Manteca has become one of London's most talked-about new openings, picking up praise for its literal nose-to-tail, Italian-style menu. Tom Vaughan meets co-founders Chris Leach and David Carter
It's a sentence I've never uttered before. One that, perhaps, has never been uttered before: "Have you seen a spike in snout demand?"
It might sound like a collection of Scrabble turns strung together, but Manteca owners Chris Leach and David Carter know exactly what I mean; I'm talking about their dish, stuffed pig's snout, which has featured in pretty much every broadsheet newspaper in 2022. "At the moment it's off menu. You have to ask for it. And it's still something of an industry thing," replies Carter. "But as word grows, we might have to start bringing in pig's heads on their own."
The reason the dish has had restaurant critics from Jay Rayner to Tim Hayward squealing with delight isn't just because it's so Instragam-able – a sliced snout lined up on a plate, nostrils and all – but because it perfectly encapsulates what Manteca stands for, and why it has become one of the most-talked-about openings of the post-lockdown era. "It's a statement, right?" says chef Leach. "It's what it represents," continues Carter, who runs the restaurant's operations. "It's a testament to Chris' creativity – using the whole animal; not just mincing it and putting it in a sausage but celebrating it."
It is this combination of Leach's nose-to-tail eating, seasonal British ingredients and hearty Italian cooking that has meant Manteca has become a word-of-mouth phenomenon since moving into a bricks-and-mortar site in London's Shoreditch last November. For co-founders Carter, who opened nearby barbecue restaurant Smokestak in 2016, and Leach, who has cooked in kitchens such as Pitt Cue, Hedone and Sager & Wild (all London), the move marked a big moment in Manteca's two-year lifespan. Sitting in the Scandi-chic setting of the new two-floor, 85-cover site – all blonde oak, bare tables and exposed render – the couple can take a quick breather to reflect on what should be the final big step in Manteca's evolution.
After meeting years ago when they were both working in London's burgeoning US barbecue scene, the DNA of Manteca was born from the nose-to-tail ethos of places like Pitt Cue, says Leach, combined with his passion for Italian cooking, which is largely self-taught.
What made the pair want to work together? "Chris is a specialist – his cooking [at Manteca] is very much his food," says Carter. "I'm a generalist. And it often works when you combine those two. I'm not particularly good at any one thing, but I understand how businesses work. Chris is an amazing cook, and he leaves the boring bits to me."
Time to think
The first Manteca opened as a residency in London's Heddon Street in July 2019 – a short-term, four-month lease that would let Leach start building the menu while they searched for a permanent site. The pair thought they had secured that in Frith Street, only for it to fall through at the 11th hour.
"We lost a lot of money on that one," reflects Carter. "Everyone says ‘Don't get emotionally involved in business'. That's bullshit. It is an emotional industry." They pivoted, signing a two-year lease on a site in Soho and inserting a 10-month break clause into the contract for when they expected to have found that elusive long-term location. Instead, they were blindsided by the pandemic.
"It was demoralising," reflects Carter. "We'd open the restaurant and do 10 covers, three tables for lunch. There's no doubt that restaurants in Canary Wharf, the City, the West End felt lockdown a lot more than those in suburbia."
Yet, in some ways, lockdown proved more of a help than a hindrance. With the couple finally landing a site – an old PizzaExpress on Curtain Road, Shoreditch, the long days at home gave Leach the time to concentrate on the new site's menu.
"Ultimately, for us, it was a help," says Leach. "Just having the time and the space to think about and create new dishes was really nice." Carter agrees: "A bored mind is a creative mind. We barely have enough time in our lives to deal with all our shit. But when you have the space to think about things, that's when you make real progress."
In particular, lockdown gave Leach the time to experiment with lesser-known cuts, with stuffed snout being one example. "It's very easy for people to order a pigs' head fritter or a pigs' head sausage. You're not confronted with what it is. So in lockdown I thought: next time I get a pig's head in, I'm going to try something with the snout." The result is a brined, braised snout, stuffed with braised head meat, which is then chilled, sliced and lined up on the plate.
Pig skin ragu with Parmigiano and crispy skin is another case in point. "When you buy whole pigs you end up with a lot of skin. So we boil that for an hour or two until it becomes very, very soft. We let it cool, then scrape off any extra fat, dehydrate it and then deep-fry it to get crispy pig skin. The rest of it we chill, mince and make a rich ragu with a sofrito. The idea being that you eat the ragu with the crispy pig skin."
As you'd expect, all this meat is assiduously sourced: whole cows from Spring Water Farm in Devon, mutton (or ‘call yaw' as he calls it) from Matt Chatfield in Cornwall, lamb from Duchess Farms in Hertfordshire, and dry-aged ducks and pigs from Phillip Warren. Every animal arrives whole, with the kitchen breaking them down and using as much as they can – with the ducks, for example, the breasts end up in a main course alongside a homemade duck sausage, while the rest goes into a duck ragu served with focaccia fried in duck fat as well as homemade fazoletti pasta. The pasta offering is the other backbone of the menu, with dishes such as rigatoni with kale sauce, Parmigiano and chilli (see recipe) and a tonnarelli cacio e pepe with brown crab meat featuring on a menu that changes daily.
Waste – and the minimising of discarded leftovers – is a theme that runs through the whole kitchen. As well as using every possible bit of the animal, pasta scraps are blanched, dehydrated, fried and served as a snack. Is the obsession with waste about the environment, about bolstering down gross profit, or about showing off?
"Maybe it's showing off a little bit, as that's what chefs do," says Leach. "But ultimately, it's about making people think – why does that have to go in the bin? There's always an extra process, which doesn't necessarily make it easier, but it turns it into something unique. I think to turn it into a whole new product in itself is quite exciting."
Carter is adamant that nothing they do at Manteca is for finance: "We're not investors. gross profit isn't the reason why anything is the way it is. We were clear from the start that this is a restaurant we want to be super-proud of."
However, Leach's inventive use of offcuts certainly helps keep prices low – a quality that won Manteca plaudits and was fundamental to the concept from the very beginning. Average spend probably hovers around the £60 per head mark, says Carter – an affordable price point they are proud of. "We actually had two tables in a few services ago. One spent £700 and the managers were like: ‘Wahey' Then the other table spent £38 and Chris and me were like: ‘Wahey!'"
Rooms to breathe
Another USP is the homemade salami, which started with mortadella during Manteca's residencies and will soon expand into a full, home-cured charcuterie board. To do it properly, and show off their product, the pair installed a bespoke charcuterie ageing room – itself a labour of love.
"We had an absolute field day getting that built," says Carter, pointing at the glass and metal walk-in space underneath the basement stairs. "Because that isn't from a manufacturer, we literally designed it from scratch. We talked to four or five companies who all laughed us out of the room – ‘you guys are idiots, you don't know what you are doing'. That's true, but it doesn't mean we're not going to try."
Eventually, unable to find a one-stop solution, they had architects Box 9 design the room, metal-work fabricator Hi-Tec Steel build it, and refrigeration-supplier Green Cooling install the kit, which is designed to keep the charcuterie in perfect curing conditions.
"It is at 70% humidity and hovering at around 11ºC," says Leach. "What we're doing is mimicking the sort of areas in Italy which have a sea breeze or river breeze, like Emilia-Romagna, for example, like where culatello comes from. They have breeze from the River Pau and the culatello is cured in caves."
At the moment, the charcuterie programme – which will take a while to get off the ground – is the biggest missing piece from a fully finished Manteca. "I think the menu is almost there where we want it," says Carter. "It still has room to evolve a bit more, once the charcuterie is powered up." The pair also have plans to install a prep kitchen in the basement and turn the space – which is presently only being used for private functions – into another dining room that will add another dozen or two covers to the site.
Once the restaurant is where they want it to be, would there ever be a second site? A sister Manteca, perhaps? Or another concept entirely? "This isn't actually the first concept we've come up with," replies Carter. "We looked at Light Bar [also in Shoreditch] before this. It was 7,500 square feet – an absolute monster, Wolseley-big. In the end it was too scary. Then we were interested in a café that would have been a bakery-type thing. So in due time, maybe. Although I don't think the next thing will be another Manteca.
"But right now, we want to cradle this. We've got six months to a year just to get downstairs where we want it to be – we have a lot of space to grow into. We want this place to reach it's potential first and that is hugely exciting. But this isn't the end of us. There will come a site one day that we will just have to build a concept for – we're both creative people."
Recipe: Rigatoni with kale sauce, by Chris Leach
400g kale – cavolo nero, green curly kale, Russian kale 1 garlic clove, crushed 100g olive oil 400g rigatoni 40g butter 1 lemon Pinch chilli flakes Black pepper to taste Grated Parmesan
Wash the kale and pick the leaves from the stalks, keeping the stalks to one side.
Put a large pot of water on to boil and season generously with salt. Put the garlic in a small pan with the olive oil and heat very gently until the garlic begins to soften. Carefully pick out the garlic and discard (or mash up and fold into mayonnaise for another use).
Blanch the kale stalks for two minutes then add all the leaves and cook until soft, around 1-2 minutes. Drain the kale and blend with the garlic oil into a smooth paste. This sauce can be made a day ahead. Cook the pasta to your liking. When ready, drain and reserve some of the pasta water.
In a pan, heat the butter, add the kale sauce and then toss the pasta in the sauce, adding a little pasta water if necessary.
Add a squeeze of lemon and taste, adjusting the seasoning and adding more lemon if needed. Divide among four plates and sprinkle with dried chilli flakes, a few cracks of black pepper and grate some Parmesan over to finish.
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