We’re closing Northcote for a month this summer for a refurb. The kitchen is 20 years old and knackered. We’re adding a development kitchen, a cook school, an extra 10 bedrooms and a new private dining room. We’re also tweaking the main dining room, so that it will seat 70 [it currently seats 60].
I woke up when I was 15 one day and decided that I wanted to be a cook. My mum tried to dissuade me, but the moment I stepped into the cooking world I knew it was for me. I remember coming home from college on the Accrington bus with a lemon meringue pie I’d made and feeling like I’d won a gold medal.
Great food isn’t the same without great hospitality. We try to reinforce those basic values to our staff all the time.
Obsession is 13 years old and still growing. This year may have been the best ever from a customer point of view. Phil Howard kicked it all off with 90 covers on the Monday night.
We’ve had a difficult time in the [RVI] pubs in the past 18 months. We should have invested a little earlier, but are moving it forward with new investors. We plan to add another half a dozen over the next five years. The RVI brand is about taking regional British food to the masses.
Our industry has to throw off this mantle that you’ve got to be in the SAS to succeed in cookery. I don’t want people being there 60 or 70 hours a week as we’ll never recruit enough people on that basis in the provinces - and you lose good chefs.
Some of the chefs who come over from Europe [for Obsession] stay for five or six days. We take them to see local suppliers, out to the pubs, the lot. We have some great places to eat, but we are a backwater really – it’s not exactly San Sebastian.
The original idea behind Obsession was to just do something special in January because it was so dismal. I’d been over to the Festival of Food and Wine in Carmel [California] and worked with people like Thomas Keller. I wondered if we could do something like that in Lancashire, just without the winegrowers – or the weather.
We’re forever striving to keep moving things forward at Northcote, but at the same time we have to remember that consistency is probably the most important thing.
To make a good fish pie consistently, and to make a good cottage pie in particular, is something many young English cooks struggle with. My pubs were set up to embody those root values.
I’m still in the kitchen most days, it’s what I love. But Lisa [Allen, head chef] leads the kitchen team at Northcote. We might take on a new head chef in a year or two if Lisa moves up within the group – she’s my right-hand person, so whatever she wants to develop into, we’ll work towards that.
There is an expectation from customers when they go into the pubs. I went into the gents of The Clog [& Billycock, Pleasington, Lancashire] the other day and two fellas were talking about me as I stood at the urinals: analysing the food, saying I was some TV chef and the like. Halfway through I had to tell them it was me standing between them!
We have nine apprentices who are working through the group. Contrary to what some people believe, there are still a lot of young chefs willing to work hard with the right ambition and determination. It’s the mums and dads who can often be a bigger barrier as they tend to be quite over-protective.
The new kitchen will be as sustainable as possible – a biomass boiler, possibly solar panels, induction cooking and so on.
I’m not saying we’re the best at training and development, but over the next five years that aspect of the business will be the key to our success. I’m going to be the person driving it as my body gives up on working 24/7 on the stove.
I’ve still got the appetite to do something in Manchester, and maybe even in London.