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Minute on the clock: Simon Shaw, El Gato Negro and Canto

31 July 2020 by

The founder of tapas restaurants El Gato Negro in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, and Canto restaurant in Manchester, talks to Emma Lake about reopening, alfresco dining and finally finding time to reflect

How have you found reopening?

It's just a new way of working. I've been a chef for 40 years and certain things are ingrained in me, but all of a sudden, we've got to do things differently. The cooking is actually the easy bit; it's then thinking about keeping your customers safe, keeping your staff safe – there's a lot to think about on top of it already being a challenge.

Conviviality and sharing are at the heart of a tapas restaurant – have you had to rethink how you do things?

The gradualness of tapas is what it's all about – it's that grazing style of eating. We've had to adapt slightly as we try to have fewer touches to the table, so where we would have sent two dishes, we might now have to send four.

We have taken a few dishes off that were really labour-intensive, because we have less labour in the building at any one time – that's just been a case of being sensible. One of our signature dishes is a morcilla scotch egg with apple purée and aïoli – we worked out there were nine processes to make that dish.

I'm really pleased to say we still have a really cracking menu. I actually think the shorter menu will give the chefs more autonomy for specials.

You've spoken of launching collection services and building up alfresco dining – do you think diversification is going to be a game-changer going forward?

Definitely, we have an outside space at King Street in Manchester and we've toiled for five years and never got anywhere with the council, but this morning I've been setting up that space. It looks amazing and gives another dynamic to the restaurant. I think it's massively added something and it increases our covers. We haven't made anyone redundant and we have had to adapt to keep our teams together, so that's what we'll do.

I would have never entertained doing food off-site but now why not let people come and pick up three or four dishes? It makes total sense.

Your Leeds site had only been open for five months before the closure – that must have been particularly difficult. Can you regain that momentum?

Yeah, it was gutting. I'd cut my teeth in Leeds early in my career, so I felt I had a reputation there and on a personal level a bit more was at stake.

We were just getting going –it takes a certain amount of time to cement your reputation as a restaurant and we'd just won two awards.

What's brilliant is the team's enthusiasm about everything. I think this has given everyone time to catch themselves up a bit and everyone is rejuvenated and raring to go.

I think this has given everyone time to catch themselves up a bit and everyone is rejuvenated and raring to go

You're also looking at restaurant number five – what can you tell us about that?

Yes, we must be nuts! But it's been in the making for a long time. We're so close to getting open – we were two months away from finishing when we were shut down, which was really frustrating on a personal level.

But we have every intention of opening that restaurant. We need to get it finished and, if we feel by January or February that the market is buoyant, we'll crack on and open in April, May, maybe early June.

It's a large basement site on Brown Street in Manchester. It's got a great feel and every time I walk in I get excited. The cuisine will be Middle Eastern, which is a food I'm very passionate about –It's a step out of what we normally do and it will be a new vibe.

Have there been any bright spots from this period of lockdown?

Not financially, but in terms of what we've learned in these three months, I think we're a better business today than we were three months ago. The reality of a working day at a restaurant is sometimes you don't have time to go to the toilet, so sitting down and looking at things like margins and service and your purchasing and your systems – you just don't do it. So, in that respect it's been incredibly refreshing.

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