Pine stays humble after winning a Michelin star

16 March 2022 by

The eight tables at Northumberland restaurant Pine have been even more sought after since it won a Michelin star, but what has really built the fanbase is a sustainability-focused menu that celebrates local and humble produce

"I know it's unusual to find a restaurant on the top floor of a converted barn," Cal Byerley admits. "But to me it feels natural." What is even more unusual is to find that the restaurant is a recent recipient of both a Michelin star and a Michelin green star. But everything seems to feel natural about Byerley, a pastry chef who has opened Pine in Northumberland with his fiancée Siân Buchan, the restaurant's front-of-house manager.

Pine occupies the first floor of a former cow shed, which sits among other converted buildings at Vallum Farm, a rural business park that is a 20-minute drive from Newcastle – not that you'd know the city was so close when looking through the dining room's floor-to-ceiling windows, the view of the horizon interrupted only by the odd farmhouse and clump of trees.

"To be honest, this is exactly how I imagined our restaurant would look," Byerley says. Having grown up on the neighbouring farm, he has seen this landscape all his life.

The 16 February – the day Pine received its Michelin star – marked a nine-month anniversary for a restaurant that has been in the pipeline since Byerley moved back to the north east in 2018. He and Buchan had attended the same local school but didn't get to know each other until they met again working at Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle for executive head chef Danny Parker, who Buchan knew from her time at the city's House of Tides. "We discovered very quickly that we both had the same goals and ambitions," Buchan says, which is how the idea for Pine began to take root.

Lockdown, however, meant they had to put their plans on hold, and the couple spent 2020 working on an afternoon tea delivery service called After-Toon Tea (the name was Byerley's idea). This meant there was a ready-made clientele when they opened Pine in May 2021, with the naming of the restaurant now firmly Buchan's responsibility, and Byerley still wowing locals with his afternoon teas, which are served Thursday to Sunday.

Head chef duties, meanwhile, fall to Ian Waller, who moved to Northumberland with his partner, sommelier Vanessa Stoltz. "They've been absolutely instrumental in how Pine has been shaped into what it is," Byerley says. The 16-course tasting menu ends with what are modestly described as "confectionaries" but are actually a further half-dozen plates that showcase Byerley's mastery of pastry.

Byerley met Waller and Stoltz when he was the head pastry chef at Forest Side in Cumbria. By the time he and Buchan were ready to open Pine, Waller was working as sous chef at Leroy in Shoreditch. Was it hard to tempt him from buzzy east London to rural Northumberland?

"Cal had already left Forest Side when I took over as head chef after Kevin Tickle left to open Heft," Waller explains. "I loved what I was doing there and felt that I had found my place, but I was always gutted I didn't have a pastry chef like Cal. I don't think the style of food we're doing at Pine would be possible in London – there isn't the same interface with what you're eating. Here the food makes more sense because the local environment and weather conditions all end up on the plate."

What's on the menu at Pine?

Byerley and Waller write the menu together to reflect an ethos of nose-to-tail butchery and farm-to-fork ingredients, with plants and vegetables to the fore and much of the produce grown in Pine's on-site farming operation.

Like Clare Smyth with her carrot and Joël Robuchon with his potato, Waller's signature ingredient is a humble one. "We won't begin a dish with caviar, we start with turnips," he says. "We don't want to order expensive ingredients for the sake of it. We've got a limited supply of veg up here in the winter and the menu must reflect that, which makes us try a little bit harder. There's never a day when it's not challenging, but to make a turnip something really sought after is exciting."

Admittedly, the dish in question isn't any old root vegetable but a snowball turnip with fennel yogurt and fermented plum, a delicate balance of sweet and sour, crisp and creamy. Even so, are customers surprised to find something potentially so plain in a £90 tasting menu? "Guests say the turnip is the dish they're least looking forward to, but it often ends up as their favourite course," Waller says.

Tickle taught Waller and Byerley the art of foraging at Forest Side and the team go in search of gorse, watercress, pink purslane and mushrooms in the surrounding woods, aided by pins in a Google map. The team also take less frequent trips to the coast for what Waller calls "massive buckets of seaweed". Most of the meat and game that supplies Pine comes from within a five-mile radius; Byerley points to a line of trees in a neighbouring field to illustrate where the venison is farmed.

"We take the advice of farmers and suppliers as to what to put on the menu because they'll know better than us what they've got growing in their field," he says. "If a farmer has a pig that's ready to be slaughtered, we're not going to say ‘give us something different'."

There's never a day when it's not challenging, but to make a turnip something really sought after is exciting

It helps, of course, that Byerley is as local as the produce on the menu. His family have farmed at Welton, one minute from Pine, since 1805 but, although his brother followed their father onto the family farm, Byerley spent more time growing up around their mother, a teacher who is, he says, one of the best cooks he knows. The support that Pine has received from their Northumberland neighbours has been invaluable, not only for creating a network of farmers and gamekeepers, mycologists and flour millers, but also for morale.

"I remember the support Kev had at Forest Side for being a Cumbrian local, which was massive for him," Byerley says. "It's definitely been massive for us. We live on the next farm along, and a lot of the suppliers we use and the customers we have are people I grew up with. We've had nothing but a great reception." Most diners so far have come from Newcastle, although a gushing review from Marina O'Loughlin in The Times – "my restaurant of the year" – has brought Pine a wider audience, including one couple who made the journey from Norway. But the biggest boost to business, the team admits, will be Michelin.

"The star has brought a sense of security," Buchan says. "We only have eight tables, so cancellations have a massive financial impact for the restaurant. The star will also push us not to rest on our laurels. It now feels like the time to really show what we're about and expand the practices we believe in."

Michelin green star for Pine

Pine's commitment to sustainability won it a Michelin green star. The restaurant has implemented a huge range of sustainable initiatives: it runs on biomass, solar panels provide electricity, on-site produce is grown using the no-dig method to keep carbon within the soil rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, and beehives house native black honeybees. Nothing is sourced from further than 20 miles away (the distance to the coast), while preserving keeps the larder full over the winter. "We want to inspire customers to use some of these practices in their own home rather than buy imported goods," Buchan says.

And it isn't just customers the couple want to inspire but also the next generation of chefs. "I've been thinking about how we can get kids involved from an early age, to show them what we do and give something back to the community," Byerley says. "My mum was a teacher and my dad was a farmer. I'd love to represent them both in what the restaurant does."

In the meantime, Byerley is looking after the current generation of hospitality workers by giving his team of nine – four chefs and five front-of-house staff – three days off after four days of straight shifts. "Siân and I wanted to create a work environment that people could be proud of," he says. "You deserve three days off when you work four very intense shifts morning till night. But I've found that when I come to the restaurant to do a bit of gardening on a day off, there'll already be someone else here, not because they've been forced to but because they like being here. We want to prove to the chefs and sommeliers of the future that this is a desirable industry to work in."

Other plans include an on-site shop selling breads, cakes, afternoon teas, juices and cheese, which Buchan calls "a more approachable and affordable version of the menu that people can take away". A staff area is also being converted to a cocktail lounge due to open in summer, where the Pine dining experience will begin and end, while four cabins due to be delivered in July will offer overnight accommodation, with breakfast hampers for guests to wake up to the next morning.

"There's a lot of room for expansion," Buchan points out. "It's just about finding the right path that's not going to take anything away from what we do. Pine is escapism at its best for me; there is peace here." Once the shock of the Michelin star has worn off, there'll be no place more natural for Byerley and Buchan to come back to earth.

Fine dining in the North East

"When I was younger, I had to move to the Lake District to find fine dining," Byerley says. Pine's star, however, brings the tally of Michelin-starred restaurants in the north east to four, along with Kenny Atkinson's House of Tides in Newcastle, Hjem in Wall in Hexham, and the two-Michelin-starred Raby Hunt in County Durham.

Byerley credits Terry Laybourne, who won the region's first Michelin star in 1991 at Newcastle's 21 Queen Street, for kickstarting the north east's food scene. But he notes that Laybourne took things in a more casual direction with Café 21, while Newcastle-born Atkinson won his first star at the St Martin's on the Isle hotel in the Scillies before returning to the north east. "I don't think that people in the north east were scared of good food, it just wasn't a thing here," Byerley says.

Now, though, it very much is a thing. "Kenny was the brave guy who stepped forward and said the north east will like this kind of food. Now Alex Nietosvuori and Ally Thompson have opened one of the best restaurants in the country with Hjem, and Kenny is going to offer an even higher level of fine dining when Solstice opens in Newcastle."

What's more, Waller thinks that the seemingly unstoppable growth in staycations will only lead to more high-end dining in Northumberland. "In the past, many people might not have thought about Northumberland for a holiday and gone to the Lake District instead. But the Lakes are so busy now, so they come here and realise how beautiful it is. And they need focal points like us on their week off." And like Lancashire-born Waller, they might even stay for longer.

How did the restaurant get its name?

Like the pine tree itself, the restaurant's name offers the team great versatility. "We wanted something short and sweet that was easy to remember," Buchan says. "And it represents a dream for us: we've been pining for this vision of ours to come true."

More visibly, the landscape is carpeted with pine trees. "Pine embodies Northumberland," Byerley says, "and it embodies what we do as a restaurant. It's an ingredient that's so readily available on our doorstep. We have lots of different varieties growing on-site and there are so many parts of a pine that you can use in cooking. It's very sustainable; we just walk outside and pick some pine."

The namesake ingredient finds its way not only into oils, vinegars and kombuchas but has starring roles in the cooking, too. The tasting menu recently featured a course of venison tartare bound with a pine needle miso and garnished with a caramelised pine cone and pickled spruce tips, which add texture and floral sweetness. "When I took the dish to the table, I was reassuring the guests that the pine wasn't a gimmick," Waller laughs. "It's a really versatile ingredient."

But is there an ingredient they wouldn't combine with it? "The only thing I wouldn't add pine to is my porridge," Byerley says. Some things, it seems, don't need a spruce up.

Pine's tasting menu

  • Sugar kelp dumpling, North Sea trout and sour cream
  • Berwick Edge, dry-aged carrot and lovage
  • Langoustine claw, artichoke and cured pork belly
  • Twice-brewed choux, cured beef and brown butter
  • Snowball turnip, fennel yogurt with fermented plum
  • Ancient grain sourdough with our butters
  • Beef fat poached shiitake, black garlic and bone broth
  • Line-caught mackerel tartare, orange geranium and cherry blossom
  • Beetroot, Dale End cheddar and last year's walnuts
  • Garden juice
  • Steamed plaice, langoustine shell sauce and oxalis root
  • BBQ Old Spot pork, Mayan gold and buckwheat
  • Yogurt whey sorbet, elderberry, sorrel and hyssop granita
  • Forced rhubarb, rowan shoot and apple
  • Artichoke cone with pineapple weed
  • Confectionaries

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