The Caterer

Behind the scenes at Northcote Manor

17 March 2003 by
Behind the scenes at Northcote Manor

Flicking on the television set in my room at Northcote Manor in Langho, Lancashire, after arriving to cover an evening of its annual food and wine festival produces a bit of a shock. Not electrical. Not unpleasant. But a shock all the same. Because instead of Blue Peter (it's five o'clock in the afternoon), there on the screen is a four-way split, fly-on-the-wall view of the Northcote kitchen.

In the bottom-right corner, the evening's star performer - Philip Howard of London's two-Michelin-starred the Square - is busy beating something to a pulp in a bowl, while Warrick Dodds, Northcote's head chef, is above him (so to speak) in the top-right, checking out the kitchen from the pass. And there, drifting across the bottom-left, is a leather jacket-clad Nigel Haworth. Bizarrely, any movements come across on-screen in a jerky, freeze-frame kind of way. It's all a little bit disconcerting.

And things are too quiet (aren't they?), considering Howard is here on his own with no members of his Square brigade to back him up and due to serve 85 covers in just three hours from now. Time to get down to the kitchen and ask a few questions.

The first must-know nugget of information has to be why Howard is so cool about the dinner? (As cool, in fact, as the cucumber jelly about to go over some smoked mackerel rillette in the ranks of shot glasses in front of him).

"The long and short of it is I've done a menu that's logistically possible for the numbers we've got to put out and for a brigade that isn't familiar with my food," he explains. "I've made sure that the mise was more mechanical than technical, for instance, so that I don't have to explain anything complex. I could have come up here with boxes full of mise en place and half my staff, but it's boring to unwrap containers and that would have detracted from what Nigel and Craig [Bancroft] are trying to achieve - to broaden the experience of their staff and guests."

"Shit," followed by "oh dear" and a cackle of laughter, airborne from another part of the kitchen, cause Howard to grin just as Haworth meanders over with a mug of steaming tea. Here's my chance to ask about the cameras.

Apparently, they've recently been put in so that when Haworth does cookery demos, live footage of what he's doing can be beamed on to a seriously large plasma screen in the private dining room. The transmission to the bedrooms wasn't initially planned. "People seem to like it, so we'll probably keep a line-feed into them and it's working really well with the festival," Haworth says.

Getting back to the food, it's clear that Howard's realism hasn't been at the expense of skill or quality. He's opted to put out confident, classically simple (in the best sense) dishes, full of rounded flavours. It's midwinter, and hearty, seasonal ingredients will hold sway: pork belly, winter vegetables, beef, a hot souffl‚ are all lined up for the diners.

"It's the most brutally honest cooking I think I've ever done," Howard confesses. "As the years go by, I find that what impresses and satisfies me most are textural, tasty, wholesome dishes."

He's not convinced he's gauged it quite right, though. "The menu's got lots of fairly rich things on it so I've got to be sensitive to portion size - I hope it's not too heavy."

There's a story attached to the beef. "I wanted to do venison, but Christian Olsson was doing that the day before, so Nigel tempted me with the sirloin, which he said was phenomenal, from his supplier," Howard says, drily. "But they sent down something that was Day-Glo pink!"

"That was really embarrassing," groans Haworth. "They sent the wrong stuff - it had been hung for only three weeks instead of five. I rang them and said ‘What are you trying to do to me?' We got there in the end."

The clock has ticked on to 6.45pm. The brigade's off busy grabbing a bite to eat. Heston Blumenthal, the Fat Duck's boundary-pushing chef-proprietor, wanders in to say hello. He's cooking on the following night but has come up a day early to savour the festival's atmosphere and be ready for the off first thing in the morning. Like Howard, Blumenthal doesn't often "do" dinners away from his kitchen, so it's a tribute to Haworth's persuasive powers that both have been lured to Northcote.

Buddy-greeting over, Howard strolls off to sit in on Bancroft's front of house briefing for the evening. It's enthusiastic ("these people are in for a treat with the dessert wine - we've got a Chardonnay botrytis grape, very unusual, very exotic") and to the point, with strict instructions about when to remove crockery ("don't take away the cover plate with the shot glass").

Only 15 minutes to go now to curtain-up. Perhaps there'll be a bit of urgency in the kitchen? No - it's still pretty deserted. "Looks like Warrick's buggered off," comments Howard. If he's worried, he's hiding it well.

It helps that Howard has cooked each year at the festival since its launch in 2001, and he's comfortable with Dodds as his right-hand man. "With Warrick you know that at the end of the day everything will be OK. Clean. Tidy," he says. Then, bang, everyone suddenly appears out of the woodwork and the show gets on the road.

Caviar is popped on top of the mackerel rillette (Howard barbecued the fish in the morning in a pan with wood chips to get round not having a smoker on site), the pork and beef are checked. As with the fish, the legwork on the pork's been done earlier in the day. It's been cured (with salt, sugar, star anise, thyme, garlic, rosemary, peppercorns), then braised slowly in chicken stock. It's being lightly pressed and chilled now, before being sliced and reheated. Howard is worried. "I woke up this morning and thought, ‘right get up at 7am, get the belly on by 8am', but the reality was that it didn't get braising till 10.30."

While Howard's suffering a porcine anxiety attack, a stream of waiters whips in and out of the kitchen ferrying away the starter. The clock ticks on. Dodds brings out the pork. It's not quite cold enough, making slicing difficult. A camera thrust right under his nose to snap the meat causes Howard's only sense of humour failure all night.

But the pork is soon plated up and sent out, duly followed by the roasted turbot, topped with a little melted butter and truffle and accompanied by creamed potato ("you can't better a fish dish any more than by doing a mash of some sort with it"), winter veg and crosnes ("delicious little things").

Things are going pretty much to plan. Those lucky enough to be eating in the private dining room (including Blumenthal, Neil Wigglesworth and Howard's wife, Jenny) are able to keep half an eye on the kitchen drama, courtesy of the plasma screen.

Now it's time for the beef. Plating is in full swing at the hot pass. "One clove of garlic," instructs Howard. "Need to move it now, guys," chivvies Haworth. He's on beef-carving duty. Dodds and the team are in full production-line mode, placing a slice of beef over a spinach base. Snails and garlic are on top of the meat. "Put the garnish the other side," says Howard, noticing a slip in presentation on one plate.

Bancroft's boys and girls whisk away the plates as soon as they are ready. "Just take two," he tells them. "Off you go, off you go," Haworth urges, looking up. As the last plate of beef flies out of the door, attention is shifted to the banana soufflés. The timing has to be perfect, so they wait for word from front of house as to how quickly the main course is disappearing.

The news from the restaurant is that the dessert needs to be on its way by 11pm, and soon the soufflés are emerging from ovens around the kitchen. Howard is not totally happy with them. He's scaled a Square recipe up and feels it's not quite translated. "Texture's a bit too rigid," is his verdict as the first air-light concoctions go out.

After the first few soufflés have vanished through the kitchen door, Bancroft heads back in, calling for Dodds. "Warrick, the ice-cream's too big. It's splitting the soufflé - make the quenelles smaller," he orders.

Soon, the last souffl‚ is despatched and the kitchen can completely relax. In the private dining room, his fellow chefs are busy watching a battle between Arsenal and Liverpool on the plasma screen. Howard nips out to join in the fun. He doesn't seem to mind that attention has switched from his hard graft to the Premiership so quickly. Will he be back next year? "Already booked in."

Philip Howard's menu at the Northcote Manor Festival of Food and Wine

\ Rillette of smoked mackerel with cucumber jelly and oscietra caviar
Marques de Murrieta Reserva-Blanco 1996
* Sweet and sour pork belly, caramelised endive and star anise
Gewurtztraminer Cuvée des Folastries-Josemeyer 2000
* Roast turbot, creamed potato and truffle butter
Montagny Premier Cru Château de Saule-Alain Roy 2001
* A slice of roast sirloin beef with a persillade of snails and red wine
Cartuxa de Evora Reserva-Fundação Eugenio de Almeida 1997
Banana soufflé‚ with chocolate ice-cream
Macon Clesse Selection de Grains Sendres Quintaine-Guillment-Michel 1992

Who else cooked?

Nigel Haworth takes us through the festival's talking points…

Chris and Jeff Galvin (respectively chef-director, Conran Restaurants, and head chef, Picasso Room, L'Escargot, London) Smoked quail consommé with pithivier of quail. "The pithivier was just extraordinary - very buttery. And the quail broth was beautiful. Wonderful, clean flavours."

Christian Olsson (chef-proprietor, Vassa Eggen, Stockholm, Sweden) Seafood escabeche, scallop, lobster, octopus, garlic parsley foam. "Christian changed some basic ingredients - used fruit like melon and mango through the escabeche and a tomato and cucumber water base for the juice. It made the dish much lighter, fresher and tangier than normal. He really did something different."

Heston Blumenthal (chef-proprietor, Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire) Snail porridge with Jabugo ham. "He did his nitrogen-poached green tea and lime sour, which was an amazing piece of theatre, but I really enjoyed the porridge. It was like a snail risotto, but using another medium - oats - instead of rice. Very cleverly put together and thought through."

John Torode (chef-proprietor, Smith's of Smithfield, London)
Green duck curry with salty duck egg relish. "Although it's very different from what I do, I love an Oriental touch in food and it was really interesting to see John using our local Goosnargh duck in a completely different way. He managed to keep its incredible flavour coming through despite using the spices."

Neil Wigglesworth (executive chef, Twin Farms, Vermont, USA) Armagnac-roasted chicken livers on whipped foie gras, tarragon-scented brandade and caramelised white pearl onions in cider syrup. "The chicken liver was inside a cylinder of potato spaghetti and Neil asked us to get 80 loo rolls [minus the paper] so that he could wind the potato around them before deep-fat frying them. That was interesting! Tasted good too…"

Nigel Haworth (chef-proprietor, Northcote Manor, Lancashire)
Lancashire hotpot, Bowland heather-fed lamb slowly braised in the Aga, pickled red cabbage, oyster fritter, baby carrots (Haworth's signature dish). "That was interesting - cooking individual hotpots in the Aga to serve at the table. We found out that too much in the Aga and everything just steamed, so we had to keep rotating everything over a five-hour period. We did have a little panic, but it worked out in the end."

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