KATHARINE CAPOCCI chats to John Connell, the newly-crowned North East Chef of the Year, who won the title after no fewer than four attempts.
IT was definitely a case of slow burn for chef John Connell who seized the coveted prize of North East Chef of the Year 2012 on not his first or second attempt, but his fourth stab.
“I’ve entered four times ... I couldn’t be bridesmaid again,” says John, with a smile. “After three times I wasn’t going to do it again, but I entered a fourth time. And finally I won! I was a little bit relieved to be fair. The judges said to me I was the most professional on the day.”
High praise indeed when you take into account the high-profile judges included Paul Gayler, executive chef at The Lanesborough Hotel in London and Paul Bates from InterContinental Hotel in Mayfair. It’s a well deserved – some would say belated – win for New Zealand-born John, 43, who has racked up considerable professional experience, having worked at a string of top-class restaurants over the last two decades.
He reels them off and they include the likes of The Savoy, London, a stint working for Marco Pierre White, who he knows personally, Seaham Hall, and Terry Laybourne’s Michelin-starred 21 Queen Street in Newcastle, back in the day. And then there was his work at NUFC as a consultant with Terry’s 21 Group, the De Giorgis from Newcastle, the Vermont Hotel, and more recently the Black Horse gastropub at Beamish.
He served his apprenticeship with the esteemed five-star Hyatt hotel group in Australia and new Zealand.
John is well known on the North East foodie circuit, having worked at so many well-regarded restaurants over the years. He hails from Dunedin in New Zealand and is a father of three, Emily, 14, and twin boys Owen and Gareth, 11, and lives in Fenham. Sadly his wife died in 2004 from cancer.
These days John is relishing getting his teeth into his role at The Meat Merchant in Jesmond, Newcastle, where he works as in-store chef and shop manager for managing director Nick Bennett.
It supplies both the public and trade with vacuum-packed meats, and sells a range of deli produce. The shop on Hazelwood Avenue specialises in Northern Irish meat, supplied by the famed Hannan Meats, which supplies hotel groups and restaurants in the UK.
John also ploughs his own furrow with his private dining and chef demonstrations with themes.
He will be showing off his famed culinary prowess when he takes to the mobile kitchen at The Journal’s Taste food fair at Northumberland County Show in Corbridge on Bank Holiday Monday, June 4.
He will take to the stage at 2pm to perform a demonstration for watching crowds.
John will be joined by other chefs who will each take a turn at the stove, including Jo Hampson of Smoky Jo’s in Shap; Journal food columnist Jane Lovett of Wooler; Andrew Laurie of Barluga, Morpeth; and Lee Campbell of The White Swan, Alnwick, who is also North East Chef of the Year winner 2010.
Catching up with John at The Meat Merchant shop, I find him modestly low-key about his title win.
Nevertheless, it has given him a fillip. “It’s a good feeling. It affirms what I’m doing.”
He dishes up a bowl of slow-cooked lamb tagine for a customer, declared melt-in-the-mouth. The meat falls apart.