THE 7th Sheffield Food Festival runs at the end of the month from 27 – 29 May in Fargate and the Peace Gardens. I shall be judging some of the foodie events. A little while ago the festival website asked me to contribute an article on the city’s independent restaurateurs. If you missed it, here it is.
YOU can’t get the true flavour of a city from its chain restaurants, convenient though they may be. For that, seek out the independents, men and women who put life and soul into feeding local appetites. Food blogger MARTIN DAWES highlights three very different people.
CARY BROWN, Devonshire Arms, Middle Handley.
THEY once called Cary Brown the ‘bad lad of Sheffield cuisine.’ He’s quietened down now and is a bit older but he’s a serial restaurateur who has either owned or run a dozen venues.
Cary, now 51, burst upon the local scene in the Eighties as head chef, at the precocious age of 22, at the Charnwood Hotel on London Road, with its French-style bistro and upmarket Henfrey’s restaurant.
The first place of his own was Carriages on Abbeydale Road South, followed by a series of others, among them the celebrated Slammers on Ecclesall Road, named after the fishy ‘tapas’ in slammer glasses, the Mini Bar on Hunters Bar, and the city centre London Club steak and fish restaurant. He came to The Dev via the Royal Oak at Millthorpe and his current berth still has a decidedly piscine flavour, concentrating on good fish and big steaks. His hallmark is big flavours with unabashed showmanship.
If anyone can gauge the Sheffield taste it is Cary. “Yorkshire people like to know what they are getting but Sheffield is not just a flat cap and meat and potato pie place. They like a little bit more consideration on price and are doubtful about what I call the new nouvelle cuisine, molecular gastronomy.”
Asked what he liked what best about the hospitality industry, he has no doubts. “I would not have met as many people as I have. And we’d do a lot better if industry in general was modelled on the kitchen with its method, strictness, respect and teamwork. When I’m in the kitchen, that’s my home.”
SIGNATURE DISHES: Monkfish with chilli jam, fish slammers and bread and butter pudding
NANCY DALLAGIOVANNI, Bella Napoli, Abbeydale Road
IF you blink you might miss the bijou Bella Napoli Italian restaurant, squeezed in between an Asian grocers and a lifestyle shop. And if you didn’t blink you might dismiss it as yet another Italian restaurant.
This 26-seater has been run by Nancy Dallagiovanna since 2002. Previously she and husband Vincente had Pepito on London Road so they have been feeding Sheffield for at least 20 years.
Illness means Vincente, from Italy, now takes a back seat so Venezeulan-born Nancy is at the helm. The menu is what you might expect but those in the know go for the ribs. There would be trouble if the dish were taken off the menu. The glory is in the barbecue sauce but Nancy wisely refuses to give away the recipe she has been cooking since 1987. “You can’t just throw it together, it takes time,” she says.
The Bella Napoli had its five minutes of fame a couple of years ago when TV chef Gino D’Acampo arrived to film a spoof item that he was really born in Sheffield and had learned to cook at the ‘numero uno’ ristorante from Nancy.
Of her customers, a mix of young and old, some of whom have followed her from Pepito, she says: “I don’t think they worry about the price but many stick to what they like.” (Me, for one, when it comes to the ribs!).
She enjoys feeding people. “I have to see the dishes come back to the kitchen clean. I always check!”
SIGNATURE DISH: Those ribs
DAVID and PAULINE BALDWIN, Baldwin’s Omega, Psalter Lane
LONG before the days of the star chef it was the Maitre D who held sway in hotels and restaurants, for front of house skills are as important as the cooking. But those come in different flavours! Boss David Baldwin, otherwise known as Mr B, is bluff, gruff and wickedly funny with a personality the size of Yorkshire. Behind the scenes it’s his wife Pauline who looks after the logistics of running Sheffield’s premier banqueting venue.
Sadly, after almost 40 years, the place they have run since 1980, is due to close next year but they will leave behind them a legacy of first class entertainment and service, from office parties and works dinners to top-notch lunches. They didn’t get where they have today without observing that fine old Yorkshire precept: Value For Money. Refusing to cut corners, the quality of food is always high.
It may seem a touch old fashioned with the loaves of home baked bread diners cut themselves at the table (and take away afterwards) and the roast joints carved tableside but the Baldwin’s has been a beacon of Sheffield catering, acting as a sort of unofficial ‘catering college’ for a succession of chefs and waiters.
Mr B observes that for a long time high-end diners had a snobbish attitude to local restaurants. “It pained them to eat here so they got the kind of restaurants they deserved.” Now they do eat in their home city “and so there is a better choice.”
For him, the best thing about the hospitality business has been “the most wonderful group of acquaintances and pals” he has gained.
SIGNATURE DISHES: Fresh fish on the blackboard menu, breads and roasts
Well that was last year! Things have changed. Cary left the Dev and has now taken up culinary residence at Barlow Woodseats Hall. Nancy has sold Bella Napoli but the spare rib dish lives on. The Baldwins are selling up the Omega to a developer for housing and are moving out at the end of summer. Catch them while you can.