After making the move back to his native North-east, Kenny Atkinson's work regaining Seaham Hall's Michelin star went largely unnoticed in the industry. But if that didn't bring him much attention, his turn on the TV programme Great British Menu will, writes Tom Vaughan
If you found time to catch a glimpse of the BBC's Great British Menu last week, then you might recognise diminutive Geordie chef Kenny Atkinson. In fact, more ardent Menuwatch readers might even recognise Atkinson as the runner-up in last year's Menu of the Year Catey, when he finished a close second to London restaurant Scotts.
But, six months after winning a Michelin star at Tean in the Isles of Scilly, Atkinson waved goodbye to the islands, taking over at the White Room in Seaham Hall in August last year, a move that took him closer to his spiritual home of Newcastle. "I always said that the only place that would have got me to leave the Scilly Isles for the North-east was Seaham Hall," Atkinson says. "It was a tough decision, but I've got a two-year-old son and it came down to putting his interests first."
The move away from Tean, where Atkinson left behind the star he had strived hard for, was vindicated in January this year, when he retained Seaham's Hall star, an achievement that was somewhat overlooked in the industry.
Atkinson's classically-based cuisine, which regularly marries numerous cuts of meat in a menu of technically astute, multifaceted dishes, has transplanted well to County Durham, with local pork, beef and lamb joining other north-east produce such as Yorkshire quails on his menu, courtesy of meat suppliers Freemans, County Valley and Aubrey Allen.
Those who have watched Atkinson compete on the Great British Menu will be familiar with the amount of work that goes into each dish. Take, for example, his main course of Northumberland Blackface lamb, asparagus, young leeks and pease pudding, which featured on the programme, as well as on his à la carte at present, priced at £55 for three courses. It involves a confit of the shoulder, rolled and wrapped in Parma ham, loin cooked in a water bath and sweetbreads. But with Atkinson calmly waiting for opponent Ian Maftin, executive chef at the Manchester Abode Hotel, to complete his less complex dish of beef fillet, mushrooms, marrow-bone and red wine sauce on screen, it shows that Atkinson's cooking is all in the preparation.
Terrine of Yorkshire quail, rolled with braised ham hock and baby onions and served with pan-fried foie gras and pan-fried quails' egg, is 90% mis en plas, 10% service, as is the popular main of Goosnargh duck breast, cannelloni of confit leg, fillet mousse and gizzard sauce accompanied by parsnips (soon to switch to carrots), beetroot and lime. In fact, the duck dish, with breasts large enough to serve two when cooked slowly with no shrinkage, are cost-effective enough to sit on the lunch menu, priced at a competitive £25 for three courses.
"I've always tried to do what David Everitt-Matthias does at Le Champignon Sauvage," Atkinson says. "Although it's a two-star restaurant, he keeps the prices reasonable because he needs the clientele."
The touches of Mediterranean cuisine that some say mark Atkinson's modern British cuisine (lobster ravioli or duck-leg cannelloni, for example) are not conscious nods to any background or upbringing - "that Mediterranean claim doesn't mean too much to me," he says in Geordie drawl - but are a result of efforts to combine as many different cuts of animal on a dish. "Playing around with different cuts, different textures and flavours is what I try to do," Atkinson says. "I try and put a lot of work into the food and into each dish." Predictably, desserts follow the same model as his textures of strawberry dish prepared on television, with several different approaches to one or two ingredients.
Covers at present see the 40-seat restaurant full most weekends, with a steady lunch trade, but the annual interest in the Great British Menu will inevitably lead to a surge in cover numbers, just as it did for contestants in previous years. His four dishes - which impressed the judges enough to put him through to the next round on a unanimous vote - will all feature on his à la carte as the produce comes into season.
All in the preparation... Isle of Skye scallops from Kenny Atkinson's menu
ALSO ON THE MENU
£20 for a three-course lunch menu at the Michelin-starred Purnell's in Birmingham
By Tom Vaughan