An interview with Anna Hedworth, of Cook House

Following my review and post on my new favourite place ever, Cook House…

The last time I went, I asked Anna if I could interview her to get Cook House’s story, her views on Newcastle, and other things. We had a lovely chat for 45 mins, in between a couple of customers popping in for takeaway lunch and a delivery of fresh ingredients from a local grocer. Here’s what we chatted about:

Me: It’s quite hidden away here, how do people find you and who are they?

Anna: They’re people who work around here, people who go to the hotel, people who just follow what I’ve been doing for a while, tourists…and then I’ve also been in various ‘Top Ten Eats in Newcastle’, The Times, and I just got in the Good Food Guide, and various other press things…

Me: So how did cook house come into being?

Anna: Well I actually started by writing a food blog, so that was where I started blogging my recipes. I was working in architecture at the time, and from the blog I started to do supper clubs. I didn’t like the idea of doing them in my house, so I did them here, ‘cos in its previous life this was just an empty shell, a kind of events space that belonged to the architects where I used to work. That was my project when I was still in architecture. There was nothing in here at all. So I hired some furniture and did a supper club, and people came and it was a bit weird, and then I carried on doing them, every few months. I did them for about a year and then the National Trust got in touch because they’d read about them, and so I started doing stuff for them. Up at Lindisfarne Castle and the Farne Islands, putting a menu and an event together between the two of us and selling the tickets. I did those for about two years, and then decided that actually I was doing so many of those things, I preferred doing that to doing architecture, decided to leave, asked if I could rent here and then kitted the place out and stocked it.

I was thinking I’d like to open a restaurant, but I didn’t have the money to do it. I didn’t know where it was going to be; getting a lease in town or Jesmond or wherever would be really expensive. And this is much more interesting. So it kind of sprung out of the fact that I had no money, but I think it’s been for the best.

Me: And what kind of work were you doing when you worked for the architects? You can definitely see your career in design has influenced the inside here.

Anna: Mainly interiors towards the end, because I preferred that… Yeah, so I had to do it all myself, and my website myself and the graphics and all of that kind of thing.

Me: Based on looking at your blog and the awards and stuff you’ve won and reviews, it seems like you could definitely expand to a much larger space with hired staff, do you want to do that?

Anna: Yeah that’s the plan, this was always a starting point and it was a way of getting off the ground without having much money. I’m looking to have kind of a proper restaurant. I’ve got a vague future plan at the moment, but I’ve had a few of these and they haven’t happened… But touch wood it will happen just along the road, still in Ouseburn and still in shipping containers – it doesn’t exist yet, but it’s going to be a bigger space, kitted out properly, heated, with actual doors and a little bit more high tech but still retaining the charm. With a few more people to help. That’s one of the drawbacks of here, I can only do what I can manage because there isn’t enough space to have two people cooking, and there’s no storage space.

Me: What got you in to cooking?

Anna: I didn’t really start until I was a student really, in Edinburgh. The girl that I lived with was into cookery, and then we started cooking together, then my boyfriend was a really good cook and I started cooking with him more and more … So yeah, probably only in the last ten years or so really. But I was just obsessed and constantly cooking.

Me: There’s a lot of talk about how meal times are really important for families and stuff, what do you think about that? Do you think it’s a shame that the family supper is dying out and do you see cooking as a way of bringing people together or is it more about appreciating the food?

Anna: Yeah, that’s what I like about it really,  the round the table aspect of it, and I don’t think that has to be every day or every evening with all of your family but it’s nice and that’s the aspect that I mainly enjoy. Seeing people talking to each other, that conviviality of sharing and passing it around.

Me: Maybe with friends rather than a family you don’t like…

Anna: Yeah exactly! I think that’s what I get out of it, when I see 20 people sat down at a table and they don’t know each other to begin with and then they’re making friends and passing stuff to each other – that’s really nice.

Me: And what about the process of cooking, is it the cooking you enjoy or the food after?

Anna: Yeah I enjoy that, trying new things and new combinations.

Me: I’m always so impressed by people who are able to get inspiration for making new things, where do you get yours from?

Anna: I don’t really know, I guess reading a lot of stuff. Reading a lot of books, looking at a lot of stuff online… I’m a bit obsessed with instafood on Instagram. Looking at other chefs who I think are good, seeing what they’re doing, ideas just come out of that. Thinking: oh actually, that could be good together. Just trying things out.

Me: Have you ever had any flavour combos go diabolically wrong?

Anna: Not dreadfully wrong, I think I’m quite good at getting an idea of whether something is going to be nice or not before I try it, then usually it often needs improving but it works out in some form… I have had some really odd things, like when I decided, ‘I wonder if apple risotto will work?’ And it’s like ‘No, it doesn’t.’ It was gross.

Me: So you know how the Ouseburn is under threat and it’s being lost to university flats, do you think it’s important to preserve the area?

Anna: Yeah, I think it is ‘cos I think it’s quite unusual for a city centre, well just outside, to have this interesting historical area and it’s quite quirky – I hate the word quirky – but it is. With the farm and the art studios and all of the things. But to be honest, I don’t think that there is a problem with it at all. That area up there where they are building all of the student accommodation, was just a wasteland anyway. The Ouseburn is great and everybody goes on about how great it is, but there’s not enough people. So actually having more students wandering around and building these houses opposite, I think that’s good.

There are good pubs but not many restaurants. There aren’t many shops. A friend of mine has a florist she has just opened up opposite the stables. Someone else just opened a patisserie. So having that starting, will make more people come and wander down. It’s a really nice area, I like being here.

Me: So give me an example of your standard day routine, how do you do it?

Anna: I’ll come in about half 8, start cooking, open half 9. I get the fire on because that takes about half an hour to get warm. Then I cook anything that needs to go on for lunch for that day, if I’ve got a dinner that week I do any prep that needs doing for that. So today, I made fresh soup for lunch but then also put in some salt cod for a dinner next week and I’m plucking pheasants for next week too. I made some fruit vinegar, and then got everything ready for about 12 o’clock when people start coming for lunch. Breakfast is quiet, not many, the odd people here and there. It’s a simple breakfast menu. Then lunch is usually busy between 12 and 2. In the afternoon I do more stuff for the events or the next day. Or pack up and go home.

Me: Why do you choose not to open for dinner?

Anna: Mainly because it was a business plan for how I could run a business on my own. I’d be dead by now otherwise. It’s quite stressful trying to order everything, keep everything stocked, plan menus, reply to all of my emails, do all my accounts, and all of that sort of stuff. So usually the afternoon is trying to keep up to date with those sort of things.

Me: With Instagram and artisan food culture, do you think it’s changed people’s attitudes towards food for the good?

Anna: Yeah I think so, I think people are more interested, people have more questions, I don’t know if that’s just my clientele because generally people who come here are interested in food but I think people have more questions about who made the bread, where did you get those vegetables from. I’d see it as a positive thing when I say ‘someone down the road’.

Me: And do you think locally sourced is important?

Anna: Yeah I do, I try not to buy imported goods, but obviously it’s difficult because they’re not growing oranges and lemons in the Ouseburn in December. But if I was to get my carrots from South Africa I’d feel a bit bad. I started running food markets around the time when I started the blog, I do the Jesmond food market and I used to do my own little ones, that was a good thing to do as I’ve met loads of interesting people.

Me: So you ask sellers to come to the markets?

Anna: Yeah and get together good suppliers that I’ve come across. That was a good way of finding who I thought was the best baker or who had the best cheese. So when I was starting here I already knew who I was wanting to talk to. And often more interesting people come along the whole time.

[We discuss the bible bread from Mistletoe bakery in Jesmond. It’s banging.]

Me: What are your thoughts on veganism and all that? …. Ah, not a fan, I can tell by your face.

Anna: Yeah, I think a lot of the clean eats type stuff, a lot of it is misinformed, people saying certain things are bad for you when they’re just not, and you’re not allergic to dairy or to gluten. We’re Northern Europeans, we’re designed to drink milk. Nothing against vegetarians, I cook a lot of vegetarian food and I try not to eat lots of meat, there’s a lot of vegetarian interesting stuff on my menu and I don’t even think of it as vegetarian option, it’s just an interesting dish that happens not to have meat in it. Whereas I think my dad, for instance, would never consider a meal without meat in it. A totally different mindset. I struggle with vegan though. Because I put dairy in things all the time, like a salad, if I was making an interesting salad, well it’s got feta in it. If it were just carrots it’d be missing something. I put butter in things quite often, soups are quite easy to make vegan, but I’d struggle to make someone a main course vegan that was delicious.

Me: What’s your favourite recipe? Sorry awful question… but your death row meal?

Anna: Right yeah, I have thought about this before. I think some of my favourite things are langoustine, from up here, the Grainger Market often have them in. And in Fenwick’s food hall, although you’ll pay twice the price there. Those, and woodcock is one of my favourite things I’ve ever had. But I haven’t had them enough. Only about 4 or 5 occasions. My dad goes shooting, hence the pheasants out the back, and so he’s bought them before, they’re tiny beautiful things and you just roast them whole and they’re one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever tasted. Tiny, you’d only have one as a starter almost. But really rich, gamey  and juicy and delicious. Then things I shouldn’t say cos someone will have a go at me, something like foie gras. Truffle. Black pudding.

Me: Lots of rich stuff then!

Anna: Yeah, I think if I had that meal I’d be sick but…

Me: Are you sweet or savoury?

Anna: Definitely savoury, oh and cheese. On death row I’d definitely eat cheese. The Darling Blue, up the road, it’s just the best blue cheese I have ever had by miles. They sell it in Fenwick’s and the Grainger Market too.

Me: Final thing, where is your favourite place to eat in Newcastle, or a couple of places you’d recommend I write about next?

Anna: There are 3-4 opening really soon, that all look great, one of my favourites is The Broad Chare…

Me: Really! That’s the first place I ate in Newcastle! With my parents, as a fresher.

Anna: I really like it there. I like the place next door, the Italian Café Vivo, although that’s more hit and miss. But when it’s good it’s really good. I go to Dat Bar quite often for pizzas and burgers, but it’s an Italian family who own it and all of the produce they use is really good.

Me: Dat Bar … awful name!

Anna: Yeah, it’s a terrible name. It’s like a craft beer bar, and a bit tacky, but they do nice cocktails and the burgers and pizzas are really, really good. And not expensive.

Then we went to a really good place that’s just opened last week called La Yuan, it’s a Szechuan Chinese place. Authentic. Not British Chinese. Tonight, we’re going to Saltwater Fish in Fenwick’s. The food hall itself is very expensive, it’s a bit like Harvey Nicholls, but in there are three restaurants, one is called Ko Sai and its Asian fusion but good, and not expensive. Saltwater Fish, you sit at the bar and it’s various fish things, and Fuego, which is a Mediterranean mix of tapas pizza etc. They’re all really good.

Did you know where Riley’s Fish Shack was? That’s going to be a taco place called Barrio Comida, the chef is a guy called Sean, who worked in amazing places in London and moved back up here and he’s brilliant, it’s gonna be like a tequila mescal bar with soft tacos, burnt wood and everything. He’s got two shipping containers, so a similar size to here.

There’s a new place opening on Queen’s Street just along the quayside called Dobson Pernell which looks interesting. And there’s another place in Jesmond opening called the Patricia which looks really good. It’s on the Cradlewell, near Peace & Loaf – that’s also really good. They do a set lunch – I think it was £20 for three courses and loads of little bits in between. It was brilliant.

I’ll tackle these places in future posts… But for now, go and eat at Cook House.

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