A former RAF chef is among five new members of staff who’ve taken on new roles at of one of the region’s former World War II bullet-making factories.
Five members of staff have started their new jobs at Newton Aycliffe leisure facility ROF 59, the former Presswork Metals factory which closed six years ago, which is due to re-open as a £1.1m mixed leisure facility later this month (July).
Chris Coleman, who’s trained in classical French cuisine, spent several years in Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force.
During his time with the RAF, Chris cooked for then Prime Minister John Major in the 1990s as well as American President Bill Clinton.
He then spent 10 years in Cher, a central region of France, after buying and renovating a boutique hotel and making the most of his classical French cuisine qualifications.
Now the 51-year-old, originally from Cambridgeshire, has swapped the Continent for County Durham with ROF 59 – one of the former munitions factories on Aycliffe Business Park.
Chris has taken on the role of head chef at ROF 59 after spotting the job opportunity on a recruitment website.
“I’ve always loved a challenge,” he says. “After my RAF days I bought a 10-bedroom boutique hotel and restaurant in Graçay – a little village in the Cher region of France – which hadn’t been touched for 100 years or more.
“I had to restore it. There was only one en-suite bathroom and by the time I sold it there was 10. Three miles of copper piping had to go into it and I made all the tables myself.
“I call it my big adventure, and it certainly was.”
Chris served across most of the country and all over the world with the RAF, including a stint at RAF Brampton, near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire – formerly the home of RAF Support Command which now houses several elements of Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S).
“I have some wonderful memories of my time in the Forces,” he says.
“I once cooked for John Major, who was Prime Minister at the time, and on a separate occasion for Bill Clinton. It was quite amusing because we practiced cooking various dishes for three days to make sure they were absolutely spot on – and he asked for a Cheeseburger!”
When Chris left the RAF he spent five years as the catering manager at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge, overseeing staff which cooked for 2,500 people every day across four sites, before he headed for France.
He relocated to County Durham with his wife, Jane, and 14-year-old son Alex, who’s fluent in French so won’t have any trouble settling into his language studies at Bishop Barrington School.
He bought a house in Bishop Auckland on the internet and moved straight away to complete his spontaneous move to the North East of England.
“I’ve never been to this part of the world before, I’d never seen it, but the opportunity just appealed to me,” says Chris.
“I bought our new house on the internet without even viewing it. I’m genuinely excited about what Finley Structures are trying to do here.
“What they’re doing to preserve the history of the original building is a wonderful thing and one of the main attractions.
“What people did back at home during World War II is a story that needs to be told. Successive governments have failed to acknowledge the contribution these people made, which is a great shame, and I think this is at least an attempt to put something right there.”
ROF 59 has been built on the site of the former Presswork Metals factory after Finley Structures invested more than £1.1m in creating the new facility.
Almost £750,000 was spent on constructing a new steel frame for the 70,000 square foot site.
A further £400,000 has now been spent fitting out the inside of the new building, which will include
a restaurant and bar/lounge, appropriately named The Blitz and The Bunker.
ROF 59 will also include a huge activity centre, featuring 20 different climbing walls for climbers of all abilities – including one of the biggest in the country, standing at 20 metres tall.
Twenty jobs will be created, and along with Chris, several other members of the team have already taken up their new roles, including fellow chef Chris Walls, restaurant/bar manager Phil Perkins, restaurant supervisor Kevin Sansom and bar supervisor Taylor Dockerty.
The huge munitions factories in Aycliffe employed some 17,000 workers, mostly women, between 1941 and 1945 and was an extremely important part of the country’s war effort.
The work was highly dangerous as the women filled bullets and bombs for the boys in the battlefield. There were a number of serious and fatal explosions, with eight people being killed in one blast.
ROF 59 will eventually include several items of Aycliffe Angels memorabilia which will enable the town’s proud history of the munitions-making factories to live on.