Terry's all gold - Terry Laybourne, the North East's most celebrated chef, talks food
Posted: 02 Nov 2009
He's the man with the Midas touch. Terry Laybourne talks about the long road to success
Caption: Terry is pictured here with his operations director Nick Shottel (far left) and wife Susan
Do you have a secret food vice?
Not a vice as such, but chefs tend to eat simply when they’re off-duty. I am happy with a plate of corned beef, chips and pickled onions.
Where do you eat apart from your own restaurants?
I tend to stay around Newcastle. I go to Pizza Express, Piccolino near Café 21 and Barn Asia.
What’s your favourite pub?
I love The Ship at Newton on the coast of Northumberland. I also like the Crown Posada on Dean Street and The Cumberland in Byker – a proper boozer.
Exclusive interview by Anne Graham
Any would-be chef searching for a role model needs look no further than the North East’s own Terry Laybourne.
Mastermind of the 21 Hospitality Group – currently Café 21, Café 21 at Fenwick, Caffe Vivo and Jesmond Dene House (all in Newcastle) and Bistro 21 in Durham – he has transformed the face of eating out in these parts.
He first came to widespread public attention when he opened the 21 Queen Street restaurant in Newcastle 21 years ago which won a Michelin star, transformed itself into a more relaxed outfit, changed its name to Café 21 and moved round the corner to Trinity Gardens.
Talking about the long and eventful journey from novice to expert, Terry explains: ‘I became a chef by accident,’ he says. ‘I’d always planned to be an engineer but in 1970 the country was in a deep recession with three-day weeks and power cuts. My father didn’t see any future for me as an engineer so I had to think of alternatives.’
A chance meeting with an old school friend who was working as an apprentice chef at the Five Bridges Hotel in Gateshead gave Terry the idea to do the same and he secured an apprenticeship at Newcastle’s Swallow Hotel.
Turning up on his first day with his shoes polished and long hair freshly shorn, he was aghast to find a much more relaxed regime than expected.
‘I was mortified to see that the chef de partie – the bloke I would be reporting to – was an Alice Cooper look-alike with hair halfway down his back!’ says Terry. He moved on to jobs in Guernsey and Jersey at the age of 18.
‘This was a big adventure,’ he says. ‘I’m a working class lad from a council estate who’d never been abroad on holiday. It was a big step for me.’
Terry moved on to a job in Germany and finally to Switzerland where he had always wanted to work. But at 21 he had tired of working in a resort largely populated by retired people and he came back home for a break and to regroup.
‘I ran into Rob, the Alice Cooper look-alike, who was head chef at the Fisherman’s Wharf in Newcastle,’ he recalls. ‘He was short of staff so I said I’d help out and began there the next day.’
His ability and determination later earned him a move to the Wharf’s upscale sister restaurant, the Fisherman’s Lodge in Jesmond Dene.
Then he set up on his own at 21 Queen Street. ‘It was a combination of optimism, enthusiasm and blind ignorance,’ he says.
Terry went on to open a range of new outlets, each with its own character.
‘There was no grand plan. I was just obsessed,’ he says. ‘There’s no one project I favour above the others – I’m genuinely proud of them all. I am relentless with people and I work them incredibly hard to achieve standards and maintain them, but I also give them an enormous amount of latitude. Maybe that’s the secret.’
The rest is history – and history that’s still in the making. His latest venture, Jesmond Dene House, has been a tremendous success, winning AA Hotel of the Year in 2008, and his restless nature means he’s unlikely to rest on his laurels.
You get the feeling he’s got a lot more fish to fry in terms of new projects: the foodies of the regional can expect the 21 empire to transform and innovate – and reign for many years to come.