WOODEN floors, no tablecloths and George Michael music in the background are not the usual ingredients of a Michelin-starred establishment.
But Paul Kitching, head chef of Juniper in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, has proved that it is not only restaurants with formal trappings that can earn the accolades. His menu, combined with friendly and efficient service, has created a positive impression with those hard-to-please inspectors, earning the restaurant a Michelin star earlier this year.
And Kitching claims he has done it by cooking food that is true to himself and simpler than anything he has done for years. "Gone are the times when I would serve a mousse which was stuffed with one ingredient and wrapped with another," he says. "I used to think the more ingredients on a plate, the better the dish. Now, I know that three basic flavours on a plate are enough. I don't add that spoonful of caviare if it is not necessary - although sometimes it's not easy to hold back."
Tall, with an unruly mop of blond hair, Kitching cuts a distinctive figure as he wanders through the restaurant following an evening's service. His enthusiasm for food and a wacky sense of humour make him an engaging person to be with. He loves chatting to customers and encourages his chefs to do likewise. It all goes towards creating a happy, relaxed establishment.
Born in Gateshead 35 years ago, Kitching had no ambition to be a chef. Having worked on a building site for a while, he found himself washing dishes in an Italian restaurant and decided to put himself through a catering course at Newcastle Polytechnic. But he wasn't happy at college and applied for a job as a commis chef at Middlethorpe Hall, York, under head chef Aidan McCormack. It was then, for the first time, he became really inspired about food.
"I was suddenly faced with funny-looking lettuces, freshly made stocks and huge blocks of chocolate," he remembers. "I couldn't believe it, the standards were so good."
Following a spell working under Simon Gueller at No 6 in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, Kitching headed south to work over a period of six years with two inspiring characters who he believes have made him the chef he is today. Initially he worked with Ian McAndrew at Restaurant 74 in Canterbury, Kent, moving on later to Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon, where Shaun Hill was head chef.
"Ian's food was fantastic - he is a true technician. During the three years that I was with him, I never saw him allow a dish to leave the kitchen unless it was spot-on."
While his technical skills and methodical approach stem from his time with McAndrew, it was from Hill that Kitching gleaned the flair that has helped make him a well-rounded chef.
Moving to Gidleigh Park as chef de partie was difficult at first for Kitching, however. Used to a strict partie system with McAndrew, Kitching was unsure how to fit in with Hill's more laid-back methods of working, and consequently jumped in everywhere trying to be helpful. "I think I was a handful for Shaun at the beginning," he says. "[Paul] Henderson [the owner] should have sacked me, but he didn't because I was a hard worker."
degree of commitment
Hill knew from the outset that Kitching was a young man with a huge reservoir of enthusiasm and a real talent for food. "His degree of commitment was astonishing," says Hill. "He used to come in on his days off and, despite me telling him to clear off, he would go off in the corner and happily work. He is a zany character. His sense of humour helped lighten the day for all of us. When his Michelin star was duly awarded, I was almost as pleased as he was when I heard the news."
Kitching's first head chef position came with a move in 1991 to Nunsmere Hall, "Cheshire's answer to Gidleigh Park". Although originally thrilled to be given his first taste of responsibility, as Nunsmere grew from a 12-bedroom country house hotel with a 48-seat restaurant into a 32-bedroom operation with extensive banqueting facilities, Kitching gradually became disillusioned.
"The owners tried to convince me that corporate events with big buffet lunches every day was the way forward," says Kitching. "But it wasn't for me. One of my biggest fears is cooking food that I'm not happy with - and that was beginning to happen. I seriously thought about giving up cooking altogether."
Then Kitching answered an advertisement in Caterer for a consultant on a new restaurant project, introducing him to Nora and Peter Miles who were planning to open a brasserie in Altrincham.
"I could see that they were spending a lot of money on the place and when I suggested that they open it as a fine-dining restaurant rather than a brasserie, they jumped at the idea - particularly when I said I would be their chef," he says.
As a result, Juniper opened its doors in January 1996 and has been doing steady business ever since, moving into profit after 15 months. Lunches are fairly quiet, but dinner in the 45-seat restaurant is usually full. A belief that there is a bigger market for Kitching's food in a busier area has resulted in the Mileses looking for a potential new site in central Manchester or Leeds. "The banks have said they will support any plans we have to move," says Kitching.
In the meantime, Kitching is happy to be concentrating on cooking the food he wants to cook and likes to eat. The small kitchen, where Kitching works with a brigade of five, dictates that the menu is kept short. "That suits me, as I don't want any produce hanging around for much more than a day."
Separate à la carte menus are offered at both lunch and dinner, and Kitching chops and changes these as and when he sees fit. He also supplements both with a handful of special dishes of the day. On the lunch menu three starters are offered (£4.50-£5.50), three or four main courses (£10.50-£15) and three or four desserts (£4.50).
In the evening there is a choice of eight starters. One of these is a smoked salmon dish inspired by Kitching's desire to create something different from this ubiquitous first-course ingredient. The result was warm smoked salmon with celeriac purée and vanilla sauce (£7). The purée is placed in the bottom of the dish and topped with smoked salmon, then smothered with a sauce that uses mussel stock as its base with cream and vanilla added at the last minute before being whizzed by a blender. The warm sauce lightly cooks the salmon, while the sweet vanilla contrasts with the earthy root vegetable.
Vegetable purées are used a lot by Kitching - something he picked up from McAndrew and which he has enjoyed at Pied à Terre in London. He serves a pea purée with a plate of English asparagus, a potato purée with roast best end of English lamb, and a creamy mushroom purée with a confit of duckling.
Duck is always a popular choice among Juniper's customers. One of the five main-course dishes presently on the menu is a roast breast of duck with Mediterranean vegetables and Noilly Prat sauce (£18.50). The leg is confited, while the breast is roasted and served with large square chunks of Mediterranean vegetables - aubergines, courgettes and red and yellow peppers. The sauce is made from a reduction of veal, chicken and duck stock to which the Noilly Prat is added at the last minute.
"Most chefs cook out their wine in a sauce, but I always add any alcohol at the last minute to retain maximum flavour," says Kitching. "I serve a Champagne sauce with brill, which produces a fizz in the sauce. There is no point using Champagne if you are going to cook it out - you might as well use white wine. The brill sits on a bed of noodles and is topped with roasted courgettes and caviare."
A selection of five desserts is usually offered at dinner, always maintaining a balance between chocolate, fruit, hot and ice-cream dishes. A sorbet course precedes the dessert, with the likes of strawberry and Champagne sorbet (£5) on offer.
"Any soufflé sells well," says Kitching. "Hot passion fruit soufflé and rice pudding soufflé are particular favourites."
The small kitchen prevents Kitching and his team from doing any fine chocolate work, even salads and petits fours are made in the restaurant during the afternoon and stored in the fridge.
Any tarts made at Juniper use sweet paste, not shortcrust pastry. "It gives a better flavour," says Kitching. The milk chocolate tart, served with rum and raisin ice-cream and coffee sauce (£6) and glazed lemon tart with citrus fruit (£6.50) are both made with this. n