�2.5m Cookhouse ‘to bridge food gap’

A �2.5MILLION showcase for Suffolk and East Anglian food ingenuity has opened its doors following a major building project.

The Cookhouse, at Suffolk Food Hall, at Wherstead, near Ipswich, was put through its paces last week, with booked events, including a wedding breakfast, and a ‘soft launch’ for restaurant customers last Monday.

Although minor works are being completed in the ‘food hub’ area on the ground floor of the former farm building, the spacious upstairs restaurant and bar, with impressive views of the Orwell Bridge, is fully functioning. A function room, called ‘Feast’, has also been set up upstairs to cater for the demand for conferences and events at the site.

Around 25 new staff have been taken on, and, even in the first few days and without promoting the venue, the 130-seater restaurant has been an instant hit, with the lunch shift averaging around 100 diners.

The Cookhouse, which was part-funded by an East of England Development Agency grant, is the brainchild of cousins Oliver and Robert Paul, who launched Suffolk Food Hall, the original farm diversification project on the site, in May 2007.

“It’s quite an imposing building,” said Oliver. “We are absolutely delighted about it.”

The success of the food hall venture, which was designed as an artisan food producers’ alternative to supermarkets, led to the creation of the Cookhouse.

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The cousins admit that the finish and quality of the new venue is a few notches above the food hall project, with an interior designer, Kate Hill, of Todhunter Earle, Bentley, brought in to give it a unique feel. The reaction so far has been “very positive”, said Robert.

“I think everyone is fairly blown away by the view and they love the space,” he said.

The Pauls wanted to capitalise on the unexpected success of the original restaurant in Suffolk Food Hall, as well as create a food artisans’ version of a hi-tech hub, where individual and complementary businesses can work their magic in separate units, but visible to a stream of restaurant customers and conference and events goers heading to the first floor.

A cookery school area on the ground floor has already held its first events, and has five different lesson providers lined up, with mobile work stations, made by local Wherstead Road firm Orwell Furniture, able to take cookery demonstrations to different parts of the building.

An upmarket caterer, The Main Ingredient, is signed up as a tenant in the eight-unit hub area. Other short-term tenants, cake-maker Suzanne Archer and patissiers The Little Pantry, have also booked a place. The hub design includes a microbrewery and a smokehouse space, which are yet to be tenanted. It’s possible the cousins may go a similar route to the one they followed in the food hall, where there are independent retailers but also some elements, including a butcher’s, which are in-house.

Head chef Mark Knowles and his team were given a baptism of fire when a trial run resulted in invited guests all eating simultaneously, but he said he was enjoying the new kitchen, which was “fantastic”.

“Rather amusingly, one of our first bookings was for 12 environmental health officers,” said Robert.

He added: “The upstairs is probably more the commercial driver and downstairs is longer term where we want to complete our food story.

“In the current economic situation where we don’t think we are in recession but we are certainly not booming, you need to be flexible and prepared to respond to the circumstances.”

The former food hall restaurant, which is being turned into a retail space with cookery books and cooking and tableware accessories, is expected to open next month.