We caught up with the man behind The Walled Garden underground restaurant
What links the fermentation lab at NOMA in Copenhagen, chef Sat Bains, Simon Rogan’s Michelin-starred L’Enclume and Manchester chef Eddie Shepherd?
The answer, in this instance, is all four have used an ultrasonic homogenizer.
What separates them, however, is only one of them had the rare piece of high-tech gastronomic machinery - which at the time retailed at roughly £10,000 - positioned on top of a chest of drawers in his bedroom. The only place it would fit in his one-bed flat in Didsbury.
Complexity is never there for its own sake. Only if it builds flavour
Welcome to the magical world of Eddie Shepherd and his quest to create modern plant-based food. A world of underground suburban restaurants, innovative gastronomy and laboratory-esque equipment.
The best bit? The epicentre of this innovation is the ground floor of a house in Whalley Range.
Philosophy degrees, Simon Rimmer and iPads
Philosophy degrees are full of big questions. For Stockport-raised chef Eddie Shepherd, the biggest came after graduation, in the form of: "What the fuck do I do now?"
The chef-owner of the plant-based underground restaurant, The Walled Garden in Whalley Range, can laugh about it now but the concerns were real. Three years of studying philosophy left him feeling like the more he learned, the less he knew. Upon leaving there were only two certainties: he knew how to research and he knew that with all of its ethical issues, meat wasn’t for him.
Working as a pot wash in Glasgow whilst at university left Eddie with an appreciation of kitchens and upon graduating he set about working his way up. Stints in Scottish restaurants were followed by a brief cameo at Brighton’s Terre a Terre. Eddie's time in Scotland was capped off by winning the prestigious Cordon Vert cookery school's Chef of the Future award in 2009.
Plant-based food was always at the forefront of his mind but moving on to work under Simon Rimmer at Greens in Didsbury provided focus and he speaks fondly of his time there.
The word serendipity comes up a lot when talking to Eddie. He always seems to catch the wave early. Whilst working in Scottish kitchens he set up a blog to record his early experiments in plant-based cooking. Just as the iPad arrived, Eddie published his first cooking ebook, resulting in a fleeting moment at the peak of the iTunes food and cooking charts.
It was a visit to a food festival in Madrid however, watching modern gastronomic titans like American chef Grant Achatz and Spaniard Ferran Adrià that had the biggest impact on Eddie around this time.
He bought their respective cookbooks and set about starting his own gastronomic revolution from the tiny kitchen of his Didsbury flat. Eddie quickly realised, if you’re going to revolutionise anything, let alone plant-based cuisine, you’re going to need to get your hands on some kit.
Enter: the ultrasonic homogeniser and friends.
Research, kit and the modern freelance chef
Eddie Shepherd’s first proper bit of kit was a dehydrator and he’s still got it to this day. It’s pretty much a box with a fan in it (sorry Eddie) and it allows for food to be cooked at a low temperature. If you’ve ever seen Eddie’s Instagram, it’s the machine that makes that fantastical glass-like parcel that’s served in the middle of a sort of statue with a hole in it.
At the time, modern gastronomy was very much in vogue, sous vide was becoming a thing and companies would send chefs complicated mechanical oddities to try out. Being the forward-thinking plant-based chef that he was, Eddie was at the forefront of this wave too.
This is how he found himself using the same ultrasonic homogeniser, basically a fancy mixer (sorry Eddie), that also found its way into the Michelin-starred kitchens of Sat Bains and Simon Rogan.
I briefly toyed with calling Eddie a chefluencer in this article. Not in a negative way, more because his approach comes across as particularly modern in a visual world. A quick glance at his social media channels reveals a notably sleek record of his work. Again, Eddie cottoned on to the importance of being able to take a good picture early on. A skill he would recommend to budding chefs.
His YouTube channel meanwhile mixes how-to guides with deeper explorations of topics like whether food can be art. He’s the only Manchester chef I’m aware of who has a Patreon account.
After a combination of consulting, menu development, collaborations with other chefs and some adventures overseas (a pop-up in Mexico as well as a week-long residency at a Chinese bear sanctuary), Eddie quickly realised he missed cooking for people.
Eddie had an idea. But he’d need a house.
Whalley Range and the birth of an underground restaurant
Eddie talks quite casually about The Walled Garden in conversation. It’s easy to forget that the so-called “underground” restaurant he is talking about makes up the ground floor of his Whalley Range house.
He bought the house with his partner roughly six years ago with the intention of making it into a restaurant from the off. I ask him whether anyone got NIMBY about the concept but he tells me he checked in advance and his neighbours were fine with it. During lockdown, the fresh honey from his beehives and freshly baked bread made him a popular neighbour.
The Walled Garden is a restaurant inside Eddie’s townhouse home in Whalley Range. It seats eight people and serves a modern 12-course plant-based tasting menu. Tickets to the restaurant are released five months in advance and cost around £75. Due to alcohol licensing - although this might change in the near future - Eddie is only able to offer a G&T upon arrival, his own gin and ingredients of course, and diners are encouraged to bring their own booze.
Like any other restaurant, The Walled Garden uses an electronic booking system and is subject to the same hygiene and safety checks. Bookings for the restaurant usually sell out within minutes of going live and guests visit from across the UK and beyond.
The restaurant featured in The Guardian’s 20 best restaurants in the UK 2021, as chosen by Britain’s top chefs. Customer feedback on his website is a stream of people commenting how The Walled Garden is on par with or better than Michelin-starred experiences they've had in other restaurants.
I ask Eddie if it’s weird having a restaurant in his house.
“From buying the house and moving in, to cooking the dinners was a couple of months. Almost straight away. I was setting it up knowing that so I’ve never known my home not to be like that.” He says.
“I’m quite conscious that I want the atmosphere to be warm and welcoming so the music isn’t necessarily what you would immediately think looking at the food. I really want people to feel comfortable and know that they’re going to have a fun night.”
Motown and Northern Soul is thus preferred to rare James Blake cuts and the more challenging film scores of Trent Reznor.
Going where no plant has gone before, the pursuit of flavour and nerding out over corn
At this point, you’re probably wondering about the food. What is Eddie Shepherd doing that’s getting him compared to a plant-based Heston Blumenthal? The answer is two-pronged. Firstly, as seen from his social media channels, Eddie is making aesthetically notable food.
Take Eddie’s scotch bonnet and fermented passionfruit which is housed in the middle of a specially-designed ceramic ring made by Rebecca Morris, a Levenshulme-based ceramicist. Flavour-wise, the Scotch Bonnet itself has been distilled in order to extract the aromatics and flavour that are usually lost to the fiery heat.
Or consider a dish from last summer’s menu that's almost unrecognisable as food. It could be a microscope image or the sort of thing NASA might beam back from another galaxy. The unique plates are from a Barcelona design studio. On the table, they’re lit from beneath to give the layers of seaweed, tofu and kohlrabi a kaleidoscopic look.
The other part is flavour. The years of research, experimenting, scientific equipment, liquid nitrogen, bees, lemon verbena and homegrown produce, all of it, comes down to Eddie’s obsessive pursuit of exerting the best possible flavour from plant-based ingredients.
Sometimes this can be relatively simple. The test tubes pictured above, despite their unusual presentation, are filled with a chamomile infusion with mint and raspberry, acting as a segue later in the meal between the savoury and sweet courses.
Not as striking when served in a mug.
Other dishes, like cured mushrooms with vanilla and beetroot, are far more complex. For this, Eddie takes a mixture of mushrooms, thinly slices them, dehydrates them and soaks them in umami stock to rehydrate them, taking on the stock’s flavour. He then sets them in a block with an enzyme and this compressed block is cooked for two hours, cut into small pieces, smoked with oak, before finally being seasoned and marinated in oil.
The whole process takes several days and concentrates a punnet’s worth of funghi into roughly two mouthfuls of cured mushrooms. It’s a ridiculously luxurious dish, but when you consider the steps and processes that go into a raw Wagyu steak or traditional cured meats, is it really that bonkers?
Eddie admits sometimes he will spend a lot of time putting together a dish and for whatever reason, it won’t work. You win some and you lose some in the vegetarian world of centrifuges, clarified rhubarb juice and vacuum distillation
“Complexity is never there for its own sake. Only if it builds flavour,” he says.
Looking to the year ahead, Eddie in true Willy Wonka fashion, lets slip that he’s excited about corn. Specifically, the way he’s going to process some rare varieties he’s sourced from Mexico. He’s working on a dish that will channel the aromatic experience of freshly cut grass and his May supper club at The Walled Garden was a sell-out within minutes of releasing tickets online.
I ask if he feels like he’s ever trying to beat animal products for taste. A meaty chip on a vegetarian shoulder.
“Possibly. There is still a general feeling of people don’t always have a high expectation of plant-based food which is kind of fair enough because there isn’t that much of it out there at a high level at the moment. There will be. That’s going to come and there’s still good stuff. But it’s young and that’s one of the reasons it’s important for me early in the menu to set the rhythm.” He says.
“I give you a couple of small delicious things early on so you know you’re in safe hands.”
We never thought we'd write this but don't be surprised if a Michelin star finds its way to Whalley Range in the next few years.
Booking information for The Walled Garden is available on Eddie's website. The next round of tickets for dates in June go live at 9am on 1 February.
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