely influenced the way I work, and if I’m having a challenging day I do think back to how those places were ran.

And was Newcastle always the place you thought you would open your own place?

As I said I had no ambition to open my own place, I think in reality I just wanted to be the sauce cook at a very high end restaurant. I loved that team ethic and being a part of a focused and highly productive team, I guess I just wanted to be the soloist or the centre forward! I came home to Newcastle between seasons and was trapped, I said I’d help out at a friend’s restaurant called Fisherman’s Wharf and all of a sudden I was head chef which I wasn’t ready for. I was head chef because I was the best cook in the team and that doesn’t qualify you for management - I had to teach myself.

They then opened another place called Fisherman’s Lodge and I took on the head chef role there. I worried terribly that I didn’t have a mentor anymore so I immersed myself in self learning. I read incessantly and as head chef I had the freedom to experiment and teach myself while at the same time teaching the guys who were working with me. You can develop relatively quickly that way and my plan was to go there for two years and then return to Switzerland. Eight years later I lifted my head and I had a decision to make. I realised that in order to move on I was probably going to have to do something for myself.

What are your plans for the future?

We are going to do another pub this year, I’m working very closely with Fenwick where I’ve had a restaurant in the store for nine years and I’d very much like to move and expand that. I’ve got a few other bits and bobs going on, it never stops really. I find it hard to say no but I suppose the key to it all is that as a cook you have to have an active mind, have to be busy and be reasonably creative. Once you stop cooking on a day to day basis there is a big void. So having other projects fills that gap to a degree, it’s not quite the same buzz but it’s a reasonable substitute. 

>>> Read more in The Staff Canteen Meets series here

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd February 2017

Terry Laybourne, Chef Restaurateur, 21 Hospitality Group