Nigel Haworth talks about his life-long love of Lancashire’s plentiful larder
The godfather of Lancashire’s food scene tells Imogen Lepere about his mission to get local cooking the recognition it deserves
Nigel Haworth was born in Accrington, Lancashire in 1958. He trained at Rossendale Catering College before working at the Royal Berkshire Hotel, the Ritz, the Grosvenor and Gleneagles. After honing his craft at some of Switzerland’s leading hotels he returned to teach at Rossendale College. In 1984 he became head chef at the Northcote in Lancashire, of which he has been co-owner since 1989. His accolades include a Michelin star, which he has held since 1996. He was named Egon Ronay
Chef of the Year in 1995 and won Great British Menu in 2009. His group of gastropubs, Ribble Valley Inns, is flourishing, with a sixth opening this year. He has four children with his wife, Kath.
Nigel Haworth is into carving. Not joints of meat on a butcher’s block as his dinner-plate-size hands suggest, rather intricate figurines. ‘Have you heard of Capodimontes? I used to carve them out of butter.’ His broad Lancashire accent reverberates through Mayfair. ‘Oh yes. Greek goddesses, old men troutfishing. That sort of thing. I’d spend whole nights in the fridge perfecting them.’ His blue eyes scour the Stafford hotel’s sitting room for inspiring knick-knacks.
It all sounds unlikely, but there’s something innately comforting about Nigel Haworth that makes you take him at his word. A warm smile, the hint of a belly under his jacket and a snub nose all combine to create an avuncular figure you can imagine chatting with over a pie and a pint.
It’s a marked contrast to the tattooed, rock-and-roll chefs with big social media followings and even bigger egos who populate London’s restaurant scene. Yet Haworth is someone who has plenty to be proud of. He has been at the helm of the Northcote restaurant in his native Lancaster for 33 years and has held a Michelin star for more than 20 of them. In 2009 he won the BBC show Great
British Menu with a lonk lamb Lancashire hotpot, returning as a mentor for a new generation of young chefs in 2012.
His latest venture, Ribble Valley Inns is going from strength to strength, with a sixth pub due to open in Alderley Edge in Cheshire this October. The first in the group, The Three Fishes, opened in 2004 and quickly became the pre-eminent gastropub in the area, proving that brilliant cooking and top-drawer local ingredients don’t have to come with a hefty price tag. ‘There’s nothing more satisfying than running a restaurant that people are queuing to get into,’ he says dreamily. ‘And I’ve been lucky enough to have that.’
Born shortly after the Second World War, Haworth’s childhood food memories are typical of mid-century Britain. ‘The biggest excitement was going to the local market to buy black pudding, tripe and dandelion and burdock. My mum used to treat all four of us kids to a bag of broken biscuits, which always wowed us. I’ve got it in mind to create something with broken biscuits. I can see it in a cookbook now – broken biscuit pudding.’ This is typical of Haworth’s cooking. His food always consists of local seasonal ingredients crafted with regional techniques and laced with lashings of nostalgia.
His career took him to London and Europe before he felt confident enough to return to his roots, however. As a young chef he worked at the Grosvenor Hotel, Gleneagles and the Ritz, before embarking on a culinary journey that took him to St Moritz and Gstaad. ‘I chose to go to Switzerland, because when I was in London 30 odd years ago it felt like what was on offer wasn’t that exciting. Switzerland was the place to learn high-end patisserie and butchery.’
A few years later he returned to Lancashire, becoming a lecturer at Accrington and Rossendale College, where he had trained. ‘I love teaching, but it became quite
‘Producers are trying to find ways of stretching the seasons because of the demands of the public. But it’s nice to be a bit stubborn with seasonality and not give everything that everybody else gives.’
frustrating when some of my pupils weren’t that interested because I’m an absolute foodie. Now people come to my school at Northcote because they really want to learn cooking.’ His most successful protégée is Lisa Allen, who has been executive head chef at the Northcote for more than a decade and whom he met when he presented her with an award when she was studying at Lancashire College. ‘I’m just lucky she’s decided to stay with me for 15 years, and long may it continue,’ he says.
Although he was born four years after rationing ended, he believes it had a massive influence on the country and regional food in particular. ‘People started seeing food as a substance that kept them going, rather than something to celebrate and be creative with. A lot of other European countries didn’t have that. Their regional food, which I think is awfully important in a country, still flourished and ours was decimated. It’s only really in the last 20 years that the culinary revolution has taken hold. Before that it was still pretty scary out there for British food.’
For the vast majority of Haworth’s career, being a chef du terroir (a French term for a rustic chef that typically has derogatory connotations) has been unfashionable, to say the least. ‘The influence of non-British chefs was there right throughout the Fifties and Sixties in the grand hotels of London. The British guys were cooking Franglais then. It was a Frenchinfluenced, British kind of food. When I came to Northcote in the early Eighties the offering was what you’d expect from every average country house hotel up and down the country: chicken liver pâté and prawn cocktail. Everything was in the freezer.’
Nowadays, with most products available in supermarkets all year round, he works hard to stick to seasonal ingredients. ‘Producers are trying to find new ways of stretching the seasons because of the demands of the public. But there’s a natural path with food and it’s nice to be a bit stubborn with seasonality and not just give everything that everybody else gives.’ Haworth has worked closely with biodynamic gardening expert Phil Dewhurst to create an organic garden at the Northcote, which now supplies the kitchen with more than 90 fruit and vegetables.
KNOW YOUR ONIONS
His favourite seasonal dish at the moment is a traditional one from Lancashire. ‘August and September is when the new season English onions are out. Boil them in a little bit of water, butter and salt and pepper and when they’re soft just flake some cheese on top until it melts. It’s funny you know, but that would be as good as a pot of caviar at the right time and in the right place.’ This love of simplicity and authentic heritage is Haworth through and through, telling of both his humble roots and years of graft and experience.
In the past ten years the food scene in the north-west has blossomed. Although there’s still no Michelin star in Manchester or Liverpool, chefs such as Aiden Byrne of The Church Green and Paul Askew of The Art School Restaurant are leading a revolution. And with Michael O’Hare opening The Man Who Fell To Earth in Manchester soon, it seems a Michelin twinkly one can’t be far away.
Yet Haworth was there before all this, quietly and consistently sticking to his guns. His passion for the Ribble Valley’s natural larder is infectious. ‘It has obviously got the pastures that give us our milk for the incredible Lancashire cheese. The coast has beautiful black moss sands and reclaimed farmland that has all the nutrients of the sea. It’s just a beautiful part of the country.’
Haworth entered Great British Menu with the aim of getting hotpot recognised as the iconic British dish. ‘I wanted to put it up there with the coq au vins of the world and say this can compete with any dish Europe can put out. I still believe regional dishes are the bedrock of British food. There’s a time and a place for fine dining, but sometimes you just want to eat beautiful ingredients, freshly cooked.’
He’s stuck by this motto throughout his career, immune to the rise and fall of Franglais fusion, convenience food in the Eighties and more recently molecular gastronomy. Now, it seems, the rest of the country has finally caught up with him.
From left: beetroot dish at Northcote; Lisa Allen with Nigel Haworth. Right: The Three Fishes. Opposite, clockwise from top left: broad bean salad with poached egg; sous-vide guinea fowl; Haworth; view of Northcote; sous-vide salmon
From top: Nigel Haworth in the Northcote kitchens; Haworth with the cookery school head tutor Michael Vanheste; apple crumble souffle from the Northcote; home-cured treacle salmon