Masterchef finalist takes over Sunderland cafe: Michelin-recommended chef returns to his Fulwell roots

Former BBC Masterchef contestant Leon Dodd owner of The Rowan Tree, Sea Road, Fulwell.
Former BBC Masterchef contestant Leon Dodd owner of The Rowan Tree, Sea Road, Fulwell.

A chef is planning to bring a Masterchef flavour to a city cafe after taking over the reins.

Leon Dodd, a former finalist on the hit BBC cookery show, has bought The Rowan Tree in Sea Road, Fulwell, where he intends to add a pop-up restaurant to expand its offering.

Former BBC Masterchef contestant Leon Dodd owner of The Rowan Tree, Sea Road, Fulwell.

Former BBC Masterchef contestant Leon Dodd owner of The Rowan Tree, Sea Road, Fulwell.

The cook, who impressed top chef Michel Roux Jr to reach the finals of Masterchef: the Professionals in 2008, says he feels his role at Rowan Tree was “meant to be” after he began his career over the road at The Blue Bell.

The 37-year-old, who lives in Fulwell, said: “When I was 17-20 I worked as a trainee chef through a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) with Vaux. It was great, it was all home-cooked food. “

“A lady called Val worked there then and she taught me the basics before I started working in the proper chefs’ world.”

Dad-of-three Leon went on to train under Michelin-starred chef Terry Laybourne, at his Bistro 21 restaurant in Durham, before heading up Harbour Lights in South Shields where he helped it to earn an inclusion in the prestigious Michelin Eating Out in Pubs Guide.

Former BBC Masterchef contestant Leon Dodd owner of The Rowan Tree, Sea Road, Fulwell.

Former BBC Masterchef contestant Leon Dodd owner of The Rowan Tree, Sea Road, Fulwell.

“I really cut my teeth with Terry and then did the rounds in the restaurant trade,” he explained. “I was at the Harbour Lights for three years and, along with my sous chef, we got in the Michelin Guide two years running. The only other North East pub featured at the time was the Broad Chare in Newcastle. That was a big accolade for me as I’d been given free rein there.”

Leon, who most recently worked at Liberty Brown and Dr Feelgood’s in Hylton Riverside, added: “When the opportunity came up here I felt like it had come full circle, and it gives me a nice work / life balance.

“I think it’s the best spot on Sea Road and I have a lot of plans for the front. I’m in the process of getting an alcohol licence and aim to start a pop-up restaurant from the first weekend in March.

“I’ll do it once a month at first and see how well it goes. There’s a lot of Indian and Italian venues around here, but we’ll be serving more modern English food, as well some Asian dishes, as I’ve travelled a lot around Thailand.”

Although he will be trying new dishes, Leon says he still wants to retain the venue’s regulars. “I’ve redecorated and changed the green colour, but we’ve kept the name, as well as the old pictures of the area on the wall, as that’s what people have known it as for years,” he said. “During the day we’ll be serving quiches, pies and scones, it will be very cafe-esque and we’ll be keeping prices down.”

Leon says although it’s a tough time for local high streets, Sea Road has potential to thrive.

“I buy all my meat from the butcher’s on Sea Road, and my fruit and vegetables here too,” he said. “We have a good range of shops here and I think it’s far enough out of the city centre to survive.”