The Rabbit in the Moon head chef Luke Cockerill talks to Katie Pathiaki about his mission to create unique space-age, Asian-style cuisine
The Rabbit in the Moon's playful, contemporary logo perfectly sums up the restaurant and the character of the head chef behind it. And aged just 22, Luke Cockerill is fresh-faced and laid back and has hundreds of ideas hopping around his head.
Cockerill worked with Michael O'Hare at the Blind Swine in York (which closed in 2013), before following him to open the Man Behind the Curtain in Leeds. "No one will work with Michael as closely as I have," Cockerill says. "I caught him at a point in his career where I could absorb everything he was teaching me and form a relationship with him. Now, he's one of my closest friends. When this opportunity came, he gave it to someone he trusted."
He seems to be doing the boss proud. Cockerill and two other chefs turn over 30-40 covers a night in the restaurant, which has capacity for 40. "It can be tough with just three of us," Cockerill says, "but something I learned from Michael is that your food shouldn't be that hard. During the day we do the preparation and work on the finer details, so that during service we only need to focus on small things."
It was important for Cockerill and O'Hare to create something different from the flagship. "The Man Behind the Curtain doesn't have a direction apart from to be creative. We didn't want to be just another version of that, so we needed something more focused. Not a lot of people are doing a style like this."
The menu, a 17-course compilation of East-Asian inspired finger food, has been created through Cockerill's love for visiting local Asian supermarkets and trying new things. "I am constantly trying new flavours. If what I taste is sour, then I'll take it and try it with fish. This way of creating dishes is more time-consuming and a little harder than creating them in your head with familiar flavour profiles, but the end result is more creative and different."
h the dishes, Cockerill is challenging people's perceptions of food and breaking boundaries. "The food is inspired by Asia. We take the ideas and strip them of any tradition," he says, He's proud to say that there's not a single knife or fork in the restaurant and if diners don't want to use the chopsticks provided they can borrow some tweezers from the kitchen.
e Asian influence is combined with French cuisine in the pain au unagi - an interpretation of pain au chocolat, where the chocolate is replaced with eel. "I like this dish because it's unique in the way it looks and tastes. In the dish, two baby sand eels, which have been grilled with soy, mirin and sake, are running down a classic layered pastry. Instead of something sweet and chocolatey, the diners get something savoury and fishy."
One of Cockerill's favourite dishes is the Chinese bacon butty, a steamed bao bun filled with Iberico secreto ham, which has been cured like Chinese bacon with soy and sugar. It's served with crispy oyster mushrooms and Chinese ketchup. "I've found that if you take something people have had a million times, they say "wow, this is the best bacon butty I've ever had!" and that sticks with them," he says.
e Rabbit in the Moon doesn't offer a vegetarian menu, which Cockerill is adamant won't change. "I wanted to create a protein-heavy menu. What you often find is that with a small team it will take one chef a long time to make the adjustments for, say 10, vegetarian guests. It goes beyond tweaking - we have to create completely new dishes. If I am creating new dishes for vegetarians, then I'm not cooking the food I have a reputation for. I want my food to be a reflection of my expression, and it wouldn't be truly like that if I was serving something else, because I want to eat meat and fish."
The menu doesn't change often, as many of the ingredients don't rely on the seasons. "Certain parts of our dishes aren't seasonal at all, so we will just change when we feel like it. I'm into tweaking dishes and some people who have come to eat here twice have said that it was better than last time, which shows we are evolving and improving.
"We don't want to be mad and wacky; we just want to be cool and energetic with a restaurant that looks like it's going to go places. There's no rulebook, other than to just stay true to yourself."
From the menu
Wagyu truffle nigiri
Salmon skin Inari
Sticky halibut ribs
Razor clam udon
Crispy red curry
Kimchi duck broth
Duck liver satay
Multi-course tasting menu, £75
The Rabbit in the Moon
Urbis Building, Cathedral Gardens, Todd Street, Manchester M4 3BGwww.therabbitinthemoon.com