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Lancashire Restaurant Culture

An article on Lancashire Restaurent Culture

By Christopher James Hammer

Lancashire’s culinary fame has been mostly linked with the hot pot and the black pudding - not to mention Mushy Peas and Chips and Gravy.

In the past, the North-West has played second fiddle to the sublime restaurant culture of London and the Home Counties. Times have changed and the Good Food Guide made it clear that the calibre of restaurants outside the capital is rapidly improving and in some cases is superior.

Preston, like many cities across Britain, offers a wide variety of choice for its inhabitants. At Paul Heathcote’s Longridge Restaurant the customer can: Start with Pan-fried Scallops with Caramelised Chicory, Black Pudding and Red Wine syrup; Continue with Char Grilled fillet of beef ‘Rossini’, Foie Gras, "Fat" chips, Spinach and Red wine and finally; indulge in Iced Tiramisu Parfait, Chocolate Sauce and Mascarpone.

Meanwhile, down at the local Little Chef there is the appetising prospect of: No starter but a main course of Sausage, Eggs and Chips. Fair’s fair, they do offer the healthy option of salads, including the eloquently named "Omelette with Coleslaw". For dessert one can endure the hot pud of the day.

But this is comparing a Tiger Prawn with a Fish Finger. Is it that the finer end of cuisine has a distinct clientele? There are always enough customers to fill up the tables. There is no need for them to bring the price down to attract more people. It is quality not quantity. Max Gnoyke, the managing director of the critically acclaimed Michelin-starred Heathcotes Restaurants, acknowledges the threat of being “pigeon-holed” like this but he believes that, “no matter who you are, a retired couple, a family, business men etc., the aim of our restaurants is to deliver the ‘wow factor’ for everyone who walks in.” This is certainly not the philosophy of the global chains that swamp the streets.

The fast food outlets (from the fluorescent urine coloured arches to Colonel’s chicken ranches) are packed throughout the afternoons, but emptier at night when our other branded eateries attract the custom. Mr Gnoyke does not heavily criticise these because he believes there is a massive market place and they are necessary to sustain people’s needs. Richard, the 7th Earl of Bradford, whose company "VIP Internet" owns "", thinks they introduce people to eating out and, “hopefully that will encourage them to then move on to something more individual and special.”

Food has never been so high profile, with many aspiring to the restaurant culture. It is sign of status, being able to slide your plastic on the bill without looking how much it is. Affluent middle classes with ‘no time’ to cook trawl out into the city centre to indulge as a family.

So where do most families go for their meals out? Probably somewhere they know their kids will like and therefore a place selling a cheese and tomato pizza. Hence the numbers of successful global chains like Pizza Express, Pizza Hut and also the ‘authentic’ Italian choices like Bella Pasta or Angelo’s Italian Restaurant. These are clones of one another with carbonara, pizza napoli and tiramisu all inevitable features on a family’s bill.

So what is it like to eat at a fine restaurant where individual care is taken over each freshly prepared, originally designed dish? The Longridge Restaurant is not a city centre establishment. The rural surroundings, with views over the Ribble valley, create a strong traditional bond with Lancashire. In regards to portion sizes, it is the sort of restaurant that can bring the ‘value for money’ debate to the fore: in this ‘supersized’ fast food society we now live in, people have been influenced to expect their chefs to give them a plateful.

In terms of price, Mr Gnoyke believes the Heathcote’s restaurants are very good value in comparison with other that rival its class. He said: “The Longridge Restaurant serves Michelin-starred food for £14 with main courses using local cuts of prime beef. In comparison, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons (in Oxford) is the same standard but charges so much more.” It is the taste one pays for, not how many times forkfuls of meat are shovelled into one’s mouth.

Pubs that serve food have been associated with this type of voluminous philosophy. The Earl of Bradford, who is also the ex-president of the Master Chefs of Great Britain believes that “pubs are providing the basis for an eating-out revolution all over Britain as many of them are being bought by chefs or individual entrepreneurs and turned into something special.” He also thinks it is a mistake for restaurants in areas like Preston to serve expensive cuisine. He said: “They should aim to provide a consistent standard of interesting and reasonably priced food.”

With both Simply Heathcotes and the Longridge Restaurant in the area, Preston has celebrity status. The Earl of Bradford, also a Committee Member of the Restaurant Association of Great Britain, feels that the “recent phenomenon” of celebrity chefs like Paul Heathcote has increased the popularity of the restaurant scene, but he doubts their priorities. He said: “I remember Albert Roux criticizing celebrity chefs to me and how they now expect instant success; he told me that for the first 25 years of Le Gavroche he never came out of the kitchen.” Mr Gnoyke believes the benefit of celebrity exposure is that it provides a, “direct correlation” with the chef’s restaurants but they must make sure a balance is kept with their work in the kitchen. He used a very famous chef as the example; “What Gordan Ramsay has done is very clever. Some argue that if he’s always on T.V then what’s the point in going to his restaurants if he isn’t going to be there. However, he has managed his brands really well and put someone in charge at each one who is of a high standard who delivers food exceeding public expectation.” However he warned that, “if the man is the brand, and the brand is the man then there is a danger that the celebrity chef’s absence can weaken the foundation of the restaurant.

“Paul Heathcote does not do too much television and we have empowered all our team to manage the business and deliver quality to the customer.” Places like this are rare in Preston, but more should be on the way as long as people begin to realise that the key to a fine evening out is the attention to detail that the top restaurants attempt to achieve. Mr Gnoyke said: “By eating at the Longridge or Simply Heathcotes we aim at providing a memorable service where the customer walks away with a better experience than they have had anywhere else.” To experience this quality in Lancashire though is a lot cheaper than in the south, so take advantage and have an evening to remember.

Christopher Hammer

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