Stepping out

Not that it should worry you, but a small part of my history got taken away from me the other day.

The Old Steps was a wine bar in York Place, Leeds, which probably sold more beer than wine but, to begin with at least, had aspirations. It was round a corner from the Yorkshire Post Newspapers headquarters in Wellington Street, where I worked for far too long and which now also been improved into an empty space.

The Steps, as we called it, dropping the ‘Old’ because many of us were dour sub-editors trained not to waste words – well, except during philosophical discussions and leaving dos - had been around since I started in Wellington Street, over 30 years ago. It had had many changes of management and clientele but its essential character remained the same – and indeed couldn’t change much because whatever you did with it, it remained a smallish, narrow basement bar where accessing the tiny toilets would often involve some contortions.

It was called the Old Steps because of the 1990s love of licensed-trade gimmickry. The first owner had installed an antique cast-iron circular staircase in the middle of the bar. It looked splendid but didn’t leave much room for anything else, particularly tables to eat at or conversations which didn’t involve shouting through the spaces between the steps. It might have been forgivable had it lead somewhere, but it didn’t and was soon dismantled, hopefully to be reassembled somewhere where it might serve some purpose.

Still the name stuck, although it no longer made any sense; it became another of those historical remnants, like the names of Rotherham (the settlement on the River Rother), or Cambridge or Aberdeen (is there a river Deen?)...and this was the sort of topic which was would be discussed (at least until the end of the lunch-hour) at the Steps. But the invention of Google and the abolition of the concept that workers might be entitled to lunch-hours put a stop to all that unproductive speculation, not that ending lunch breaks and unproductive speculation has improved Britain’s dismal productivity record one tiny bit.

At some point (in the spirit of the Old Steps, I’m not attempting historical accuracy in this brief history) the bar was bought by two of my sub-editor colleagues, Nigel McDermid and Dave Stead, who, to preserve the place’s atmosphere, decided not to act like McKinsey management consultants but to base their business plan on pleasing the customers and making enough money to keep everybody - which meant themselves, their customers, and their staff - happy. This was based on a primitive model of capitalism different from that practised by the big bar chains, which in addition to keeping people happy, also have a mission to make money for their shareholders and (which is more-or-less the same thing) the City of London.

The Steps had another rare attraction; Nigel’s French wife had a nephew called Raphael (or more commonly ‘Raff’), a fully-trained French chef who came to Leeds as an adventure and ended up working at the Steps for years and years, even when the bar passed to a genial new owner.

The food was astonishingly good for a place of its size and price bracket; it was the sort of little French restaurants that middle-class British people dream about but which I’ve never managed to find in France.

Raff and the Steps were made for each other because the bar had a very small kitchen and Raff is a very little chef – maybe 5ft 5in at an uneducated guess.

He will no doubt find another job when he’s ready because Leeds is not overloaded with talented French-trained chefs of boundless energy – it wore you out to watch him chopping, frying, mixing and doing other things so fast that they became a blur.

The next step for the Steps for it to become a Thai restaurant. I found it hard to imagine the place would be big enough for that, but, as Raff told me, Thai chefs are used to working in very small kitchens where being Thai-sized is no disadvantage at all.

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