For the last three months Tom Adlam has been letting loose his own signature style in the heart of Newcastle at the new Tyneside Bar Café on Pilgrim Street, recently opened as part of a £1.3million redevelopment of the iconic and much-loved Grade II listed Tyneside cinema.
He made his name at the cosmopolitan Chewton Glen in Hampshire, as well as Michelin-starred establishments Le Poussin at Whitley Ridge in Brockenhurst, and Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford. He developed his love of unfussy food made with the best ingredients while working in Australia with legendary chef Andy Bunn at Café Sopra in Sydney, and for the last nine years he’s been a more local fixture at Terry Laybourne’s Café 21 in Newcastle.
One sunny morning in July two months before opening day, with building work nearing completion and the menu still being hammered into shape, we managed to tear Tom away from his still-forming kitchen at the Tyneside Bar Café for this exclusive interview.
Why were you interested in coming to the cinema, and how did you end up as their first-ever Head Chef?
My wife discovered it and told me she thought my dream job had come up. She was right, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it particularly because I knew there weren’t really any cinemas doing decent food, so I started doing a bit of research and came across an independent cinema in New York called the Nighthawk. They had a really great chef and were doing a really cool food offer, so I realized there was definitely scope for that, and I started forming this idea of what I could do somewhere similar like the Tyneside.
I just had to see if my vision would fit, and in talking to the people at the cinema it became evident almost immediately that it would. I just knew that I desperately wanted the job. The chance to do something different in the city, to be part of a really cool venue and to make it even cooler was too good an opportunity to turn down. There was so much scope to do something really unique, and an amazing opportunity for me to put my stamp on that.
The Tyneside is a very popular place with a loyal local following, so were you a fan of the cinema already?
My wife’s parents were customers, and we noticed that every January they would stay with us more often, three or four times a week sometimes, so one year we asked what they were up to , and they’d say “the Oscar films are on at the Tyneside”, and I didn’t even know where it was!
So one day we all went for a visit and had a coffee in the old Tyneside Bar on the third floor, then a month later we came to see a film. I was sitting there in the screen having a bottle of wine with my wife and thinking that it was just terribly civilized and terribly cool, and wondering why we’d never been before. We basked in the glory of the peace and quiet, with a good film and a glass of wine, and once we came that was it. We were never going to go and see a film anywhere else.
So, ready to make your mark in a brand new venue, what’s driving you? What’s making you interested?
Overall it’s a basic love for food. I grew up above my parent’s restaurant, so I was always around good food growing up and always being encouraged to try new things. Without really realising it I grew up developing a passion for food and really caring about what I was eating. When I got to about 14 or 15 I thought it’d be pretty cool to cook for a living, and as soon as I got into a kitchen it felt like home, so I couldn’t really believe I could get paid to cook and eat food. Then as I got older, I wanted more and more to do my own thing and be really creative with ingredients.
I’m passionate about the ingredients that I work with, so everything in the way I cook revolves around that. I love and care about really good produce, I have a respect for it that leads into what goes onto the plate. I want to put something on a plate that people enjoy. That’s what gets me up in the morning.
You’ve developed an ongoing commitment to the quality and the heritage of the ingredients you’re using.
Absolutely. I want to know where it’s from and that the people involved in getting it to me care about it, because the quality shines through. You develop a relationship and a reassurance that you’re going to constantly get a good product. That’s something I learnt from a really early on working in kitchens; how much easier it is to cook and work with really good produce. You can tell. You can tell the difference in quality just by looking at things. And you don’t have to over-complicate it either. People will think you’ve done something amazing, but sometimes all you’ve done is look after something that was already really good and presented it to them in an interesting way.
Do you think people are more aware of that quality these days?
People definitely care more and more about the provenance and quality of their food. Being local is important too, but above and the location comes quality. I’d say that 95% of what we’re working with in the Bar Café is from the North East, but if there’s something I can’t get that isn’t as good as I think I can get it, then we’ll absolutely look beyond the region. If you went local with everything but it was mediocre, there’s not really any point doing it. But we’re lucky in that we do have really good suppliers in the North East. Extremely good.
How much does the customer response to what you’ve done play back into your offer too?
It always evolves. Even when you’re getting really good feedback on a dish, you always look to tweak and improve it. I don’t think there are many chefs who look at a dish and think it’s perfect. You’re always evolving things. Always. People talk a lot about individual chefs, but all of them have a team behind them they seek advice from. So the team is all-important, and I want our team here to be really creative because we’ve got a chance to link dishes to the cinema programme in a what is a really unique venue. You can develop this mass of ideas with your people and out of it comes something great.
A unique and creative place for sure, and how important is the independence of the venue to you?
Really important, it’s why I wanted to be part of it. I saw it as a cool venue doing something a bit different and doing it really well. To have the opportunity do the food was a no-brainer for me. Everyone here is constantly pushing to make it better, and you don’t really get that in companies where people are working towards a set standard and keeping things the same all the time. Here they’re always forward thinking, always trying to make things better. And that’s just a really good environment to work in.
Tell us a bit about what’s in store for us on the Bar Café menu, and how you arrived at it.
Well, because of the opening hours you’re led towards a more formal brasserie-style offer, so the way I approached it was to make it a lot less formal and a place that you can come and do your own thing. If you want to come in and have a drink and a nibble you can do that, if you want to try a few things with no structure, or if you want to sit down with a small plate then a main course and dessert, you can do that as well. I’ve tried to structure our menu so people can use it in any way they want.
Because of the nature of the venue there’ll be a lot of people who are time-limited, so the menu has been designed to account for that, and we’ve deliberately ensured that none of the food on the menu is so complex that it takes a long time to produce. We don’t want to dictate what people are doing, and that’s been the hardest thing to try and get from it; to make sure that we’re not scaring people off by being too formal, or, equally, putting people off by just being a café.
We’re using specials boards to experiment and see how people want to eat with us too, so we’ll try some dishes that are quite different from the core offer and see if they could work for the main menu. If our fishmonger calls me first thing in the morning to tell me his has landed some amazing plaice, then I’ll take ten and create something to get them on the specials board. When my suppliers give us a tip on really good produce, I’ll take it and give people something creative with it.
You’ve drawn heavily on your good relationships with local suppliers to make the menu what it is.
I’ve got good relationships with them all, and I haven’t met anyone who isn’t excited by it. Everyone thinks it’s going to be cool – the location, being part of something new, and hopefully the fact that I’m involved too! It’s great taking them into the cinema. I always like showing them the leather seats, the red curtain, the glamour. All of the suppliers who hadn’t been before have been wowed.
The time-sensitivity of the audience, and adapting your menu to suit it; how do you see that playing out?
I think we’ll get people that are already using the cinema who are time-sensitive, and their first experience may be that they’ve got only got half an hour in here. But then hopefully afterwards they’ll think of us and spend longer during their visit, or even just pop in if they’re in the city for something to eat. I think that will work for the cinema as too, with people initially just coming in to eat, enjoying the atmosphere and deciding to stay, see a film, and try out the rest of the place. That’s the beauty of it.
So what else are we going to be enjoying on opening weekend, what are you starting off with?
We’ve got odes to cinema, like savoury popcorn made fresh and popped to order, and other fresh bar snacks that people can grab with a drink or going in to see a film. All of the salads are really, really good too, really fresh. Most of the vegetables will be pulled out of the ground either the night before or the same day that we’re using, which is unique and amazing.
We’re definitely doing a hot dog, and we’ve been working with a butcher to get the sausage just right. We’re doing buttermilk-fried chicken, an Asian mussel broth, a really nice risotto, some good pastas, and a lovely mackerel dish with tomato bread salad. The tomatoes we’re getting are just amazing. We’re using seeds from California, you can’t get them anywhere else in the country, so I’m super-excited about those.
Some of the desserts are going to be pretty cool as well. It’s peach season when we open so we’re doing a peach melba, along with a popcorn panacotta and a cookies and milk dessert which will hopefully get people talking a little bit. It’s not what you’d expect. I’m looking forward to doing that.
Great vegetable cooking is pretty cool at the moment too, so we’re working a lot with the great stuff we’ve got coming in to cater for that. You get trends in food, and I’d say at the moment that vegetable cookery and doing vegetables in a really interesting way is right up there. It’s probably a good time to be a vegetarian, and I think chefs have kind of moved away from just sticking a risotto on. You’ve got people with very wide-ranging diets so you absolutely have to make sure you have the right food for them, otherwise ultimately you’re losing their custom.
You’re really closing up that gap in the landscape for cool venues doing really great food.
There’s just nowhere similar really pushing at doing something genuinely good with food, working specifically with the building they’re in to hone their offer. We’re very much a part of the venue and part of the experience, and I don’t think there’s anywhere doing that in the region. It’s exciting and adds to the reputation of the whole place.
Hopefully people will come and spend a whole night here now because they can eat, drink and be entertained. It’s a really cool environment, and also somewhere people can feel comfortable in. I think that’ll be one of the main elements, in that it’ll feel like a home-from-home. So many people have such a strong relationship with the cinema, and hold it close to their heart, so this will just enhance it. And you don’t have to be coming to the cinema to enjoy it either so we’ll get a really good social environment, with people relaxing, and we’ll be that place where you can get away, get something to eat and just chill out. I’m really keen that we become that.
Where do you see the place in the city for the Bar Café a year from now, or even further down the line than that?
I’d like for us to become that place in town where people go when they want something a bit different, not really expensive and can have a good time. People will know they’re going to get something really good to eat, something really good to drink, and be really comfortable here. We’re offering something different to that too-slick, corporate experience happening elsewhere in the city. We’ve got a bit of personality and a bit of freshness, kind of interesting, and always changing a little bit.
I think the main aim that I have is to be the best cultural food offering, for the venue to have the best complete food, drink and entertainment-offer in the city, and then one day people might say we’re the best in the country. Hopefully. I think those are realistic and good aims for everyone here to have.
In a few years’ time, it’d be fun to see some other chef trying to open somewhere similar, doing all of his research, and instead of the Nighthawk he happens upon the Tyneside Bar Café and gets inspired.
That would be amazing. That would be so cool. I think when we’re open and we’re up-and-running, there’ll be a lot of chefs who’ll wonder how they missed out on this. I feel like when we open we’ll surprise a lot of people in the city, which is a really good feeling to have. When they first walk through the door, I think they’re going to instantly stop and think that it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. In a good way. And I think that’s exciting.
The Tyneside Bar Café is open from 8am daily (10am Sunday) offering snacks, breakfast, lunches, dinners, suppers and weekend brunches. They host a range of screenings and events including free cult films, DJ nights, live music, quizzes and more. All proceeds are donated to support the work of Tyneside Cinema.
The Tyneside Bar Café is located at 10 – 12 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6QG, and you can find them at tynesidecinema.co.uk/food-drink/tyneside-bar-cafe too. Look out for our review coming soon.
Photo credits James Byrne (food), Tony Hall (Tom Adlam image), Steve Lomas (feature and final image), and Allan Mushen (Classic screen)
Leigh is Scran on the Tyne’s Assistant Editor, and if you’d like to request that he reviews your venue you can email him directly at email@example.com.