An ever-changing coterie of chefs hosting their own pop-up restaurant in one of Tonbridge’s most historical buildings sounds like a unique idea. We find out all about this fun place to eat
When planning a night out it’s fair to say the last place you’d think of spending it would be with one of the emergency services but all is not what it would appear to be behind the ruby red doors of Tonbridge’s former fire station in Castle Road.
The brick building, which dates back to 1901, hasn’t operated as the town’s fire brigade HQ for years but over the past eight months it has been reignited and transformed into a hot new eaterie and social space that is currently setting the culinary world alight.
“We were supposed to trial out the concept of running The Old Fire Station as a pop-up restaurant for three months,” explains Sam Goode, who is behind the project with his business partner Richard Collins, who owns the building which also houses his insurance company Medischeme on the top floor.
“We decided Tonbridge really needed something like this; a creative site where we could indulge our love of food but would also double up as an area people could hire out for events or meetings.”
The initial plans to try it out for three months were quickly scrapped as pretty much every event they have hosted so far has sold out.
Sam puts this firmly down to the coterie of top quality chefs who have treated the tastebuds of lucky diners from day one of The Old Fire Station’s launch.
Since its shiny scarlet doors were opened Sam and Richard have hosted the likes of Adam Handling, who was a finalist on Masterchef the Professionals in 2013 and has appeared on BBC2’s The Great British Menu. He debuted with an impressive ten-course tasting menu.
“Adam’s night sold out within three days of going online,” says Sam. “And then it snowballed from there really. We invited locals to participate in pop-ups like Matt Sankey and Fuggles Bar and then we had the likes of Dan Hatton, who won a Michelin star when he was at Thackeray’s, coming down.”
Hot on the heels of this homegrown gourmet talent came star names such as Stephen Edwards, who runs i360 in Brighton, and Justin Brown, who trained at The Landmark Hotel in London and has worked for Jamie Oliver.
Brown has launched a similar concept – Verzet – in Amsterdam and ran his Old Fire Station pop-up for three nights in May. Last year’s Masterchef finalist Tony Rodd, who describes himself as a ‘cosmonaut and cook’, has also done a two-night stint in the area that can cater for at least 55 covers.
“Each chef is different, and brings something unique to the culinary table,” confirms Sam, who clearly couldn’t be happier about the buzz that’s building, mainly through social media, around the calibre of chefs that come along
to the pop-up project.
“Instead of me chasing people,” continues the PR and marketing executive, “they have started contacting us, which makes life a lot easier.
“Ben Spalding, who has worked under Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck in Bray and for Raymond Le Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons, is coming in this weekend so we’re really excited about that. Then in September we have Michelin starred chef Alex Bond coming.
“To be honest we haven’t really got any competition around us in terms of the level of good quality food we’re offering.”
But the concept of The Old Fire Station isn’t just about giving its customers a fine-dining foodie experience twice a month. It’s also focused on providing local businesses and groups with a flexible room they can hire out for everything from meetings to events.
“We said from the start that 25 per cent of The Old Fire Station would be given over to community and charity events. We recently hosted the Dementia Society over four days, where they ran a café and put up lots of pictures and memorabilia from old Tonbridge.”
This event chimed in perfectly with the look and feel of The Old Fire Station, which has been restored to its former glory thanks to layers of plasterboard and paint being stripped back to reveal the original brickwork and glazed tiles.
“We took it right back to how it would have looked in 1901 when it was a fire station,” reveals Sam. “All the furniture has been custom made by a local builder so it can be easily moved about. Our bar is on wheels so can be put away when not needed and all the tables and chairs can be moved around too. The whole thing can be turned around in about half a day.”
Do they have any plans to expand their brand, which now includes a selection of bespoke beers and ciders commissioned by local brewers with labels that boast a picture of ‘Bradley’, the first fireman stationed there in 1901?
“Not unless we can find an old fire station,” laughs Sam. “The important thing about our food pop-ups is that the chefs, guests and food are all together in one room. Everything’s prepared and cooked in the same space – it’s just like one big chef’s table really.”
PHOTOS: MARCUS WARREN – www.mcdawphotography.co.uk