Published on July 11, 2017 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Happy in his comfort zone
The brief was to restore the pub kitchen’s previous reputation – and he’s succeeding. Alastair Gilmour talks to The Cluny’s new head chef
True to his word, Julian Ive, (fairly) new owner of The Cluny in Newcastle, has invested in the back office by aiming to get the pub’s food offer back to its former glory – the days when it had a reputation for simple, well-cooked dishes with a splosh or two of adventure.
Joining the team last month is John Nellist, formerly of Longhorns BBQ Smokehouse in Newcastle; hired to head up the Cluny Kitchen. And it has started to pay dividends after a mere few weeks.
“I’ve know Julian for years and we share the same passion for music, pubs and food,” says John, himself a musician. “We always said we’d love to do something together, then when he took over the pub in April he said ‘I’m now in a position to offer you a secure job’, which was a big help.
“I told him what I’d like to do with the kitchen and he loved the ideas – I’d worked really hard on menus before we had a chat – so I left Longhorns on the Friday and started at The Cluny on the Monday.”
John Nellist’s ideas are designed to attract daytime diners with original menus using local produce. Live music and an impressive range of cask ales and craft keg beers have made the pub into something of an institution, but these days you need something even more than that. It was while working in a Gateshead pub last year that the penny finally dropped for Julian, who had previously spent 11 years at The Cluny in various roles.
He told Cheers North East in May: “When I was doing shifts at The Schooner in Gateshead I saw that there were maybe 100 people in for Sunday dinners, then there was a band on at 4.30 which made the pub continuously busy from 12 till nine. It opened my eyes a bit to what could be done.
“The Cluny is a local pub for local people and we need that daytime trade back again to give it a buzz.”
What John Nellist focuses on is great tasting comfort food, constantly monitoring just how much fun everyone’s having with it.
He says: “It’s going really well and we’ve had people coming in just to try the food. I always like to talk to people about it – for example, we’re looking more into vegan and vegetarian options and doing little things like using freshly-baked baguettes rather than frozen which is all going down well.
“I absolutely love it here, Julian trusts me to just go for it although I always run everything by him. We’re so much busier now on the food side, even on the days when there are no gigs on.
“I always welcome suggestions, especially from vegetarians. I spent a lot of time in the meat game and my girlfriend’s vegetarian, so it makes a difference.”
John wasn’t always a chef; he was made redundant from Formica in North Tyneside some eight years ago and looked everywhere for a job. Eventually he walked into Belle & Herbs in Heaton, Newcastle – now the Butterfly Cabinet – and was willing to do anything. He was offered a position in the kitchen and admits he took to it “like a duck to water”. He went on to Lola Jeans in Tynemouth and also runs a blues club at Billy Bootleggers in Newcastle. And he’s concentrating on his surroundings which Julian Ive is keen to support.
“The Cluny has always been about the Ouseburn community – and we’ve already got a lot of our old regulars back,” he says. “We’re back to getting our coffee from a local company, for instance, as well as using local musicians and breweries. Sometimes that sort of thing isn’t fully understood by big companies with lots of individual businesses to look after and they can’t make an exception of one.”
The Cluny Kitchen menu now features the likes of The Rumble Po’ Boys Jumble, a New Orleans-style sandwich of crispy fried chunky cod, shrimp and squid/octopus in a crusty toasted baguette with bacon, melted Cheddar and Remoulade sauce. The world-famous Cluny burgers have been given a tweak, as has fried suckling pig chop with seasoned mashed potatoes and a choice of home-made sauces (which will shortly be available to buy over the counter) and John’s halloumi cheese fries are proving a hit.
So, with exceptional beers to try after a hot day in the kitchen, what do chefs head straight for?
“I don’t actually drink much,” says John. “After a shift I like to get home to the kids, but I might stop in the bar for one of our wheat beers which might be only 2.4% abv, but it’s lovely.”