How a Masterchef finalist turned a run-down boozer into an award-winning pub…
Just over a year ago The Staith House was a run-down old pub called The Dolphin; it was near derelict and stagnating in its previous reputation. It had been all but abandoned, until a lady called Mrs Calton saw through the external wear and tear to its glimmering potential. It just so happened that Mrs Calton was married to Masterchef finalist John Calton, a man with just the credentials and kitchen skills to turn this weary pub into a quayside dining destination.
Fast forward a year and the tattered old Dolphin is now the refurbished, redressed Staith House – and what a year it’s been. We caught up with John to find out about the many accolades this pub has picked up, how he has found the experience of starting his own restaurant from scratch, and what’s on his menus this festive season.
Why The Staith House?
This was actually the building’s original name. Staith is another name for a jetty, and here we are right on the harbourside, so it’s really relevant to its situation. The establishment itself dates back to 1807, making it one of the oldest buildings on the quay, and it was only renamed The Dolphin in 1853. When it came to reviving and rebranding the pub, we wanted to draw on the building’s history – we went back to go forward. It was really important to change the name as The Dolphin had a bit of a reputation.
It is every chef’s dream to be head of their own kitchen, and I am no different – it had always been my goal to have my restaurant. When it came to The Staith House it was a bit of a gut feeling and we really took on a challenge. Luckily the brewery were really supportive, and after we showed them our business plans they came back to us with a chunk of funding that allowed us to get an architect and really renovate the place beautifully. It was an intense time, re-sculpting the place, and we spent a long time getting everything just as we wanted. It’s a real labour of love and I think that shows in every aspect of the pub.
Owning your own restaurant is a whole lot harder than working for someone else, as you’ve got to worry about every single element of the business, from the ingredients to your VAT, but it’s totally worth it and we’ve had an exceptionally good first year. Since opening we’ve been listed in the Michelin and Harden’s guides. We were awarded silver at the North East Tourism awards, Heineken have let us know that we’re in the top four out of their 16,000 pubs, and just this morning I opened a letter informing us that we’ve been shortlisted for the Top 50 Gastropub Awards for 2015. It’s been pretty hectic but brilliant!
We know that you’re a high achiever from your time on Masterchef: The Professionals a few years ago. What did you take away from that experience?
I really applied to Masterchef at a crossroads in my life. I had just landed my first AA rosettes and was ready for the next challenge, but wasn’t quite sure what that was. I found myself filling in an online application form for the programme and then just found myself getting through each round, until I ended up at the final! The highlight from my time on the show was working with Michel Roux Jnr. He is such an inspiring and supportive chef. He was on hand at all times, offering tips and tricks and telling stories and welcoming us into his kitchen. It really was like meeting my hero. La Gavroche was the first cookbook I ever owned, and I did get him to sign it. But the ultimate goal was a personal one. It was never about competing with others, I wanted to test myself. Cooking competitions are always tough, but with the cameras and the nation watching I really wanted to prove myself and hold my nerve in that intense situation.
Who has been your culinary inspiration?
After Masterchef I did a brief stint in France with the only British man with a Michelin star in the country, Simon Scott. I then moved to the midlands and worked at The Duke of Wellington, and was pleased to get it a spot in the Michelin Eating Out in Pubs Guide.
My style is very classically influenced. When I was a commis chef in Jersey it was around the same time that Gordon Ramsay earned his third Michelin star and Marco Pierre White was big on the scene. But I’ve always been really interested in game and fish, and the chefs who have influenced me directly are those who I’ve worked closely with: Andrew Pern at The Star Inn and Simon Gueller, who I worked with at The Box Tree in Yorkshire. We all have similar values and ways of approaching our menus. Working with Andrew in game country was fantastic for me, and I’ve kept in contact with many of my suppliers up there to bring fantastic game to The Staith House.
What’s on the menu at The Staith House?
I’m all about quality, fresh fish. We’re different to quite a lot of restaurants in that we change the menu everyday depending on the catch and what’s available. I am very proud to be produce-driven; it has to be the freshest, seasonal and as local as possible. We are blessed with our location for fresh fish and seafood. Every morning at 7am we’ll get the latest from the fish market and the sheer variety is awesome: turbot, scallops, king prawns, halibut, red mullet, sole, plaice, cockles, you name it. Once we’ve chosen, we then decide on the daily menu.
Meat is the same – quality is paramount. People flood in on a Saturday to enjoy a good steak and a glass of red wine. This New Year’s Eve there is a menu offering rib-eye beef for two; the meat is hanging at the moment, so it will be meltingly tender by the time we serve it at the end of the year. That’s the key with food like ours, and why I think the restaurant has done so well, it’s about simple ingredients cooked really well and with know-how.
What is your favourite time of year?
Late autumn to early winter because of the game available. Alongside fish, game is my big passion and I have really good relationships with farmers and gamekeepers in Northumberland from whom I get some amazing pheasant, duck and venison. I love to fill the menu with these hearty, rich flavours that come from game and the root vegetables that are abundant at this time of year. Winter is all about rich, deep flavours and I think everyone wants to cosy up in a good pub next to a roaring fire with something hearty on the plate.
What will be on your Christmas dining table this year?
This year, we’re spending Christmas day in the restaurant. We’re not open then, so we’re making the most of the kitchen and I’ll be cooking for about 20 to 25 close friends and family. I’m envisioning a lovely rack of beef, a whole roast duck, and I’ve got some turkey pies with melt-in-the-mouth pastry up my sleeve too. Me and my business partner James have both got our eyes on some snazzy new knives this year, so we’re hoping for those under the tree, and maybe a nice winter jacket from my wife.
Which food festivals can we find you at when you’re not in the kitchen?
Actually it’s on the cards that we might be setting up our own food festival on the quay next year. It is early days but we’ve got together with The Net (www.thenetnorthshields.co.uk) to discuss some ideas. I think it would be amazing to celebrate our history and produce rich area here. When I can get out and about I love to visit the Tynemouth Food Festival and Eat! Newcastle and I always think that Borough Market is like a daily food festival and there’s nothing better than mooching around it whenever you’re in London.