Jan Hunter talks to a man with one of the most famous restaurant surnames in the area about life after growing up at the Tontine.

RORY MCCOY is the eldest son of the most famous restaurateur in Teesside, Eugene McCoy, and after a long and eventful journey, he finally achieved his life-time ambition, opening his own restaurant in London.

Not one restaurant, though, but three.

Along the way there were plenty of highs and lows, and the journey began in the famous Tontine restaurant, between Stokesley and Northallerton, which his parents, Barbara and Eugene ran.

He grew up with his sister Mary, now a well-established TV actress, and brother Eugene, actor and dancer who regularly appears in the West End.

"Growing up in the Tontine was quite magical," he said. "Mum and Dad gave us a great start in life. We lived in the stables, next to the restaurant, and Eugene, Mary and I were so much part of the place. We would be there with all the glitz, glamour and excitement.

“Famous people would land their helicopters on the lawn. Dad's best mates were Chris Rea and David Coverdale from Whitesnake, and Bruce Oldfield had his fashion show there.

The Northern Echo:

“It was a big family business and on both sides of the family were eccentric uncles who were great to observe and listen to. One of them, Uncle Tom, ran the Kirk nightclub near Yarm, famous for hosting the first live gig in the UK for Jimi Hendrix."

Rory started at the bottom, washing up in the Tontine when he was 14, but because he was the boss's son, he was teased by the chefs.

Rory admits he was very shy at the time and when he eventually became a waiter he was uneasy in the role, even though he was surrounded by his family.

"I would see the queues outside waiting for a table and I would be terrified," he said. "But this is what I wanted to do, so after a foundation course at Cleveland College, I became a full time waiter, and much later, I was the assistant manager.

“I learnt so much from my uncle Tom, when after work we would discuss different wines and food, but on reflection it was Dad who was my greatest influence. I realise now how brilliant he was with people and his understanding of what they wanted. He knew how to work the room, and how to keep his customers there, or even to spend more. He was an amazing teacher."

Rory's grandfather arranged an annual trip to Lourdes every Whit Week, organising nine or ten coaches of people each year, and the young McCoys would help.

At 19, Rory decided to get a job in France to learn the language and to learn more about his craft from the French restaurants. He became a barman and stayed in France for seven months – “drinking with the alcoholics but thankfully not becoming one myself", he said.

He travelled to Australia, and worked in a restaurant in Sydney Harbour, but in Thailand he became very ill and had to fly home. He couldn't eat properly for three months and endured six years of tests without anyone diagnosing his problem.

"However, even though I looked like hell at the time," he said, "Dad promised we would open a restaurant. We found one in Yarm, and they left me to it.

“Yarm is where I made my mistakes and learnt so much about how to become a better restaurant manager. The learning curve was massive. The buck stopped with me so I had to sack people. I am a person who likes harmony and who doesn't like confrontation, and at that time I was still shy, but after three shots of vodka I did it for the first time, and that conquered the shyness.

“I had to tackle all the problems that the restaurant threw my way, but It was hard to make money in Yarm because of the high rents, so we decided to sell.

“I wanted to travel to North America and start at the bottom. I wanted to know what made a good boss and what the service industry was like there. I knew I wasn't emotionally mature enough for London yet, which was my ultimate goal."

Rory booked a flight to Whistler in Canada, was a runner for two years, polishing cutlery, running the cheese trolley and learning about cocktails. He had, in his words, a horrible boss, so learnt a lot about what not to be like.

He also learnt about wines, especially top-end ones and he admitted it was a very happy time as he was away from home and could let his hair down.

His travels continued and he hitch-hiked to Alaska, spending eight weeks there, and then moved on to San Francisco, and even Peru, watching and learning about food all the way.

After a brief stay at home he was ready for London, and began in the Wolsey in Piccadilly, which takes more money than any other restaurant, with a pre-pandemic turnover of up to £12m a year. He learnt many tricks of the trade there on how to take bookings efficiently and how to keep a restaurant full.

He went on to the St Albans as assistant maitre d', and was making contacts with the top restaurant managers in London. He found it interesting to learn how to seat celebrities, how to make the tables work, how you learned who couldn't be seated near who but who was be good to put near who. There were all kinds of strategies – many of which, he realised, his father had already been doing.

His next job was with Mark Hicks in the Oyster and Chop House where he was the manager for three years, and his final job, which he hated, was to work for Gordon Ramsey in the Savoy Grill. He stayed for eight months and met Clare Lattin, who would become his business manager and partner and together they opened Duck Soup, in Soho.

Six years later they opened Little Duck - the Picklery, in Dalston in Hackney, and Tom Hill joined them also as a partner. Rory's girlfriend, Olaya, who worked in Duck Soup, now runs Little Duck.

There was a third, Raw Duck in Hackney, but it had to close due to challenging market conditions. " This was a great restaurant for five years and had a big following," said Rory, "but it's an example of the highs and lows of the restaurant world, and an example of the hold landlords have over tenants and businesses."

Londoners will know when the pandemic has passed when this successful Yorkshire restaurateur is able once again his restaurants that were renowned for being quirky and stylish with simple yet excellent food and organic wines.

"Owning a restaurant is about caring about people and looking after them; caring for them as though they are a special guest," he said.