A love letter to open fire cooking from a world-renowned meat messiah
I didn’t know what tonka bean tasted like until I ate the rice pudding at Belzan on Smithdown Road in Liverpool.
If you’re unfamiliar with this part of Liverpool, a way to compare it to Manchester is a small, upstart restaurant opposite The White Lion on Old Church Street in Newton Heath serving you a yuzu ceviche. It’s a brave and challenging thing to do in light of the locale. A wonderful juxtaposition.
There’s something about sitting in front of a fire, eating and drinking, that’s innately human
Another challenging and brave thing to do is to take on a Hawksmoor-associated food pop-up in Freight Island (taking over from Baratxuri, no less) that sits ten to eleven people around an open, wood-fired grill serving fine cuts of meat and specially sourced seafood.
The folk who brought tonka bean to Smithdown are about to do exactly that when Carnival, a collaborative project with Richard H Turner, at Escape to Freight Island launches. Like multiple other projects the lads have a hand in lately, you might not know it yet, but it’s something you won’t want to miss.
Hawksmoor, clout and collaboration
To begin, let’s get the clout and biographies out of the way.
Carnival at Escape to Freight Island is a collaboration between Richard H Turner and the aforementioned Scouse chaps behind Belzan, Lucky Foot fried chicken and (the non-Breddos tacos half of) Madre.
Richard H Turner, a friendly, polite meaty colossus of a man, is an award-winning chef classically trained by the likes of The Roux Brothers, Pierre Koffman and Marco Pierre White. He was a driving force in planning and overseeing the kitchens at the Hawksmoor chain of restaurants, a British meat institution that has since launched a flagship New York restaurant, and has also had a hand in the likes of Pitt Cue Co., Foxlow and others.
He’s one half of rare-breed butchers Turner & George and he also set up NYC’s Meatopia festival in the UK, Spain and beyond. He also happens to be the bloke who has designed the menu for Carnival at Escape to Freight Island. It is not hyperbole to refer to Richard as one of the most accomplished chefs in the country when it comes to open-fire cooking, it’s mere fact.
When I speak to Richard over the phone on the morning of the launch he politely excuses himself for a minute to take delivery of a piece (potentially a wheel) of 60 month Davidstow cheddar. He returns and continues to tell me about how the collaboration came about. Its inception is effortlessly Freight Island.
“My mate is an international DJ called Sasha," Richard says.
“He was at The Warehouse Project and invited me up to come hang out. Whilst I was there I was introduced to Luke Unabomber and he took me for dinner at Baratxuri. Whilst I was there I got introduced to Dan Morris who runs Escape to Freight Island and I got a message not long after about a collaboration. So you know, a drunken night out is how this happened.”
The Belzan boys were enlisted to complete the vision shortly after.
“We’d never met Rich, but he’s the easiest person in the world to work with, and we instantly just understood each other,” Chris Edwards, part of the Scouse side of Carnival, tells me.
“Open fire cooking does that to people,” he adds.
“Rich is the creative mind behind the menu. He loves traditional stuff done really well. Properly rested steaks, simple flavoursome dressings, grilled sausages, expertly cooked bits of offal.”
“It’s mine and Sam's job to bring it to life with great cooking, service and atmosphere. The back and forth with Rich has been one of the most fruitful collaborative experiences of our careers.”
Fire, pig's head crumpets and purple Quality Street
If you’re wondering roughly how long before service the wood-fired grill at Escape To Freight Island is lit, it’s one to two hours. The night before it’s cleared and scrubbed of ash. It’s important not to use too much water when doing this, Richard tells me. Ninety minutes to two hours before service a mixture of charcoal and apple (or cherry) wood will be lit with the help of a small straw-like ball and then the Carnival team are good to go.
Here’s a rough account of how it could go according to my own experiences at the press preview.
At first, the menu might come across as quite daunting. It’s packed and there’s a lot of meaty stuff on there but savoury cheese churros are light and ease you in well with their dusting of three-year-old Parmesan, the same cheese they’re infused with.
Crispy fried scampi is equally light. Joyously light. Where other efforts are held back by coatings of the debilitating beige of flour-heavy batter, Carnival’s come casually clothed in delicate, tempura-style rice batter. Juicy, big pieces of langoustine tail and squid.
Squid strikes again shortly after and this is where the beauty of the wood-fired grill first becomes apparent. Eagle-eyed diners will spot it go straight on the grill, curling up at the sides before being served with kosho and rocket. Mandarin and lemon zest shine through. Memorable days after.
It’s important to note the atmosphere is friendly and chilled. Those seated on the counter are able to watch the whole show unfold. Eyes regularly flick between the food at hand and the great, almost cartoonish hunks of steak waiting to be cooked in the kitchen. First they’ll merely sit, then they’ll be seasoned, then they’ll meet the fire. But first, crumpets.
“That’s why the king of crumpets is Warby’s [sic] because there’s so many preservatives in them. Making crumpets at home is a nightmare,” Chris says as a rich, squat tower of braised pig’s head atop a freshly made sourdough crumpet with honey and clove is dropped in front of you. Unapologetically meaty, crumpet soft as anything.
In a world where a lot of food tastes like butter and salt, charcoal-grilled asparagus with horseradish sauce and hazelnut aillade gets you thinking. What’s that taste? What’s that flavour your mind is shaking itself down for, trying to find?
Quality Street. The Purple One. A fellow diner has already clocked it a few seats down. Funny how food can teleport you like that. Five minutes of festive daydreaming are interrupted by the arrival of some steak you’ve been eying like a twitcher from afar all night.
Rump, prime rib, English porterhouse (bone-in sirloin), T-bone. Given to you on a wooden board. Cooked to perfection. Beef from a farm in Yorkshire sourced by one of the country’s foremost meat chefs who is also a butcher. Sides are plentiful but baked potato with braised ox cheek and tail sticks in your mind as much it’ll likely stick to your hips. There’s vegetables too, don’t worry.
Capping things off is sticky toffee pudding, it’s during the intermission (one of two to allow diners to catch their breath) in which this is prepared that people start to talk. Meal of the year chat circulates. Notable nearby restaurants are compared and immediately put in their place. Best [insert foodstuff] ever realisations filter down.
The wine is great by the way. A mixture of natural, biodynamic and “classics from famous Old World wine producers”.
“I’m about to have one of the most delicious days of my life narrowing the list down to just twenty,” Chris later tells me in an email.
“What the fuck is this place?”
In the interests of balance, it’s worth pointing out that Carnival is not going to be for everyone. Vegetarians need not apply. If you don’t like rich food, think carefully. It’s likely Carnival will attract people that have never been to Escape to Freight Island before and they may find eating that food in those surroundings uncomfortable.
At one point during the press dinner, as Freight’s Thursday cabaret night sends out the booming bass shockwaves of TLC’s No Scrubs across the building, Richard looks out over the room in confused awe and rhetorically asks, “what the fuck is this place?” as a drag queen effortlessly drops into the splits whilst another vogues across a table top.
Some people will struggle with that environment as a place to eat this food. Personally, I think it’s chaotically wonderful. If you can’t handle Freight’s Monroe-esque presence on cabaret night, you don’t deserve it at Carnival. It’s the same level of ambition and creativity.
It’s also worth pointing out that a press night is never a window into six months down the line. Can Freight's newest marquee signing do it on the equivalent of a cold rainy night in Stoke? Time will tell.
Regardless, Carnival is an exciting prospect and when I attempt to steer my phonecall with Richard to inevitable “how have you found your time up north?” territory, his response is telling.
“I’m going to be honest with you and this might not go down too well. I used to be a Manchesterphobe. I met people like the Gallaghers in London and they were my idea of people from Manchester. Of course, that was coming from the point of view of a Londoner who had never been to the city. I’ve since fallen in love with Manchester. When you come you quickly realise it’s kicking,” he says.
“I’ve got to be careful saying it but I think London’s on a downward slide and Manchester is skyrocketing. Walking through it and going out at night. My friend Jonathan Downey, a fanatical Mancunian, he took me around and I fell in love with it. It was nothing like I imagined it would be.”
Although he isn’t willing to reveal the location just yet Richard says he’s “looking for a big old site in Manchester” for a new venture too.
Going forward, the Carnival menu will continue to be free-flowing with the seasons. Bookings open this Friday (15 April) with two menu options. One for items available anywhere in Escape to Freight Island, another for the front row seats, £89 per person (bookings open 29 April). There will be 24 seats available, Thursday to Saturday and each menu will be announced monthly on Carnival’s Instagram.
“Expect big flavours and escapism," Chris says.
"There’s something about sitting in front of a fire, eating and drinking, that’s innately human. It excites us and encourages us to talk. That’s why it’s so enjoyable.”
Carnival, Escape to Freight Island, 11 Baring St, Manchester M1 2PZ
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