Mark Birchall interview: “We had an outrageous ambition for Moor Hall to be a world-class restaurant”

The chef behind our Best UK Restaurant of 2019 tells SquareMeal about his swift rise to the number one spot in our Top 100

Updated on 09 September 2019 • Written By Ben McCormack

Mark Birchall interview: “We had an outrageous ambition for Moor Hall to be a world-class restaurant”

Few restaurants have experienced as meteoric a rise as Moor Hall. The Lancashire restaurant with rooms won its first Michelin star six months after opening in 2017 and its second in 2018. Now it has been crowned SquareMeal’s Best UK Restaurant of 2019. For chef-patron Mark Birchall, however, being named as the country’s top place to eat was only the beginning of his plans when he launched Moor Hall.

“We had an outrageous ambition to be a world-class restaurant when we opened,” Birchall says. “I think it’s pointless if you don’t set yourself those goals, otherwise where are you going with it all? We set out with the intention of being the best that we can be and to make our guests feel special. We’ll keep doing that and keep moving forward. We’ve achieved so much in two years since opening. I don’t have it in me to think – ‘I’m done’.”

Moor Hall in Aughton Lancashire

Moor Hall in Aughton, Lancashire

A 16th-century manor house surrounded by fields of vegetables halfway between Manchester and Liverpool might not sound like the most auspicious location in which to launch a world-class restaurant, but it’s the local produce that is the key to Moor Hall’s success. The village of Aughton is set in the middle of some of the most fertile farmland in the UK, famous for the quality of what is sent not only to New Covent Garden Market in London but all around the world – and Birchall gets his hands on it first.

Meat, meanwhile, comes from an hour away in the Lake District, including a poultry farmer who rears ducks exclusively for Moor Hall with a special feed. What’s more, in summer the restaurant is self-sufficient in herbs and small vegetables thanks to six acres of on-site vegetable plots.

“I think there's a lot of work to be done in terms of how chefs work with farmers and how we want the end product to be developed,” Birchall says. “Brexit may evolve that if farms start looking at delivering a bespoke product to certain people. In France, Anne-Sophie Pic has one farmer who produces squab pigeons just for her. That’s a route that I’d like to go down because it gives our food an identity.”

Turnip and crab at Moor Hall

Turnip and crab with anise hyssop and sunflower seeds

Birchall needn’t worry unduly, though – Moor Hall already has an indelible identity. Take a look in the dining room’s walk-in cheese room, for instance, and you’ll see the pecorino-style cheese which Birchall has started producing on site, ‘MOOR HALL’ imprinted in capital letters around the edge of the wheel.

Nonetheless, few had heard of Birchall when Moor Hall opened. The chef was born in in the Lancashire town of Chorley, 25 miles east of Aughton. He began his career at The Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny under the legendary chef Franco Taruschio before returning to Lancashire to cook at Michelin-starred Northcote. But it was at Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, which he joined as head chef in 2006, where Birchall first came to attention, eventually becoming group executive chef for all of Rogan’s restaurants.

While working at L’Enclume, Birchall won the prestigious Roux Scholarship award in 2009, choosing as his prize to spend a stage working at three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, twice the winner of the World’s Best Restaurant award. “I haven’t had too many jobs but I feel I’ve had the right jobs,” Birchall says, modestly.

Mark Birchall and team outside Moor Hall

Mark Birchall and his award-winning team of chefs outside Moor Hall 

He opened Moor Hall in 2017 in partnership with multi-millionaire broker Andy Bell and his wife Tracey, having rejected other sites across the North West, from high-street premises to old pubs. “I wasn't necessarily looking for something as extravagant as this,” Birchall admits, although it’s a very stealth-wealth form of extravagance on display at Moor Hall.

Pre-dinner drinks and vividly flavoured canapés are taken by the open fire in a baronial-looking lounge; cross the Jacobean-panelled hallway and you’ll find yourself in the ultra-contemporary dining room that Birchall helped design in the style of tablecloth-free fine dining. Floor-to-ceiling windows fill the space with light and give views over azalea-fringed lawns to the hall’s old moat, while the sightline along the remaining wall is taken up by a huge open kitchen.

Moor Hall might sound similar to L’Enclume on paper – both are restaurants with rooms in rural locations in the North West of England – but Birchall says that’s where the similarities end. “The two restaurants are chalk and cheese. L’Enclume is a restaurant in a medieval village with lots of rooms dotted all over the place; we’re sat in six acres of beautiful grounds.”

Holstein Friesian at Moor Hall

Holstein Friesian with barbecued celeriac, mustard and shallot

And while fans of L’Enclume (and Fera at Claridges) might recognise the signature venison tartare, here re-imagined as Holstein Friesian with barbecued celeriac, mustard and shallot, the menus at Moor Hall have otherwise been created from scratch to fit the surroundings. Four courses are offered at lunch for £65 while dinner sees an eight-course tasting menu served for £125, with an emphasis on vegetables and seafood.

“When you’re serving so many courses, you’re uncomfortable by the end if there’s too much meat,” Birchall says. “I like to use nice-quality ingredients. That means treating a carrot with the same respect as a piece of lobster.”

So while you’ll be wowed by langoustine tails with a micro salad of asparagus and kohlrabi and Westmorland duck with beetroot, hildora beans and elderflower, you are just as likely to go home talking about how Birchall transforms plain-sounding baked carrots with Doddington cheese, chrysanthemum and sea buckthorn into a flavour riot of textures and temperatures.

After the final course of Worcester Pearmain apple with woodruff, birch sap and marigold, you're left in no doubt that this is British cooking that fulfils Birchall's ambition of competing on an international scale. Was the chef surprised to win his second Michelin star so soon after receiving his first? “I know what we do every day and the standards that we work to. When you win one star, all you think about is winning two. I think we do deserve it, but I wasn’t expecting it.”

Moor Hall's SquareMeal UK Best Restaurant award 2019

Moor Hall's award for SquareMeal's Best UK Restaurant 2019

As for the future, Birchall has no plans to extend Moor Hall’s opening hours to Mondays and Tuesdays. True, the restaurant’s reputation means that Birchall could now fill Moor Hall seven days a week – his most frequent customer has eaten here 33 times – but the chef wouldn’t get to spend any time with his family.

“We’re busy. We’re happy. Getting this SquareMeal award means a lot, especially as it is based on readers’ votes. It shows that we are doing something right and we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve just got to keep going.”

With the new Michelin stars for Great Britain and Ireland announced in London in October, don’t bet against Moor Hall going all the way.  

Click here to see the full list of SquareMeal's Top 100 UK Restaurants for 2019

Award photos and portraits by Mark Bristol