I’ve never found anywhere with quite the same “If it’s good for our city, it’s good for me” attitude as the north east. It opens doors and allows ideas to grow.
I’ve been running the EAT! NewcastleGateshead festival for the last nine years, and when people ask me why I don’t do EAT! elsewhere in the UK I’ve often said it wouldn’t work without that attitude.
In my experience, food scenes fall into two categories – one is the well-established food landscape that is a challenge to break into. The other is where newcomers are welcomed and nurtured by those who already have a foothold. The north east is firmly in the latter group.
As a result, over the years, I’ve seen more and more creative and entrepreneurial people enter the food world here and that’s why there are so many great cafes, bars, pop-ups and food events happening all over the place. It’s incredibly exciting and it’s not going away.
There has been an incredible transformation. Back in 2006 it seemed that many young chefs felt that all the best opportunities were outside the north east, and there was a huge drain on our local talent. Now we’ve got really bright and enthusiastic youngsters coming up through the colleges who see the north east as a fantastic place to be. They don’t want to leave and are taking jobs with chefs at our many great restaurants.
Alongside that, people across the north east have been developing an adventurous spirit when it comes to dining out, encouraged by EAT! and many others. Customers now have much broader tastes and higher expectations, which is driving up standards all the time.
In any industry there has to be a benchmark, and a Michelin star is a benchmark from which everything else can be measured. But should everyone in the north east be looking to get one? No. Everyone should be looking to be the best they can at what they do – whether that’s the best fish and chip shop, the best bacon butty or the best truffled arancini with caviar.
We only really learned to dine out in Britain over the last 30 years, so in that sense we’re a century behind the rest of Europe. However, in many ways that’s working to our advantage: we do have a food heritage but it isn’t so strong that it prevents us from moving on. We’re adventurous and will try new things. There are fewer rules about how things should or shouldn’t be done.
Nowhere is this more true than in the north east and I think we are best placed to take the lead in creating new ways to enjoy great food – not forgetting our traditions like a good Pan Haggerty, but not allowing them to hold us back either.
Food culture is changing all the time, it’s not just a historical thing, and the north east scene is in a period of rapid change. Where there are barriers to us making more of our food culture there are people trying to remove those barriers.
However, while we now use the word “culture” a lot when talking about food, we don’t invest in it in the same way we do other cultural, or even sporting, activities. If we are to continue to experiment and innovate and change attitudes to food in the north east then we need to recognise that funding and support is needed for those of us who are exploring new directions and challenging current thinking. Huge commercial and social benefits have sprung out of such activities over the last few years. I hope this can continue.
Simon Preston is festival director of EAT! NewcastleGateshead. You can follow him on Twitter.
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