How Cheshire’s top chefs worked during the lockdown
- Credit: Lee Brown
When restaurants rolled down their shutters in March, many kitchens stayed open as chefs and owners cooked up ingenious ways to keep their customers satisfied
Anyone who has tried to get one of the dozen precious seats at Oxton restaurant Fraiche will know it is one of the hottest tickets in town. Before lockdown, bookings for Cheshire and Wirral’s only Michelin star restaurant – being made for two months in advance – would open at 10am on the first day of the month. By 10.01am, each one would be gone.
“Some people get very cross and ring to complain,” says owner Marc Wilkinson, who ends up as referee to many debates about booking policies. “The ones who don’t know us think there are secret bookings going on under the table, but it really isn’t true.
Lockdown is the second break Fraiche has seen in the last few years. At the end of 2018, Marc closed up, planning to open in a bigger venue in Liverpool or Chester. But the sale of his Oxton site fell through, and a couple of months later he quietly reopened where he was. The venue retained its Michelin star, which it has held since 2008, and the awards came rolling in again.
“At first we were just cooking for our old regulars, and then word got out,” he says. “It was tough, like when a house sale falls through. I wasn’t planning on going far, but it wasn’t to be. It quickly felt as though we’d never been away,” he recalls.
While lockdown meant closure for his restaurant, never one to rest on his laurels, Marc spent the time honing his skills as a chocolatier. But when you’re a chef of his calibre, expectations are high.
“I’d always make the chocolates we serve as petit fours with coffee in the restaurant,” he says. “But, as with everything, I wanted to see if I could improve. People post on their social media they are eating Michelin star chocolates, so there’s always a pressure not to disappoint.
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“Lockdown gave me time to research and develop the process. I’m a big fan of Ramon Morató (Spain’s leading pastry chef), and I was due to be on a chocolate-making course this summer in Brussels. Sadly, that was cancelled, so I started reading up and doing research from home.
“I looked at the recipes I’d used before, and started to play around with the mouthfeel and see if I could give them even more of a wow factor.”
Marc set himself a challenge as it’s hard to beat the wow Fraiche creates. Earlier this year it was named best restaurant in the country by Harden’s Guide, following similar accolades from The Sunday Times, and Michelin’s own Rising Star award. But when he posted pictures of his chocolates on social media, he was inundated by foodies trying to buy a small piece of Fraiche, even while the doors were closed.
Nothing was allowed to leave ‘the shop’, as he modestly calls his stylish restaurant, unless it met with Marc’s impeccable standards. His flavour choices were bold and inventive, with centres made from yuzu, lemon verbena, yoghurt and passion fruit. But like everything Marc does, profit isn’t the main goal.
“If I wanted to make money doing it, I’d sit on a production line and make the same things all day long because that’s much less time-consuming,” he laughs. “But where would the fun be in that? I like making truffles sometimes, but I also wanted the challenge of making the bon-bons, hand-tempering the chocolate and making something you couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Marc has been experimenting with patisserie, making breathtaking cakes and puddings, too. Strawberry tarts came with a choux base, topped with strawberry creme, fresh strawberry compôte, almond biscuit, caramelised pistachio and a strawberry and champagne whipped ganache.
Eclairs were made with chocolate crémeux, praline and caramelised hazelnut. There were macarons too, popping with flavour. Red ones made with raspberry, lime and beetroot; yellow ones with mango, with a velvety dark chocolate cream.
“It’s been good to focus on something new in such detail,” he says. “The shop has been brilliant, and it’s been a great way to keep in contact with customers through all this too, although they do look at me funny when I say they have to eat them straight away. Macarons can last a day, maybe two, but most things are best on the day they are made.”
As he tentatively reopens the doors to the public at Fraiche, it is clear demand is likely to be higher than ever. “Last time we reopened it didn’t feel like long until we were back up and running again,” Marc says. “And I’m sure it will feel that way again, just with better chocolates for our petit fours.”
The garden menu
Eddie Shepherd is head chef of The Walled Gardens, a tiny vegetarian restaurant created in the downstairs of his house in Whalley Range. It was named one of the best 20 places to eat by The Guardian earlier this year.
When Eddie had to shut the doors on his eight-seat eatery, he realised customers still wanted good food even though they were confined to their home. Still, it was unlikely his exquisite 12-course molecular gastronomy tasting menu would work as a takeaway. So Eddie had to adapt.
“To keep cooking, supporting my small business and suppliers during the shutdown of restaurants I offered chef’s hampers,” says Eddie. “They’re three-course meals for two, and much simpler and more rustic than the tasting menus I normally do. But the focus is on delicious food, ready to eat and great value for money.
“We put together a menu with starters, something like a truffle potato salad with smoked yoghurt and blue Wensleydale. There’s a main course for you to heat at home – the last one was oyster mushroom and black bean chilli. “Then I put in some sides – smoked hummus and bitter leaves with a Manchester honey and dandelion dressing – and two desserts, such as dark chocolate mousse with honeycomb. Plus I always included a loaf of my treacle and walnut bread and a vegan option, too.”
Eddie learnt some new tricks of the trade, and if demand continues it could provide him with an option to feed more diners each evening.
“There will be plenty of time for the more creative, expressive side of cooking soon. But I wanted the hampers in lockdown to be about nourishing, affordable food.” Eddie has now reopened The Walled Garden with a swift demand for bookings. Tickets are priced £65.
For chefs who were not able to reopen their restaurant kitchens even to offer takeaways, such as Aiden Byrne, head chef at Lymm’s popular Church Green, lockdown has been an opportunity to turn their talents to other types of cooking.
Aiden has rekindled his love of baking, using his kitchen at home in Lymm to make dozens of hearty pies, banana bread and scones for sale each week. They’ve been available for collection from the decking outside his gastro pub, The Church Green. The award-winning chef, who won his first Michelin star aged just 22, has embraced a more casual style, serving up comfort food, with popular steak, chicken, cheese and pork pies.
For those craving something sweeter, he’s been making scones, banana bread and delicious Japanese milk bread, with everything under £10.
“I started keeping myself busy by making pies, hams and salamis for the residents on my road in Lymm,” he explains. “Then we tried the Matt Adlard Japanese milk bread recipe. The kids devoured it with sweetened condensed milk. People started asking for the things I was baking at home and it went from there.”
It’s been such a success the team opened up the pub kitchen to make a deli, so they could keep up with demand. Now, they plan to offer deli options to take away for as long as customers want to keep buying them, along with a takeaway service.
“It’s been amazing,” says Aiden. “So much so, it inspired us to open the deli at the pub.”
Elite Bistros, founded by super- chef Gary Usher, is a collection of six restaurants in Cheshire and Manchester. As well as some of the team cooking meals for NHS workers as part of the Eat Well MCR project, Elite Bistros has created a complete meal kit for customers around the country to make their favourite dishes in their own kitchens.
Gary, named Chef of the Year at the 2019 Cheshire Life Food & Drink Awards, worked with his staff to create a menu of dishes that could be cooked by customers, with some instructions.
“We were all looking forward to the day we could welcome guests through our doors again, but in the meantime it was lovely to be able to deliver a little taste of Elite Bistros while the restaurants remained closed,” he says. “Our executive chef, Richard Sharples, worked really hard on the menu to make sure all the dishes would be as good as you would eat in the restaurant, but as easy as possible to finish at home.”
The group – which includes Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle, Pinion, Wreckfish, Hispi, and Kala (Newcomer of the Year at last year’s Cheshire Life Food & Drink Awards) – has been offering national delivery for the kits, and is considering an option where meal kits could be picked up from the restaurant sites.
So far, menus have included some of Gary’s most popular dishes, including his signature braised featherblade of beef with truffle creamed potato, glazed carrot and red wine sauce. And the prep is already done when it arrives.
“You get the beef all braised down; you get the sauce that comes with it, some prepped and cooked asparagus, some purée and some mash, all in separate bags,” he explains. “You drop it into a pan of water at home, I show you how long for, and hopefully you recreate the Elite Bistro experience at home.”