Top chef Paul Heathcote's anniversary

Philippa James celebrates a special date with one of Lancashire's culinary legends

I was delighted to be invited by Paul Heathcote, whose contribution to the county’s cuisine was recognised with an MBE, to a celebration of 20 years at his award-winning flagship, The Longridge Restaurant.

Kath Bell, the restaurant’s general manager, welcomed us at our table, while Champagne and a hot slate platter, replete with one-bite-big canapes, were brought over.

As we tucked into bread-crumbed balls of Stilton, then Paul’s own recipe black pudding, followed by shrimp cups, Paul came over. He has the warmest of smiles, and with quite the sparkliest twinkle in his eyes.

I introduced Ken, my ‘walking buddy’, to Paul, and it transpired that he also has a passion for walking. Soon the three of us were discussing our favourite, local hikes, and Paul divulged that, to mark his 50 birthday, he and his 75-year-old father, also called Ken, were tackling the Matterhorn.

As the first of Kath’s husband, Head Chef, Chris Bell’s classically inspired courses arrived, Paul left us to enjoy our meal.

Asparagus, champ potato and chervil, with a Sauvignon Blanc, Dream Bay, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2008. The asparagus was a vibrant green, and yielded to the fork, with a merest hint of the chervil. The Sauvignon, a classic match, didn’t over-power the delicate flavours.

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While waiting for the braised fillet of turbot, accompanied by a Chablis, Pico Race, 2008, Burgundy, France, we ‘investigated’ the butters; rosemary and hazelnut, oregano, and Stilton on warm bread rolls. The fish course, we both agreed, was superb; perfectly cooked vegetables a base for the firm-textured turbot.

Throughout the evening Paul regaled us all with tales of two decades in business, and, rather than focus only on all the positives, he was refreshing frank about the early days.

Nine days after The Longridge Restaurant opened there was a fire which, Paul said, almost destroyed the business. He described the scene as akin to the Keystone Cops, as one fireman snagged his hose, and two more were hauled out of the building after entering without breathing apparatus! Paul ‘begged, stole, or borrowed’ from friends and managed to re-open within 48 hours.

Three months later the stock market crashed and, with interest rates touching 18 per cent, the bank told Paul that he was going bust. Fate and ingenuity played a hand. His marketing budget of �6 a week was spent on faxing his C.V. (12 years at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, time at Sharrow Bay, and The Connaught, and a brief over-view of his new place).

He sent six copies a week to food critics at �1 a time from the travel agent on Bury Lane. Happily, Guardian food editor, Matthew Fort, picked one up, visited and wrote a rave review. Suddenly, there was an eleven week waiting list for a table.

I was impressed by the ‘slick’ and unobtrusive front of house service, observed awaiting the Goosnargh duck breast (from another local character Reg Johnson, who Paul first met while executive chef at Broughton Park). It was served with fondant potato and dotted with cherries. The duck skin - a deep, golden brown - was tantalisingly inviting and the dish was truly delicious.

Mrs. Kirkham’s gorgeous Lancashire cheese and a rhubarb compote, rich fruit cake slivers, and hand made crackers, with an amazing Krohn 2000 LBV Port followed.

Wow! The marriage of these flavours with the port was magnificent... to the nose, fat, ‘blousy’ tobacco leaves, and silky smooth over my tongue... a depth of leather... in fact, all the scents of a ‘Gentleman’s Club’, in a glass!

Paul talked of his early days, at Le Manoir with Raymond Blanc throwing pans around the kitchen after being dissatisfied with the preparation of truffles that ran at up to �1,000 per kilo. While living in staff quarters there, Paul shared a room with an Italian chef, Stefano. Paul said that he still slept with an Italian - but now it was his wife, Gabbi!

The next course was a ‘palate cleanser’, a strawberry soup, topped with a teensy quenelle of Champagne sorbet which just melted in the mouth.

The finale was a trio of lemon desserts, and a Sauternes, ‘Cuvee Speciale’, Chateau Briatte, Gironde, 2003, Paul’s favourite wine of the evening. There was a light lemon parfait, and tiny lemon financiers. Originally made by a French pastry chef in the 19th century, these cakes were baked in rectangles to reflect bars of gold in the nearby Paris Stock Exchange. But the ‘star’ of the trio was the lemon posset, topped with quivering strawberry jelly, a wafer of crisp caramel, and a fat, fresh almond.

Coffee and hand made chocolates rounded off a beautifully orchestrated, and wonderful evening.

I reflected, later, on this most charming, entertaining, and delightfully funny man, and on his spirit,and tenacity. Faced with early adversity, many would have crumpled under the pressure. There is, I believe, an awful lot more to come from Paul Heathcote.

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