It was a big decision for chef Nigel Haworth to leave Northcote, the luxury hotel where he won and maintained a Michelin star, having been there for over half his life. But just over a year on he has no regrets and a bunch of exciting projects going on.
“I don’t think anyone can criticise me for leaving Northcote as I was at the helm for 34 years,” he says. “It’s been a long time, and I built that place up from a couple of Formica tables and an old store in the corner of the room to a mega kitchen with 26 bedrooms, so I feel l have left it at the top.”
Since leaving, Haworth has been developing his own food brand, which is expected to launch next year, featuring a range of hotpots that incorporate British game, lamb and curried chicken. He’s also a third of the way through plans to open his own restaurant, taken on the role of ambassador for the British Game Alliance and been organising Northcote’s 19th annual Obsession chef event. In between all that he would still like to do some TV – he previously appeared on Great British Menu – as well as write a couple of books.
Next year, Obsession will take place over 17 nights, from January 18 to February 3, and will include a range of high-profile chefs, including Ollie Dabbous, Andrew Wong, James Lowe, Marianne Lamb, Marc Fosh and Romy Gill. A chef from Canada will cook at the event for the first time: Patrick Kriss from Alo restaurant in Ontario. Haworth describes the chef line-up as “phenomenal.”
Here, he talks to Food Spark about how plant-based eating is influencing his cooking, the importance of chefs being environmentally minded and why unnecessary garnishes need to be banished.
I went to Northcote as a 24-year-old and that was like finding my destiny. I had come back from Switzerland to get married and I fell in love with Northcote – and the rest is history. At the moment, I’m ambassador for Northcote and that takes up a quarter of my time. The rest of the time I’m cooking in various places.
The hotpots were one of the greats from Northcote that I was proud of creating… But the black pudding in pink trout will always be very precious and close to my heart, as that was the dish that always stayed on the menu – it was the only dish that did really. I think if I do open a fish restaurant, that will certainly be on the menu, as it does contain a bit of trout, even if most of it is black pudding. That was the dish that had followers that used to come regularly.
I’m developing a food brand which hopefully will be released in the spring next year into the supermarkets. [It is a ready meal range of hotpots like British game with venison, pheasant, smoked bacon, mushroom and onion in a red wine sauce, topped with sliced potato; the Lancashire with a leg of lamb and slow cooked onion in gravy topped with sliced potato; a beer and ale version; and curried chicken].
I’m looking at opening a restaurant next year or into the early parts of 2020… It’s completely different to Northcote, it will be fish and plant-based food. There will be a little bit of meat like game.
I’m the ambassador for the British Game Alliance, which is an incredible thing, as we are trying to get more game into supermarkets, get it more regulated and an assurance system that game is of quality and looked after in the best possible way. I took on the role for British Game as I have cooked with game all my life. I don’t go out and shoot game, but I’ve always used hare, duck, teal, widgeon, pheasant, partridge, grouse – I’ve always looked forward to that seasonality and that wonderful thing we have in this country.
Spontaneity is wonderful, but you have to know things actually work. Sometimes we do that with things like sea vegetables. You put them in because they are a bit vogue and then they don’t taste as nice as you think.
Going back about 25 years, I had a phase of wrapping things with vine leaves. I always remember I grew gooseberries and I made this salmon in its own mousse, and I thought that the gooseberry leaves were the right size to wrap them. But a couple of customers sent it back. I hadn’t checked the gooseberry leaves and they are really bitter. I had to take it off the menu on a Saturday night. Luckily we had only served two, and that always sticks out as a learning curve.
You can never be complacent in a kitchen because one day can ultimately spell trouble, so I think you have to be consistent. Consistency is what your customers come for. Everything you serve and every garnish you put on a plate really matters.
I just love Portuguese food, from some of the great beach cafes, to the two-star restaurants that they have got over there, to the peri peri houses. You can get great seafood and there’s great simplicity about what they do. We could learn a lot from Portugal in the way they have embraced provenance and simplicity, and that to me is the future of cooking.
We are certainly going to eat less red meat because of the expense side of things, but also from a health point of view. There is no doubt that plant-based food will be big.
There is a more of a kaleidoscope of different cuisines coming together and styles of food, so the world is our oyster. We are just going to do more and more things that are from around the globe as countries open up. Is there something in that huge bloc of countries from Eastern Europe? Fermentation is one of the things that has come across and I think that will carry on and grow.
China is the one that has to really come through over the next 10 to 20 years, because there has got to be lots of regional Chinese food that we don’t know a great deal about.
I’m loving the Mexican influence right now, but I think Mexico has a lot more to offer in terms of food and wine. When you go into detail with moles and how they make their sauces, it’s quite incredible the layers they put into them.
Offal is one thing that people aren’t eating as much of. Lamb’s liver, kidneys – those sorts of things are such wonderful things to eat and really good for you. Even fresh chicken livers, you don’t see them cooked as much these days, so I would say that’s the ingredient we should all get hold of.
This is a bit of a criticism: sometimes we are more influenced by what food looks like than what it tastes like. I think really the key thing is it has got to look and taste good, and the taste has to come before looks.
Are we going to cook with less milk and cream as we go through the next decade? That’s going to be an interesting one, because we are very milk and cream led in the UK. I certainly don’t put as much butter in things and I don’t use cream as much, and I’m trying to look at alternative flavours, so I think that’s something that might naturally happen. We will use plant-based ingredients, or finish things off with olive oil, or make custards with different types of milks. I think it will come into mainstream cooking more and more.
Micro herbs will definitely come and go – that fad of spending tonnes of money on micro herbs because they look pretty. Obviously they do taste good as well, but I think we should get rid of unnecessary garnish, so micro herbs would be put in there. What people sometimes forget are micro herbs are very strong, so if you put a little bunch on top of a dish you can blow it into the next level where it distorts the flavour rather than enhancing.
The conservation side of things is going to come massively into food. Everyone talks about environmental issues, but now it’s right there in front of you on the plate and we are going to have to be incredibly diligent and careful with what we cook, how we cook things and not to waste things.
It’s incredibly important we use less pesticides, that we manage our growing period, look after our oceans better and use the seasonality of what’s around us and don’t waste it. You walk around most villages around the UK and you see apples dropping on to the floor whereas they could be used – that is vital to the future of cookery, that we are tuning into all the things that are there are in abundance and are not overusing things.
I don’t need to go on to the plastics. I think if I opened a new kitchen, I wouldn’t be using vacuum-packed bags and I would be using an alternative to cling film. Chefs like me and others cooking throughout the world really have to set an example.