Two Michelin-starred chef talks to Confidentials about taking over the kitchen at Stock Exchange Hotel

Niall Keating - Michelin star magnet and rising star of the restaurant world - opens Tender, in Gary Neville's Stock Exchange Hotel today (5 June).

Ahead of the opening he chatted to Mark Garner and David Adamson about his culinary journey so far and what diners can expect from Tender.

2024 06 05 Tender Niall Keating Interview Chat
Niall Keating chats with Confidentials Image: Confidentials

Mark Garner (MG): What was the first dish you remember eating that you liked? 

Niall Keating (NK): Honestly, just home cooked food at home in Stoke-on-Trent. I was always fortunate that my mum would cook at home and it wasn't necessarily just tray bake stuff. I'm not saying that it was the most incredible of cuisine, but it was still something that Mum took time to do; we'd cook a fresh lasagne, we'd go out and buy ingredients for a Sunday roast, which we'd cook to within an inch of its life, but we'd still make the effort to do it. We would never eat out unless it was a local pub maybe once a month. But we'd never eat out in terms of restaurants as we have them now.

MG: And you started working in kitchens at 16? 

NK: It was the local pub, just literally pot washing and microwaving vegetables. 

Then my dad basically said to me, you can go one or two ways here; get some kind of GCSEs and go to college or just start applying for jobs but in high end restaurants where you can eventually climb the ranks and make this an actual professional career rather than just kind of floating about. So I must have sent my CV off to 40 or 50 restaurants that were all Michelin starred at the time. The CV obviously read very little other than 'Potwasher at The Fitzherbert Arms' and my date of birth and where I went to school, sometimes.

From there I went to the Bath Priory Hotel, which was still under the direction of Michael Caines at that time and I was there for almost four years. I started as a breakfast chef, cooking breakfast every single day and then doing mise-en-place and prep and weighing out ingredients for the rest of the chefs in the kitchen. I just fell in love with the camaraderie of the team and working together in a kitchen. Being in a hotel, I do believe you have to be cut from a certain cloth to be able to enjoy this environment, and especially back in those days where it was the absolute norm to be doing 80 or 90 hours a week. I think I fell in love with that part of it more than anything and more than the food, just being a part of the industry. And I actually ended up being sous chef by the time I was 20. 

It was real classic training from Michael's background, so obviously everything was super classic French which gave me an incredible basic understanding of French cuisine. I didn't realise at the time what I was being exposed to, but now 13 years later I realise how important that was for me at that time in my career.

2024 06 05 Tender Niall Keating Interview Stock Chat 2
Niall Keating chats with Confidentials Image: Confidentials

David Adamson (DA): And where did you go next? 

NK: I ended up going to Restaurant Sat Bains for three years as a Chef de Partie, and that was a completely different landscape altogether. Whereas everything was very structured with Michael's recipes and his French cuisine aspects of everything - 'This is how you do it every single day' - Sat really drove the belief that every time you see an ingredient you consider how you could prepare it differently. It was the complete opposite of what I was used to, so that was obviously very exciting. And then I think working with Sat made me become more aware of international cuisine and the fact that there were a lot of Michelin star restaurants around the world. 

I took a two week break and went on a trip to San Francisco, and Sat said you should go to Benu, it's the most incredible restaurant ever. So I went to Benu in my tweed blazer and chinos and red tie and for some reason they thought I was some kind of English inspector or something. I managed to have a table of one for 6.30pm and had the most incredible experience I've ever had in my life when it comes to cuisine or hospitality. I ate my 20 courses, went into the kitchen and said to Corey Lee, 'I'm going to hand my notice in at Sat Bains and come and work for you'. That was 18 months, then I did a stint in Copenhagen and eventually got a call off Sue Williams, who was the new general manager at Whatley Manor. I was 25 and she offered me the Executive Head Chef position, and that's when I came back to the UK.

DA: At Whatley Manor you got two stars before you were 30. Looking at the kind of levels that you were already reaching - was that a clear ambition that you had in your mind or was it more of an organic process?

NK: It was really only until I'd got to Denmark and I'd experienced everything that I started to weigh things up. I was in a senior position, and I just wasn't agreeing with other people's views and techniques on food. I'd started writing my own menus when I was 25 at Whatley Manor, which had everything a Cotswolds hotel would be expected to have, so I had to deliver for all of that while also saying to myself, I need to get a Michelin star in this dining room by the time I'm 30, so that's kind of where I was at. 

It does weigh pretty hard because of all the other responsibilities of being a hotel executive chef, but I've got the opportunity of creating my own menu in here as well of course.

2024 06 05 Tender Niall Keating Interview Stock Ex Int
The dining room at Tender, Stock Exchange Hotel Image: Confidentials

MG: And how did you come to connect with the hotel? It has to be said Gary Neville's had a few chefs. Does that worry you at all? 

NK: Gary and I have a mutual friend, who is just about the most connected person I've ever met. I was saying to him that I'd love to open a restaurant in Manchester, a space had opened up in the Stock Exchange Hotel and who would I speak to about that. Then before I knew it Gary and the guys came to lunch at Luna and we were having a meeting. 

It doesn't worry me personally. It only fuels me if anything. I know that he's a very high achiever in everything that he wants to do, and that it has to be right. I'm petrified of my own standards, and I know that if I'm put in a position in this restaurant where I'm allowed to achieve what we can and to cook for the people in the way that I would like to, there's no reason why this won't be a roaring success, and I think it will be.

2024 06 05 Tender Niall Keating Interview Stock Ex Int 2
The dining room at Tender, Stock Exchange Hotel Image: Confidentials

MG: My favourite dish of recent years has been the Roast Duck at The Ledbury, a real centrepiece dish. I've had a look at some of your dishes and they seem to be 'bigger', if you like, compared to the trend for tasting menus. Do you differentiate yourself from those types of menus? 

NK: Yes, it's completely different for me. If you can really cook, you can cook anything and if you cook to such a high level and have the accolades from something like a tasting menu, then you can take the same pride in serving the best burger that we can produce, the best cuts of steaks, the best Sunday roast opportunity. 

The greatest accolade for me would be to have this restaurant full five days a week and people enjoying it in the city not just as a special occasion. It's somewhere that they can drop in. I'd love to think that we'd have people that would come multiple Sundays in a month to enjoy live music and a really reasonably priced, well executed Sunday lunch. 

I'd love to create an audience of people that just want to come back, where it's not branded as this Michelin starred experience where you know it's going to be £1000. I want a family of five to be able to know that they can come and have Sunday lunch for under £200 easily. 

I've had that duck dish at The Ledbury. I love sharing food, and I love tables to be able to enjoy a feast of different things. On a Sunday we can have the spit roast chicken going around and be serving a selection of meats for the table. There's a certain romance I feel behind a family style meal, and I think that fits very well with this room.

Tender by Niall Keating opens today (5 June)

Book a table here, and for more information about the restaurant and Stock Exchange Hotel visit their website.

2024 06 05 Tender Niall Keating Interview Stock Ex Ext
Stock Exchange Hotel Image: Confidentials

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