29 July 2014

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Grill the chef: Nigel Haworth


nigelhaworth - nigel-howarth.jpgThis year Nigel Haworth, holder of a Michelin star since 1996, enters his fourth decade at Northcote, in Lancashire, with no sign of resting on laurels. His food has always been famed for its strong local identity, with much inspiration coming from the farmers, growers and producers with whom he has worked for many years.

Square Meal caught up with him as the restaurant was undergoing some major refurbishment, on the eve of his annual Obsession food and wine festival – 10 dinners cooked by 11 of the world’s top chefs including the likes of Paul Ainsworth from No.6 in Padstow, Gary Jones (head chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons), Eric Chavot, and Michael Wignall from The Latymer at Pennyhill Park.

What was your biggest single professional challenge when you first started at Northcote?
Affording and getting the right ingredients and then establishing our regional style of food. Setting up a supplier base was the platform to going forward and developing the business, but being regional was the point of difference. And lo and behold, 30 years on, a lot of people have discovered regionality.

Was it a hard slog getting recognition in this part of the world?
Yes, especially press recognition. Even now, getting journalists and food critics to come is hard. People tell us we’ve had it easy, but it’s a lifetime’s work establishing a place. Over the years I’ve got some things right, some things wrong, but we wanted to do what we wanted to do and had to drag the market with us. The local clientele didn’t get it at first – we always had to have peppered steak and grilled Dover sole on the menu and still get asked for them (and we never say no).

How would you describe your food?
It’s British regional food that takes flavours and ingredients from the area. But I’m not blinkered or over-restricted – if I want to cook something like foie gras, truffles or caviar, I will. Ultimately, I cook what I want to cook. Basically, I have always been regional, but I don’t try and strangle myself with a restrictive 5-mile radius rule.

You’ve famously stayed true to your northern roots, yet 30 years ago you were disillusioned with catering standards in Lancashire. How would you sum up the northwest food scene now?
I think it’s exciting. The great cities, Manchester and Liverpool, are finally coming alive. And now that stars like Simon Rogan and Aiden Byrne have both opened restaurants in Manchester, people are starting to look at it as an exciting option. I’m a realist, I don’t want to overstretch myself, but it would be nice to get Northcote finished and then look to set up one of our good young chefs in Manchester. I feel the time is right and we can offer something different to what is there already.

Northcote is entering a new phase – currently undergoing an extensive programme of refurbishment and building [planned for completion at the end of 2014]. What precipitated the need for this?
Sustainability. Putting in 14 more bedrooms meant we could extend the kitchen and private dining room, raise the kitchen brigade to 20 and have four full-time sommeliers. And we’ve gone from being accused of being a little bit staid to something much slicker. My business partner Craig Bancroft’s idea was to whip up the bar area into a London-style bar-lounge – it certainly took me aback (I wasn’t too sure about the cerise colour!), but I’ve grown to like it – and it appeals to a younger crowd; that’s very important for the future

Where do you see yourself and Northcote 10 years from now?
Probably retired! Northcote is established now – I’ve always thought of it as an oasis of food and wine in a quirky little part of Lancashire and I hope it sustains that. I hope by doing this building work it’s not spoilt – the refinement doesn’t mean it becomes too posh. We’ve worked hard to be a friendly place, one that welcomes everybody, that’s the key. The foundations for Northcote are very firmly set, certainly for the next 10 years – it’s much more self-sustaining, we won’t have to beg, borrow or cadge for a couple of decades in this format. Ultimately I see it evolving in the manner of an old French restaurant, with generation after generation taking it on.

Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn, Lancashire BB6 8BE; 01254 240555; www.northcote.com

Obsession – Festival of Food & Wine runs until 29 January 2014. For details visit www.northcote.com/specialevents

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