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Interview: Northumbrian chef Richard Sim

BY READERS DIGEST

6th Sep 2023 Food & Drink

8 min read

Interview: Northumbrian chef Richard Sim
With several restaurants located around the North East, including the Michelin recommended Potted Lobster in Bamburgh, Richard’s passion for seasonal, local produce from the surrounding areas is evident in his rich offerings of both land and sea dishes that provide something for everyone
We are sat in Richard’s restaurant The Whittling House, located on the main street of the Northumbrian coast town Alnmouth. The restaurant is named, he later tells me, after the Northumbrian term for sea trout. The name makes sense, given that Richard himself is a professionally trained fish chef, with a plethora of experience from having worked all across the country.

Did you always want to be a chef?

Oysters and bread and a glass of wine
It was a pure fluke. I was caddying for my dad at Foxton golf course, just up the road from here. My dad knew the woman, Libby Robson, who did the catering and one day she shouted out the window, “Do any of your sons want to wash dishes, I’m short today”. And I thought “I’d rather get paid to wash dishes than carry golf clubs,” and that was it.
A lady called Betty Keanon worked for Libby and she would tell stories about being a chef’s assistant in London. She filled my head with these dreams. That was the ignition I needed, the seed was planted.
I wanted to do cooking at school but I wasn’t allowed because I was a boy! So instead I did a night class with a lady called Mary Belle who was a big influence as well. She does good old-fashioned farmer’s wife cooking.
"If you said to me, do you want to go to The Ritz for afternoon tea or Mary’s, I’d go to Mary’s every time"
Mary Belle probably still does the best Sunday lunch you’ve ever had. It’s ten times better than mine. Going for afternoon tea at Mary’s is mind blowing. If you said to me, do you want to go to The Ritz for afternoon tea or Mary’s, I’d go to Mary’s every time.
Not that there’s anything the matter with John Williams at The Ritz. I’ve met him quite a few times and I love him. He’s probably one of the most famous North East chefs who gets no recommendation for being from the North East of England. It’s a crying shame that we, as an area of England, have missed John Williams.

You moved down to London to pursue your career as a chef. Were there more opportunities for new chefs down South, rather than in the North East?

In the mid to late Eighties, there wasn’t a lot up here; there certainly wasn’t a food scene like there is now. A sous chef I was friends with recommended me to The Berkeley, in Hyde Park Corner which was the nearest function suite to Buckingham Palace.
I began working there which was completely different. Everything was made from scratch, and the chefs wore big, tall chef’s whites’ hats. It was massively intense but classic, brilliant training in a Michelin star restaurant.
The Berkeley was run how kitchens used to be run. Your first jobs are peeling potatoes and chopping beef bones into dices. As a young chef, you don’t really understand why you do it. You do it before you realise why you’re doing it, and it’s only when you look back you think, “Ah, that’s why I did that, that’s why he was so particular about this”.
I worked at The Berkeley for two and a half years and loved every minute, but it was a time when food was changing a lot and I wanted to see how it could be different, so I went to Le Meridien Piccadilly. You go from this disciplined, organised, set hours, this is what you’re doing, into this absolute hell hole. Some days I’d go in at eight in the morning and not finish until midnight.

Have you ever cooked for any famous people?

Interior of the Alnwick Garden Tree House
When Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumbria, opened the Tree House in Alnwick Gardens, I’d been doing a few dinners for her husband Lord James Percy, so she asked me what I thought of the idea. I told her it looked amazing. A few months later I got a phone call from her PR saying, “It’s falling to bits, can you help with this?”.
I had a bizarre meeting with the Duchess, and I told her I would help, but that if I went in, I was going to ruffle a lot of feathers. She said, “That’s exactly what it needs, can you start on Monday?” I was there for four years.
Through the contacts and the people that I’ve met, I’ve cooked for all of the royal family apart from the Queen. I would have wanted to cook for her desperately.
At the Tree House we used to get Prince Philip who would take it privately for a week when he was up here for the horse driving trials at Alwnick. Princess Ann comes to Linnup a fair bit. King Charles was good friends with the Duke and Duchess so I’ve cooked for him a few times, and I cooked for Prince Andrew down in London.

You’re obviously very passionate about cooking but have you ever thought that the high stress environment might be too intense? 

If you really want to learn how crazy we are, read Anthony Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential. You see the drama on TV shows a little bit. Take Gordon Ramsay for example. He’s a brilliant chef but I hate the way he’s shown on TV But he made his money being shouty and in-your-face and he became a superstar. If you followed me around with a camera all day and chopped it into 15 minutes, you could make me look how you wanted to.
But meeting my wife, who is a paediatric intensive nurse, changed me massively as a chef. As a chef, you have a tendency, when you’re young and working and growing your way through it, you’re quite aggressive and hard and you think you’ve got the most stressful job in the world as a chef and nobody understands. But at the end of the day, I cook somebody’s dinner, and if I burn it, it doesn’t matter.
"As a chef you may have done 60 hours but you’re still peeling potatoes. Nurses work in a completely different world."
Whereas if my wife puts two milligrams of drugs into somebody’s kid and that kid dies, that’s stress. And the money nurses get paid is an absolute disgrace. I think every chef should spend some time with intensive care nurses just to see the difference in their realities. Because you may have done 60 hours but you’re still peeling potatoes. Nurses work in a completely different world.

What lessons have you learned along the way, about being a chef and working in a kitchen, but also about yourself as a person?

Stuffing an oyster with onion
In the kitchen, the lessons that you learn are all the classic ones. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Treat people how you want to be treated. Be nice until it’s time not to be nice. It’s pointless having this brick wall because then people will still feel that they can’t speak to you, and you’ll never know the truth.
Cooking wise, buy well, buy the best you can buy. Keep it simple. When non-chefs invite you for dinner, they tell you that they’re worried cooking for me because I’m a chef. But I would say 90 per cent of chefs are the most unfussy eaters in the world because they’re just so pleased that someone else is cooking.  
"Chefs are the most unfussy eaters in the world because they’re just so pleased that someone else is cooking"
What people want is simple food done well. Don’t overcomplicate it. Always take two ingredients out of a dish. At The Potted Lobster and The Whittling House, there’s no head chef. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and everyone does everything and it just works really well. I don’t mind doing the dishes.
We just do simple dishes and use fresh fish. As Terry Leybourne says, it’s 90 per cent ingredients, it’s five per cent inspiration and five per cent perspiration. The good chefs will understand, if you’re having a tomato sandwich, it doesn’t matter, as long as you use the best bread and the best tomatoes, it’s going to taste good.

What is your favourite dish that you make or that you’ve made in the past?

It changes every week. I’m doing a dish at the minute which I think is beautiful, it’s a hand-eye king scallop, brushed with XO paste, and served atop an XO tomato stew. It’s also grouse season. I had my first grouse of the year the other day, because you eat them in August and September, and it blew my mind. It blows my mind every time.
Grouse smell like they’re going to taste really strong, but it's actually the most mild, delicate game you can ever eat. Their taste changes because young grouse live on insects, but as they grow they start feeding on heather instead, and the taste of the heather comes through as you’re eating it.
Last week I did some beautiful lamb chops who had just come off the heather, and I did them on a barbecue on the fell tops nearby. But what I cook now, I’ll be cooking something completely different in two years time.  

Did your love of food and cooking grow from good food experiences in the past? What is the best thing someone else has cooked for you?

A lobster dish from The Potted Lobster
When I was younger, my dad’s best friend used to build villas in the south of France. So, before it was fashionable, we’d build a roof rack to go on a Volvo estate car and six of us used to get in the car to get the ferry from Newcastle to Rotterdam and drive to the south of France. My brother and I had to sit in the boot looking backwards and all of the suitcases were on the roof in the homemade roof rack.
We never went to the sea because it was really expensive, so we’d go into the hills. I remember we went to this restaurant and you didn’t get to choose what you wanted. You just sat down and the wine came in a big jug. My brother was 14 and I was 12 and they pour a little bit of wine in your glass and top it up with water and that’s your soft drink.
Then they had this stuff on an open fire cooking which they said was lamb but was obviously goat, but that’s probably the first meal I can ever remember eating and thinking, "this is so off the map from my mother’s mince and dumplings".
At home we used to have the same meals every week, fish on a Friday, roast dinner on a Sunday. With this goat, I remember thinking, "this is so far away from anything I’d ever eaten before."

What is your favourite thing about being a chef?

I’ve been very lucky. There’s been some horrendous lows but the highs just absolutely outweigh it. There’s just so much opportunity to do whatever you want to do because everyone eats. You’ll always be able to work, make a living and put bread on the table, literally.
For chefs, there’s always going to be a demand. I won’t lie, it’s hard and you’re knackered and I’ve done more 90 hour weeks than 40 hour weeks but it’s worth it.
If you do it well, it’s a brilliant career. I’ve cooked for footballers like Shay Given at his house and Alan Shearer. I’ve met some brilliant people and some of the stories and things I’ve seen are absolutely hilarious. I’d love to write a book about it one day.

Do you think it’s true that anyone can cook?

A lobster dish from The Potted Lobster
Yes. Everyone can cook. It’s the simplest job in the world. Anyone can cook. Not everyone can cook well. It’s all about confidence and doing things. Going back to my mum and having the same dinner every day…she was very good at making mince and dumplings. She made it every week.  
I think as a chef, you’re never 100 per cent happy. I’ve never done a dinner in my life and thought, "that’s absolutely perfect." I’ll never say that was perfect. I could do the best dish in the world that I absolutely love and still pull it to bits. I can see the flaws in my own cookery but you don’t see them in other people's cooking.
Banner credit: Susie Lowe 
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