Simply’s Manchester

July 3, 2013

Caterer & Hotelkeeper – February 1997

Last year Graham Stringer, leader of Manchester City Council, rang Paul Heathcote at his two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Longridge near Preston, and invited him to dinner. When they met, Stringer talked about Manchester. The city, he said, had a tremendous infrastructure, it had applied to host the Olympic Games, but it had very poor restaurants. What, he asked the 35-year-old chef, would it take for him to open in Manchester?

Heathcote’s answer, Simply Heathcote, opened last October in the city’s old Registry Office. Whether the name is a tribute to a favourite Manchester son, Simply Red, or a steal from Nico Ladenis’s bistro, the proud new owner doesn’t say. But its style typifies his unique flair for giving northern cooking a distinctive edge, whether he’s dishing up hotpot and bread and butter pudding, or reinventing apple crumble as a soufflé.

It’s the chef’s second venture in just over two years. He cut his teeth on Heathcotes Brasserie in Winckley Square, Preston, a split-level bistro-brasserie which seats 60 and 90 respectively, and serves 2,000 meals a week.

The type of dishes on offer in the basement bistro include sausage and mash with onion gravy, sponge puddings and club sandwiches. A three-course meal will leave change from £10. On the ground floor, where the average spend fluctuates between £15 and £20, dishes include pressed terrine of ham hock and chicken liver parfait or char-grilled rib-eye of beef with grapes, walnuts, red wine sauce and snails tossed in garlic butter.

More than any other British cook, Heathcote has risen to the challenge of harnessing skills he learnt working for French chefs Michel Bourdin and Raymond Blanc to reinvent regional food. In someone of less ability, it could have seemed a gimmick. At his restaurant in Longridge, it’s a natural extension of his own personality and tastes.

The brasseries, though, have given him the opportunity to break through the crust of top-flight restaurant food to offer equally enjoyable but less polished dishes.

The change has suited his temperament. “People may think I’ve done this for the money,” he says, “but really I had been cooking in a certain way since the age of 20, and I fancied doing something a bit different. First and foremost, I wanted to broaden my horizons.”

A local institution

A quick straw poll reveals that his Preston operation appears to have become a well-established local institution. The girl at the station ticket office knew where to find it. So did the waiter in the nearby pizza restaurant, and so did a typical “man in the street” – a remarkable achievement for a restaurant in a leafy square that is notable only for its number of solicitors’ offices.

Heathcotes Brasserie does what so few Good Food Guide-worthy restaurants do: it appeals to sections of the local community that would not usually think of eating in such a place. In the downstairs bistro, for example, the quality of food rises several notches above anything of comparable price in the popular sector, but it’s accessible to those who would claim not to like nosh that’s been mucked about. The average spend fluctuates between £3.50 and £6.

Heathcote reckons that about half the eating-out public in the town are no longer shy of patronising the bistro, though a good proportion of these might think twice about his brasserie. “I play squash for a local club and everybody takes the mickey about how much it will cost to eat there,” he says. “Everyone’s agreeably surprised when they do. There’s always that reluctance factor to start with, because they associate me with a two-star restaurant and think that it’s going to be a similar sort of price.”

Although customers travel from Greater Manchester and Southport, 30 miles away, Heathcote has persisted with a no-reservations policy. “It gets us into a bit of trouble,” he says. He took this approach because he wanted to compete with the thriving pizza market, which has no bookings and no formal dress code, but he admits that his customers still expect the upstairs brasserie to be more prestigious than he had intended.

To finance the Preston bistro-brasserie, he remortgaged his home and borrowed the rest from the bank. For Simply Heathcote in Manchester, he has again raised the capital without the backing of partners or investors. It hasn’t been easy, because the potential success of the venture revolves around his name and the goodwill it generates. “We’re a serious risk for the banks,” he says, “because if I got run over, they’d have a big problem.”

Barclay’s, which had financed him in Preston, turned him down for the Manchester operation and he had to switch to another bank.

Northern individuality

The 140-seat Simply Heathcote (with a 40-seat private dining room), on a prime city centre site in Deansgate, isn’t a Preston clone, nor is it some scaled down Quaglino’s lookalike. “I’d like to think,” he says, “that nobody can say it’s another London restaurant gone north.”

All told, it has cost £650,000, but Heathcote insists he hasn’t spent the cash on expensive styling. Yes, he has employed an interior designer, but no, he couldn’t afford to spend £300 on a chair.

Pork pie with home-made tomato ketchup (£4.50), or hotchpotch and oxtail and vegetable stew (£12.50), or a bitter ale ice-cream with peanut shortbread might raise eyebrows in London brasseries such as Mezzo or L’Odéon. Once again he has built his menu on the English theme which has worked so well for him, but he isn’t merely replicating his Michelin specials and removing some of the trimmings.

Head chef Max Gnoyke, who moved from Heathcotes Brasserie, has had as much say in devising the menu as his mentor. In Preston, the trick was to find imaginative ways of dressing less expensive raw materials – skirt, cheek or brisket rather than fillet steak. In Manchester, if he wants to buy scallops or red mullet for a plat du jour he can, because the average spend, £25, reflects the location as well as higher overheads.

His choice of wines, too, is a response to customers’ greater spending power. Instead of 20 references on a short list, all at less than £20, that he has at Heathcote’s Brasserie, he has upped the number to 40 with a £40 ceiling.

The numbers in his kitchen have also leapt to meet the increased workload – 22 compared with Preston’s 12 and eight in Longridge. Manchester doesn’t have the same nucleus of experienced staff as the capital, so Gnoyke and Heathcote have had to rely heavily on five key members who can take responsibility in any area.

Rather than source new suppliers, Heathcote has stayed loyal to those whom he has supported since he set up his Longridge restaurant, because they deliver the tried quality at the centre of all businesses. His smaller suppliers may face a difficult choice if they wish to stick with him. “They may just have to supply less to someone else,” he says. His duck and chicken man, he says, will either have to expand or he won’t be able to fill the growing orders.

In less than six years, from nowhere Heathcote has built up a small homogenous group: a top-flight restaurant recognised as one of the top 10 in the UK, an egalitarian brasserie plus bistro perfectly conceived to serve a regional town, and a modern brasserie dedicated to the needs of a major provincial capital.

As a schoolboy, Heathcote wanted to go to art college. When that channel was blocked, he directed his considerable gifts to devising dishes that look and taste stunning. Having achieved all he set out to do in the kitchen, he is now harnessing his imagination to the complex task of creating restaurants. He may not be a style guru like Sir Terence Conran, but he has an unerring instinct for what northerners like.

Judging by the energy he exudes, he will never be one of those chefs who burn themselves out at the kitchen range. He’s too level-headed to let celebrity take over his life. “The one thing that has changed,” he admits, “is that I’ve no ego any longer. I haven’t anything to prove to myself. Everything I’ve set out achieve, I’ve done and more.

“I don’t know why the hell I’m doing Manchester,” he adds, “except that there’s something inside me telling me I should. There’s more in me engine.” The easy life, he confesses, makes him feel uncomfortable.

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