This very special independent is now supplying chef-prepped meal boxes and natural wine

In early 2020, Joseph Otway and Richard Cossins joined forces on what should have been a four month pop up: Higher Ground at Kampus. The tiny restaurant on stilts in a former security cabin on the edge of Canal Street launched to rave reviews - despite being tucked away on a building site - but nobody could have predicted how different things would be by April. The situation with COVID-19 has forced many small business owners to think quickly and creatively in order to survive, or at least bubble away like a sourdough starter until life starts to return to some kind of normal. 

Whenever that turns out to be. 

It just seemed a complete waste to not be trying to do some good - and to keep our space alive

It was a chance meeting that brought Joseph and Richard together. They were both signing new employment contracts on their first day at Blue Hill Farm - Dan Barber’s high-end, sustainability-focused, farm-to-table restaurant at Stone Barns Centre for Food and Agriculture in New York. While Richard continued to lead the front of house at Blue Hill, Joseph’s peripatetic culinary career took him to Relae in Copenhagen for 18 months before bedding down in the equally cosmopolitan Stockport, where he spent a season as head chef at Sam Buckley’s Where The Light Gets In. 

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Chef Joseph Otway pours a tipple for restaurant manager Richard Cossins

We catch up with Joe and Richard by phone on a Sunday afternoon, immediately bonding over the unpredictability of sourdough. “I baked a sourdough the other week,” laughs Joe, “it was absolutely rubbish.” Our own gleeful schadenfreude aside, Joe's clearly not from the shouty, egotistic chef-school of yore, but a self-deprecating, passionate, planet-conscious member of the new wave.

They'd always wanted to run a restaurant together, Higher Ground being the first step which would hopefully lead to a permanent site. But it had only been open five weeks when the government-enforced lockdown took restaurant-dining off the menu. With everything in flux, they prioritised taking care of their beloved team via the government’s furlough scheme. Then, with doors closed to the public, set about coming up with ways to stay active while trying to future-proof their business. 

“We’ve been able to engage with the local community in ways that have been really exciting” says Richard, "It’s amazing to see people respond to the situation. You really see who the key industry figures are. It’s really great to be a part of that.”

But it was a turbulent start to the second month of their short tenure.

“We were just coming into our first big weekend,” explains Joe “it was starting to look like we were going to have a really decent week. We had the (fully-booked) collaboration with Amass restaurant in Copenhagen coming up. We were also going to cook with another one of the most exciting chefs in the world. We had to cancel all of it. But we still had access to the restaurant. It just seemed a complete waste to not be trying to do some good - and to keep our space alive.

“What impressed me so much about Manchester - and one of the reasons we wanted to open here - was the community. People are sticking by each other and helping each other out. People like Mary-Ellen McTague doing the emergency food response. 

“As food providers we quickly realised we needed to balance social responsibility with financial stability. It’s fucking hard line to walk because you have to give as much as you can away, but you also need to take for yourself so you can keep afloat. In the last month we’ve just barely broken even by selling veg boxes through Cloudwater’s delivery system and trying to sell a few meals. Selling the veg boxes and meals funds us to create dishes that we can give away to NHS workers and vulnerable people. We’ve done that from the beginning, this is the fourth week we’ve been donating a crate of cooked meals on a Sunday. We were able to create a closed loop where we weren’t making any profits as a business but we were able to stay active and do good things without it costing us too much.

“I reached out to Mary-Ellen last week to see if she could help me out with any takeaway containers. At the moment I’m producing 30-50 meals every Sunday and it’s delivered by Richard or Paul from Cloudwater - who’ve been fucking amazing through all of this, a real pillar of the community. She said, why don’t you let me take that delivery bit off your hands? This week I’m going to begin helping them out a bit more alongside my own food donations.”

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Last week's meal box before...

Higher Ground’s newest delivery scheme for the general public is ‘Joe’s 29 Minute Meals’ - a cook-at-home box that brings sustainable restaurant food to you. It’s a novel concept, four locally-sourced, chef-prepared dishes that complement one another and can be finished off in a basic home kitchen. Joe does the leg work: slow braising pork shoulder for five hours and salt-baking potatoes, and it’s delivered to your door ready to assemble, warm and plate up. There’s also a cookalong with Joe on Instagram every Friday at 7pm.

“This week we’re doing asparagus with smoked cod roe. I’m going to make the smoked cod roe whip. You’re just going to spoon it out on the plate and pan roast the asparagus for two minutes. I’ll teach you how to cook it really nicely. I’ve got some sorrel coming which is an ingredient most people just won’t have at home - a real springtime flavour. I’m excited about it. There's a wild garlic dressing that you can add with the sorrel after crisping the potatoes in a frying pan. We’re going to do the pork shoulder again - from Marcus at Littlewoods butchers - with the first of the vine tomatoes that are coming in from the Isle of Wight and a mushroom, grain and nectarine salad which you just need to toss together and season.”

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...and after

It’s a unique opportunity to eat Joseph’s food at home for an astonishingly good price. Meal boxes for two are £35 which also includes four cans of Cloudwater’s Helles lager. To order for delivery this week - Thursday to Sunday depending on where you are - choose ‘Manchester delivery’ on Cloudwater’s shop portal, click on your postcode area and then click the text links to add items to your cart. There are a choice of meal boxes - with vegan option - and organic veg boxes too. 

If you want to order wine then you have to go through Higher Ground’s own separate online shop. There are worries that the ordering system is a little confusing. True, it’s not quite as slick as your usual online grocery shop or the big boys of delivery. But these are challenging times, and restaurateurs are doing their best to learn how to run their businesses in a completely different way. A little effort on the customer’s part goes a long way towards supporting these incredible independents who are pulling out all the stops to adapt their offering.

“We’ve both bought bicycles to deliver our natural wine to people in town,” Joe tell us, “it’s fucking hard! In the first week we were pulling in all the resources we could. We borrowed a delivery van from Sean at Organic North and thought, we’ll drive around doing all the deliveries. We did two deliveries and got two parking tickets!”

Richard is keen to champion their bicycle-delivered natural wine: “We’re working with really great wine importers who really think highly, not just of the wine making process, but also of agriculture. It’s great to represent these producers here in the UK.”

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WEEKEND WINE RESTOCK! We are very much thinking of everyone during these tougher than usual times, we would love to be serving you this weekend. But there is still good news as we have lots of wine available so you can enjoy your weekend at home. Something for the balcony, garden, couch or maybe even bed. Wherever you like to drink, we don’t judge. We are offering free delivery to any of you living in Ancoats, New Islington, Northern Quarter and the Gay Village. If you order before 6pm you get it the SAME NIGHT! Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Otherwise you can always pop in to the city and pick it up at the restaurant. - Go to our website, link in bio, and fire away! If you want suggestions or have any questions DM us and we will happily help you pick out some gems. #manchester #naturalwine #supportlocal #winetime #orangewine #manchesterwine #highergroundmcr #manchesterrestaurants #staysafe
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They emphatically encourage people to get in touch to talk wine. 

“At the moment we are not able to actually be there and look after our guests in person,” says Richard, “but we still want to be able to add as much of a hospitality touch as we can. Through a conversation online or over the phone or on Instagram even, people can tell us how they’re feeling, when they’re going to drink it, who they’re going to drink it with and what they’re cooking. We’ll find the bottle that’s going to suit that occasion for them.”

What would Richard recommend with this week’s 29 Minute Meal box?

“I’d serve a 2017 Maison en Belles Lies Aligote from Burgundy. The producer is super exciting and it’s a grape variety that was once forgotten in Burgundy because it was a ‘peasant’s grape.’ It’s a really great structured wine to handle the pork and the cod roe. I’d be very happy with that.”

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Natural wines on offer at Higher Ground in its opening week

Joe and Richard are true food heroes that are offering something totally different to the people of Manchester but they are full of praise for other local businesses too. They tell us about a lockdown weekend they had recently with ‘loads of booze’ and a make-at-home delivery from The Koffee Pot: burgers for dinner and a hungover Koffee Pot breakfast the next morning. “The whole package was full of fun and humour,” says Richard, “it’s times like this when you see what the delivery and take away food side of the industry is. Have you had a pizza from Ciaooo? (oh yes, we have) I’ve never ordered something that arrived so soon after we ordered it and was just so delicious. It’s really good to see these businesses performing like that during these times.”

Read next: Who's still delivering food and booze in Greater Manchester?

Read again: "Less can be magnificently more" - Higher Ground, KAMPUS, reviewed