Culinary talent from around the world joined national stars at the annual food and wine festival at Northcote with Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft. Stephanie Sparrow reports from Obsession 16
In the kitchens of Northcote, chef-patron Nigel Haworth is showing Dexter beef to Angelo Sabatelli. The Italian chef with one Michelin star, and a restaurant in Puglia, jokes about his envy as Haworth describes how the beer-fed beef will be cured in readiness for Taiwan's Lanshu Chen to serve later that week. Asia's leading female chef, from Taichung City's Le Moût restaurant, was to serve the beef with veal tongue and fig on day seven of Obsession at the Lancashire hotel.
Such a scene, captured on Northcote's Facebook page, summarises the philosophy of the annual festival: to be an international platform for inspiration among peers and customers. "Obsession brings new ideas and flavours into the DNA of Northcote," says Haworth.
This year's event, known as Obsession 16, supported by headline sponsor Electrolux, covered 16 nights between mid-January and February. Northcote's kitchen hosted visiting chefs from around the world, as well as British luminaries such as Mark Jordan and Tom Sellers. The hotel's chef-patron Haworth and executive chef Lisa Allen also took an evening each to showcase their skills.
Haworth started Obsession in 2001 with the aim of thanking loyal customers, exploring new ideas, and solving the post-Christmas slump. It now attracts such a passionate following that number 16 was fully booked within 36 hours. "Many guests dine with us twice over the course of Obsession, and one couple ate here on eight separate nights," says Haworth.
Nicholson and Allen's squab pigeon, Jerusalem artichoke textures, Périgord truffle shavings
The local customer base has extended nationwide, with Obsession 16 guests travelling from all points between Jersey and Scotland. The business benefits are also growing.
"When I started Obsession we used to be half-empty in January, like everybody at this time of year, but now it's our busiest month," says Haworth. "And because Obsession blocks out 16 days, the people who couldn't get in [to attend] were keen to book either side."
He explains that this has created "a concertina effect", and increased business in January and February. "We took more money in the first four days of January than we did in the first four days of December," he says. "We were 30% up on business before we started Obsession and that is staggering."
Guests pay £120 a head for the chef's signature menu of five courses plus Champagne and canapés. The cost of wine flights, selected by Haworth's partner and director of wine, Craig Bancroft, to suit each menu, varies from between £60-£75 a person. Groups (friends and corporate clients) often opt for the wine-matching bottle package at around £300. They are also free to select from Northcote's usual wine list, but most order Bancroft's flights.
Craig Bancroft, Peter Tempelhoff and Nigel Haworth address diners
Guests might also start or end the evening with the Obsession 16 cocktail menu, which "saluted" guest chefs such as Diego Hernandez with Northcote's interpretations of his whisky sour (£14.50).
"Obsession is regarded as a treat," says Bancroft. "The people who have been coming here for a long time save up for it and come to enjoy it and have a wine package. It isn't a price-determined decision in the majority of cases."
He gives a further insight into the numbers. "We try to do 100-110 [covers] a night, apart from Nigel and Lisa, who were doing 130 each, but it's their house and they know it," he says.
These numbers include guests who are part of the various hospitality packages, branded as gold (£5,500), silver (£2,400) and chef's table (£3,300). Such packages use the facilities upgraded since Northcote completed a £7m refurbishment in 2014. Among the features of the gold package is a table for 10 in the Louis Roederer private dining room, and five overnight stays in Northcote's superior rooms, including breakfast. The chef's table package sees eight guests entertained in the cookery school. Guests in the hotel watch the chefs via the kitchen cameras while dining.
Lanshu Chen's beer-fed Dexter sirloin, veal tongue, fig, onion, white currant
Further financial support for the event comes from a raft of sponsorship. Electrolux was the headline sponsor in 2016, with travel support partner Pure Luxury providing the flights for visiting chefs. Sponsorship packages available to other brands include sponsoring an evening or the chefs' jackets.
Social media is deployed throughout the event. During Obsession 16 Northcote posted more than 1,000 messages through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vimeo, and created 11 videos, including Haworth's interviews with guest chefs. This in turn generated 23,000 interactions by over 15,000 unique users and added 4,000 more followers. Between the launch in autumn and the days following in mid-February, the potential reach of posts (to Twitter streams and Facebook timelines) is estimated to be 22.5 million impressions.
Arguably the most powerful social network at Obsession is that generated by the contacts book and enthusiasm of Haworth. He has the pulling power to invite holders of three Michelin stars, such as Annie Féolde and Hideaki Matsuo, to take over his kitchen for a night.
But where do the ideas for the guest list come from? "I find people through mysterious ways," he says enigmatically. "They come through conversations, recommendations from chefs who have done previous Obsessions, and some chefs call me asking to be involved.
"Also, we are in the Relais & Châteaux family now, and its London contact put me in touch with Lanshu and Hideaki. Relais has helped us massively on the international front and now that we've made those friends we have extended the arm of Northcote," he says.
Mark Jordan's autumn set cream, poached pear, cinnamon ice-cream
There are quirky coincidences. Diego Hernandez from Corazón de Tierra in the Guadalupe Valley was recommended by a customer's daughter-in-law. Wojciech Modest Amaro, the only Michelin-starred chef in Poland, was mentioned to Haworth by Adam Palowski, Northcote's former sommelier, who had visited his Warsaw restaurant, Atelier Amaro.
Serendipity or not, each Obsession offers a snapshot of influences for that year. The Obsession programmes since 2001 are an encyclopaedia of trends and big names, from Nick Nairn in 2001 to Chris and Jeff Galvin in 2015.
"Heston Blumenthal cooked here in 2005 when he had two stars," adds Bancroft, "and that was the first time that our guests had been introduced to that level of gastronomy, which had a huge impact. This year I'd say that the trend is savoury desserts using ají amarillo, chestnut, thyme and all sorts of juxtaposed flavours."
None of the visiting chefs are paid, but they do receive free travel and accommodation. "At the moment we are working on a friendship basis. We don't pay anybody," says Haworth. "We never have. It would change the whole feel of the thing. The power of Obsession is about being part of Obsession."
Robert Ortiz's hand-dived scallops, yellow chilli, kiwicha, red amaranth
"The weather can be pretty dire in January, and so we have to use our humour, warmth and hospitality to make people feel good," says Haworth. The chefs certainly seemed to revel in Lancashire life. Matsuo told The Caterer that he enjoyed his first hotpot at the Three Fishes (part of the Northcote Group's Ribble Valley Inns), while Sabatelli and Marco Stabile were thrilled with the steak sandwiches and Lancashire Bomb (a spherical cheese in black wax) which Haworth brought them after service as they sat round the snug's log fire.
Idea-sharing comes from this camaraderie. "Obsession keeps my mind ticking over," Haworth says. "For example, Lanshu used a 20-year-old white radish oil with foie gras, and I'm thinking how that might work."
Neither Haworth nor Bancroft will pick out a favourite moment, although Bancroft will talk about wine matching. "We have had some of the best pairings this time," he says, "Aktar Islam was off the scale in terms of matching with Indian spicing. And a great surprise for everybody was a scallop dish by Tom Sellers with English wine."
So what's next? Haworth is self-publishing the Obsession 16 cookbook, priced at £40 and due for release on 1 May. Half the 5,000 print run has been sold in advance.
He is also musing on the length of Obsession 17. Number 16 ran over that many nights, and so are 17 nights on the cards? Haworth is reluctant to commit, although he will say that "eight or nine chefs are warm for 2017", and some sponsors have indicated their support.
André Garrett's peanut butter parfait, salted caramel, morello cherry, popcorn, ice-cream, hazelnut tuille
However, he will disclose that chef demonstrations, which were popular but only offered by six of the 16 visitors in 2016, could be a regular occurrence. These will be held in the cookery school and are likely to include an hour's instruction and interaction with the chef about one of the dishes from their signature menu.
The Obsession series has inspired other chefs nationwide to run similar events, and they often contact Haworth for advice or even permission. "I say: I can set no boundaries on a festival. If you can, then do it," he says, "but what we have managed to do here, with Obsession, is have longevity. Longevity has been one of the secrets with our business, and our lives really, because Craig and I have had this unique partnership and we are still here 30 years' on. We are very fortunate that Obsession has evolved with us."
Alright on the night: how Obsession is run
The visiting chefs are given artistic licence in Northcote's kitchen, but encouraged to send their menus to Haworth around three months in advance. He offers advice on local and seasonal produce, and Allen will check the visitors' requirements. Northcote provides the ingredients, and if chefs choose to bring their favourites from home (Peter Templehoff brought kombu and squid ink paint) they are reimbursed.
Bancroft matches the wines without consulting the chefs. "If I discuss in too much detail I will end up matching with a wine they have always matched and my ethos is to be slightly alternative," he says.
On the morning of the chef's time in the spotlight, briefings are held across Northcote. Front of house staff receive an information pack with photographs and descriptions of each course, which has been prepared in consultation with the chef. The pack also features details about the ingredients and the wines.
On the night itself the Northcote brigade works under the visiting chef and team. Allen oversees quality control, while head chef Aled Williams is in charge of logistics. Haworth, who is also entertaining guests with Bancroft, works on the pass.
Because so many of the visitors bring assistant and sous chefs, the Northcote brigade of 25 is able to take days off. However, many refuse. "We give people their days off, but they often come into work," says Haworth. "They don't want to miss it." The Obsession experience boosts the skills of all Northcote staff. "It's been a 16-day masterclass," adds Bancroft, pointing out that they have benefitted from seeing 16 different ways to run service and learning 16 different wine flights.
An hour before service, the visiting chef, flanked by Haworth and Bancroft, briefs front of house, and returns after service to meet guests. The visitors and the Northcote brigade are usually met with rapturous applause as they return at the finish to parade through the restaurant.
The chefs of Obsession 16
Le ChÁ¢teau Cordeillan-Bages, Pauillac, France
Ocean Restaurant, the Atlantic, St Brelade, Jersey
Restaurant Story, London
Enoteca Pinchiorri, Florence, Italy
Angelo Sabatelli Ristorante, Monopoli, Italy
Ora D'Aria Ristorante, Florence, Italy
Le MoÁ»t, Taichung City, Taiwan
André Garrett at Cliveden, Taplow, Berkshire
Kashiwaya, Osaka, Japan
Greenhouse at the Cellars-Hohenort, Cape Town, South Africa
The Greenhouse, London
CorazÁ³n de Tierra, Ensenada, Mexico
Wojciech Modest Amaro
Atelier Amaro, Warsaw, Poland
Northcote, Langho, Lancashire
Marcus Wareing Restaurants, London
Northcote, Langho, Lancashire
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