January 5, 2021
“I just want to cook in my restaurant again; it’s what my life is.”
Dave Coulson is sat in the shadows of Peace & Loaf, the growing dimness of another cold Newcastle afternoon a perfect accompaniment for his thoughts.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dave’s venture – previously acknowledged by the blue-ribbon Michelin Guide and awarded AA Rosettes – was a thriving gastronomical hub, with diners queuing to sample the makings of a chef who, as an ebullient, self-taught, mid-20- year-old, reached the final of BBC show Masterchef: The Professionals in 2010.
The landscape now, however, is markedly different.
Dave is not in his chef whites but jeans, a thick jumper, coat and hat to guard against the winter’s chill.
His Jesmond-based restaurant stands idle, its lights are turned off and its tables are empty, the outside bustle of cars and pedestrians a cruel juxtaposition against its suspended state.
Like so many other hospitality operators, Dave has borne the brunt of Government measures to stem the tide of COVID-19 infections.
And it’s been a hard time.
When the North East emerged from England’s November lockdown, its restaurants and eateries – in their traditional forms – didn’t.
For 35-year-old Dave, the situation compounded the financial strain brought by the national lockdown in spring last year.
With venues across London, the South East and South West and the Home Counties, as well as small pockets in the North West, Midlands and Yorkshire, permitted to re-open in early December amid changes to COVID-19 tiers – in the process benefiting from crucial Christmas trade – Dave says he and his fellow North East restauranteurs have been “hard done by”.
And he also believes the sector has been unfairly labelled, with ministers too quick to apportion blame for any increases in coronavirus cases to eateries.
“I love the restaurant, I love my staff, I love my customers and I want it to work, but at the moment, it is empty, and the place is absolutely freezing,” says chef-patron Dave, who followed up his TV debut on Masterchef with an appearance on the BBC’s Great British Menu in 2018.
“It is ridiculous that restaurants in London – a city with nine million people – were allowed to open again but that we couldn’t up here in the North East,” says Dave, who was speaking before the capital and the South East were placed into tier four restrictions.
“Christmas is harvest time for the restaurant industry and the Government basically cancelled the harvest season for us with its decision to put us in tier three of the COVID-19 restrictions.
“Imagine if they took harvest away from a farmer?
“The hospitality sector has been made out to be the scapegoat, with claims that a lot of coronavirus cases were coming from pubs and restaurants,” continues Dave, who was forced to furlough 12 members of staff due to the pandemic’s effects.
“When we are allowed to re-open, it’s going to be like starting all over again.
“The cost of re-starting – buying your ingredients, restocking your wine – is going to be huge, and the Government are expecting us to do that ourselves,” adds Dave, who founded Peace & Loaf with Bob Arora in 2013.
“We will survive this, but there are others that unfortunately won’t.”
To help ensure the enduring success Dave alludes to becomes reality, he has rolled out a new venture at the back of his restaurant.
Peace & Loaf will remain his main endeavour, but, acknowledging the impact of the first lockdown, the social distancing measures placed upon operators during the summer and the proliferation of associated takeaway services, he pivoted to launch a convenience offshoot aimed at replenishing restaurant revenues and safeguarding against further legislative changes.
That undertaking was Peace of Pie – and it is proving a major success.
Offering customers flavours such as beef bourguignon, currywurst, saag aloo, mince and dumpling, and a chicken creation based on a recipe he used in the Masterchef final, Dave, who makes the pies alongside a skeleton kitchen team, says the response has been overwhelming.
“The restaurant is closed but the kitchen is still working, and we are probably making 1000 pies a week,” reveals Dave, who originally hails from Wingate, County Durham.
“I’m not Nostradamus, but I knew something was going to come again after the first lockdown.
“When that one ended, we had to lose about 20 seats so we could abide by social-distancing rules, and that was when we decided to set up the pie shop.
“People love pies, it’s just a fact of life. They go crazy for them and they’ve flown out since we started.
“We’re here Thursday, Friday and Saturday selling our pies,” continues Dave, whose skills as a chef saw him spend time at Michel Roux Jr’s London- based two Michelin-starred La Gavroche restaurant in 2011.
“We start at 10am and are here until they sell out – we go through hundreds every day.
“Someone said to me recently that this was the most positive thing to have come out of both lockdowns.
“That not only proves to me that people are enjoying what we are doing, but it is also testament to the work we’re putting in and the direction we’ve taken.
“My dream was always to have a restaurant and a pie shop, and we’ve done it, albeit thanks to the pandemic.
“We are doing this for our survival.
“We don’t want to see the hard work we’ve put in to set up and grow this business go down the pan.”
For Dave, Peace & Loaf – and now Peace of Pie – represent more than just commercial ventures, though; they are a reflection of him and his life journey, which, could all easily have been so different.
Upon leaving school, Dave enrolled on a course at East Durham College’s football academy in 2000.
However, as talented a midfielder as he was, Dave was never destined for a career in the Beautiful Game.
His peers might have been comfortable on cutting nomadic trails through English football’s outposts, but Dave was plotting another course entirely, swapping creativity on the pitch for vision and inspiration in the kitchen.
“I joined the academy but left soon afterwards,” he recalls.
“I didn’t like wearing tracksuits – I was a bit of punk when I was a teenager – and although I was a good footballer, I just didn’t want to conform.
“From the people who were on the course with me, I think one lad went on to play for Stockport County when they were in League Two, and another played non-league with Whitby Town.
“But I was different – I’d always been interested in food and by this point I was working in a kitchen.
“My interest in food had started when I was younger; I’d run home from school to watch Ready, Steady, Cook.
“I would see chefs like Tony Tobin, Brian Turner, Ainsley Harriott and the late Gary Rhodes – who was brilliant – and be totally inspired by what they were doing.”
After beginning his career at Castle Eden Inn while still at school, Dave began, like so many before him, washing pots and providing support in the kitchen.
However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he eschewed the classroom in favour of real-life work experience with colleagues at the County Durham venue, which he says laid the foundations for future success.
And when he was handed responsibility for the restaurant’s starter course, his interest really piqued, and he began to translate his innate creativity, and the methods of his cookery idols, into tangible dishes.
“I didn’t go to college, I just started working – I think that’s what they mean when they say self-taught,” laughs Dave, who supports The People’s Kitchen and organisations including The Brain Tumour Charity.
“There were two head chefs and me at Castle Eden Inn and I learned a lot from them.
“But I also worked with a lot of good chefs and people at places like Seaham Hall, McCoys at The Baltic, and The Star Inn, at Harome, North Yorkshire, which gave me an excellent grounding.”
This platform helped give Dave the confidence to apply for Masterchef: The Professionals – and cook under the microscope of the great Michel Roux Jr.
“Masterchef was class”, says Dave, who also previously appeared alongside ‘Hairy Bikers’ Si King and Dave Myers during one of their BBC cookery shows.
“I was only 24 when I applied, but I went in feeling absolutely fearless; I just knew I was going to get into the final.
“However, when I progressed through the rounds and actually got to the final, I didn’t have a plan and I just flopped – it was a proper ‘classic Coulson’ moment,” he laughs.
“But I still really enjoyed the experience. “It was crazy to think the people whose books you’ve got on your shelves at home were now judging you and your food.
“But it was also a privilege, and I felt extremely lucky to be part of it.”
And, as he looks back on overcoming such challenges, Dave says he is keen to get started again in the kitchen to build a stronger future for his business.
“This is a dream job – it’s the job I wanted to do when I first started learning to become a chef.
“I love being busy and thinking of new ideas and ways to be creative with food.
“Now all I want is to be back in the restaurant and continuing the work we’ve started.”
Chef patron and co-founder of Peace & Loaf