Valda ups the heat for TV chefs

Valda ups the heat for TV chefs

Valda Goodfellow tells Brian Nicholls how she and her husband Paul are adding sizzle to the new season of screened cookery battles being beamed into our homes

As we sit through another year of TV cookery competition that programmers swear is meat and drink to millions of us, none will be more delighted, besides chefs involved, than Valda and Paul Goodfellow.

They, though offscreen, will have figured in some of the shows, especially BBC’s Great British Menu, where eminent chefs jostle for the chance to prepare a four course banquet for the famous. Some kitchen tools used when the new series starts in May or June will have been provided, even created, through the Goodfellows’ young company while it has been enjoying a £2m maiden turnover.

“TV’s cookery affects us massively,” Valda says. “Quite a lot of chefs are using our products increasingly on shows. We’ve achieved profile very quickly. Chefs looking for something different in presentation have been coming to us. And public interest in the programmes is amazing. People like to see others create things, even if they’re not going to do it themselves.”

Managing director Valda, 54, used to be managing director of Mr Lazenby’s, of sausage fame, which she steered through the BSE outbreak, turning the Thornaby firm into a £10m business. She’s also former managing director of Continental Chef Supplies, and in a previous generation of business support chaired Tees Valley Manufacturing Challenge and was director of Business Link Tees Valley (as Valda Morris). She and husband Paul, 55, owned Continental Chef Supplies until selling it to Bunzl plc international distribution group in 2010.

Their Goodfellow & Goodfellow now perceives more opportunity at the higher end of the market, putting emphasis on quality, innovation and customer service. Their service to luxury hotels, restaurants and sports venues in quality tableware and innovative kitchen equipment is meeting demand at home and abroad after 18 months’ trading. Is it the ethical innuendo of the company name, hinting at honesty and reliability like, say, Noble Brothers or Fortune & Co?

Valda, still happy to be nicknamed “the Sausage Queen”, laughs vivaciously and doesn’t rule it out. She admits: “We had thought of something like Unique Service Providers – USP, unique selling point, quality being ours. A friend who’s also a chef said, ‘why don’t you use your name? Everybody knows who you are’. I’m glad we were persuaded.”

So Goodfellow & Goodfellow - G&G for short - are selling as far away as Australia, with 15 staff in total at head office and warehouse in Peterlee and at a showroom in Baker Street, London, which customers from Scotland and Ireland dont need Sherlock Homes to guide them to since they shop there regularly.

Top chefs are changing. They once tended to work in isolation. Now they have a professional  network in which the Goodfellows are known and liked. Paul, who trained as a chef on leaving school, has worked extensively in Britain and also in Switzerland, Germany
and the Caribbean.

Many existing chefs and aspirants he knew, while chef himself at the Royal Garden Hotel in London, are executive chefs now. The present executive at the Ritz trained with Paul at college. “That network of contacts built up over 20 or more years, you can’t buy,” Valda points out.

“Paul has done their job. He knows what they go through during a day, what product they’ll use and what product they’ll respond to. They know in turn they’ll get very personal service.

Some we’ve known for more than 20 years. But loyalty in this very competitive industry only takes you so far. You must also have something really relevant, new and exciting continually. And availability is critical.”

There are trends in presentation. “Cooking’s a bit like fashion,” she says. Chefs hunger for new ideas to set them apart. They know what they can achieve with their food. We suggest how to combine products that create new presentations.”

Good news, this, for small craft producers of the North East who work in wood, silver, pewter, stone – any material appropriate to food presentation. For while the Goodfellows trade off exclusive ties with manufacturers of tableware, equipment and chefs’ clothing, and import certain items such as bone china and steel knives from Japan, they also plan, design, customise and produce for themselves.

Valda champions manufacturing in the region and hopes Goodfellows will regularly contribute to its revival.

“Creating many products distinguishes us from competition,” she points out. “We’ll come up with an idea for something a chef hasn’t even asked for, and perhaps fill a gap in the market. Leading chefs don’t want mass produced items. So I’m trying to find crafts people that I can help develop a channel to market.”

“I love manufacturing. I’m pleased it’s picking up after nearly 20 years. There are manufacturers with maybe only one or two employees producing beautiful products.”

Valda moves between Peterlee and London fortnightly, Paul once a week, and we’re talking to Valda in the comfort of Park House, their expansive and elegantly furnished country home, which partly dates back to 1650 at Windlestone Park in rural Durham.

Forget those foreigners’ jokes about British cooking. British chefs are now rated among the world’s best, she points out. “They travel the world in search of fresh ideas. They look for unusual products. And as they have little time to visit the manufacturer, we do that for them, and simultaneously offer innovation.”

Thus the Goodfellows are into the controversial market of molecular gastronomy, as per Heston Blumenthal. Valda explains: “We discovered a guy in Barcelona who creates mad inventions, amazing things all the time in this vein. We’re now his UK distributor. Lots of the more adventurous cookery is being done now by chefs in Northern Spain. They’ll use lab equipment like the rotary evaporator. Water baths and suchlike are becoming mainstream.”

France remains in many chefs’ hearts because they may have trained under French chefs or worked there. But some of the new techniques aren’t part of classical French cooking. The Goodfellows recently brought two chefs over from Northern Spain to demonstrate cooking with liquid nitrogen, carbon dioxide and the like. Altogether 200 chefs turned up to spectate at the event put on at London East End’s trendy Brick Lane. It was accompanied by a food market and a display of ceramic barbecues and other in-style items.

Says Valda: “In Britain, unlike Spain, we’ve gone back into our shell a little in recession. We looked for comfort food. That trend shows no sign of fading. But we’re probably the leading distributor in this country for molecular gastronomy, and as the economy improves I think people’s tastes will regain a sense of adventure.”

While Goodfellows’ products aren’t necessarily geared for the non-professional, they’re readily affordable. Valda explains: “In any market there are always people outside the trade who’d like to attain almost semi-professional standards, and I love to encourage this. People like that are popping up on our website.”

While the website, Valda admits, is not outstanding technically, orders are being received from  Sweden, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as well as Australia. “If we can reach £2m turnover from virtually a standing start, who knows what the next two years will bring?” she wonders.

From ‘dropout’ to MD

Valda at 18 fancied manufacturing as she left King James I Grammar School at Bishop Auckland. It led to her abandoning a university education at Leeds after one day.

She recalls: “I’d noticed manufacturing everywhere. I loved the idea of an environment where people create things.” Yet her two brothers and sisters are artistic – like their Latvian father, who was otherwise a big influence on Valda too. He’d been detained at Windlestone Hall, the 19th Century family home and birthplace of prime minster Anthony Eden, while it served as a prisoner of war camp during World War II.

He stayed on after the war and married Valda’s mum. So, in part, sentimental attachment to the area prompted the Goodfellows to buy their present home five years ago.

Rejection of university meant, in her words, she started her career as a dropout. But her ideal was soon realised. She found a job, trainee production controller at Rediffusion, making television sets at St Helens, Bishop Auckland, near her birthplace at Westerton.

“A factory full of women can outdo a factory full of men any day in many things,” she laughs.

“It broadened my vocabulary and a lot of other aspects of my education.”

She wrote a project during studies for her works manager’s certificate at Darlington College. She had noted how people were starting to use computers in offices, using punch cards and tapes for accounting. As a production controller, she worked out how material requirements planning could be computerised, a ‘just in time’ stab at stock control.

So impressed, Rediffusion let her install it. “I had a set of manuals and two weeks’ training to do the whole system. And I found it easy because I’ve a logical mind... love the way programmes work, even though I couldn’t programme anything.”

Later she did other computer installations for Dufay Paints at Shildon, then MTM chemicals group at Hutton Rudby. By then Valda wanted to run a business. She moved from advising on computers to advising on business. She says, there’s no black magic – “you have to do the basics well”.

She later got into management consultancy and became an early personal business advisor for Business Link at Tees Valley - one of only a few women from hundreds of other applicants.

Valda convinced a panel of 12 interviewers from the public sector she was up to the job.

Later, while advising Mr Lazenby, she accepted the post of operations director, raising her expertise to a new level, and within a year she was managing director. She guesses with that she became the only female managing director of a meat plant. “I’d never set out to run a sausage factory, never before run any other kind of food production. And I don’t think I’ve eaten sausage since eating sausage every day for six years.”

But she remained managing director for five years – “Mr Lazenby was an amazing personality, a complete one-off”. And she showed her knack of turning challenge into opportunity, come the outbreak of BSE. “I’ve never seen an industry in such mass panic,” she remembers.

“Now we know more because it has happened a few times. We were lucky at that time because the proportion of our products affected by beef or beef components was very small. We met and saw it as a market opportunity since we did mainly pork products. I said we had to get noticed.”

Recognising that many store buyers were in the 24-25 age range “and usually enthused by very few things”, she sent out a fax to them headed: ‘Do you practice safe sex? If so buy safe products’. The fax went on to explain how Lazenby’s products were of pork, not beef.

“Everybody read it. It was a high risk strategy but why not?” It worked. Business boomed.

Then Lazenby in 1998 sold out to Cranswick. Valda, having guided the firm successfully through BSE and the sale, stayed for two more years.
But by the time production had switched from Thornaby to Hull the magic for her had gone.

She did consultancy work for about a year with one of Mr Lazenby’s former partners called Michael Maddison, then with Chipchase Nelson accountants and business advisors at Bishop Auckland.

It was he who introduced Paul to Valda. And the rest, now, you know.