The man who made offal hip again returns for a one-off supper club
It is not unusual to find black pudding on the menu at any restaurant or pub these days. In fact, it’s almost de trop. You might have to search a lot harder for tripe, granted, but hotpot, game, scotch eggs and the like are no strangers to fine dining establishments. Where once they might have been shuffling in via the side entrance, these dishes now sit in pride of place, no apologies necessary.
The popularity, and indeed respectability, of these dishes in the Manchester dining scene owe a lot to Robert Owen Brown. At a time when local dishes and ingredients were eschewed for sun-dried tomatoes, Rob was championing what might be termed a “northern vernacular” in cooking. Local specialities, hearty but well made and from trusted suppliers based just down the road. Erst's famous flatbread with whipped lardo is not a million miles from Rob's bread and dripping. A flick through today’s Bull & Bear menu reveals a “warm baked Eccles Cake with Lancashire Black Bomb cheese” that could have come straight from The Mark Addy, Rob’s most famous and now sadly closed establishment.
Crispy squirrel and Vimto trifle
His friend Jay Rayner says “I think underpinning everything Rob does is immense knowledge. He became a panellist [On Rayner's Radio 4 show Kitchen Cabinet] because he's brilliant to the recipe but also brilliant at bringing it down to its essentials. And then there is that commitment to an understanding of regional food. He does things with offal that some people might have forgotten about. I mean, he could be fancy, he cooks for the lord and ladies, and he can do the grand stuff, but it's always built on the essentials. I think the title of his cookbook, Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle, sums up his idiosyncratic take on the world but also his sense of humour.”
Born in 1969 in Stockport, Robert Owen Brown cuts a Tudor figure, with red hair and an air of solidness that would be equally home at the banquet table or the jousting lists. After catering college in Bury, he sharpened his skills at The Midland, then went on to work at Brasserie St Pierre, The Bridge, The Angel, Lounge Ten (now 10 Tib Lane) and most famously, the Mark Addy. Then there is the setting of things on fire. One story that lives on in legend is how he cooked a turkey in a filing cabinet for Christmas dinner (the turkey was so big a conventional oven just wouldn’t do.)
Robert Owen Brown's Reform Club days
While his reputation is that of a salt-of-the-earth northerner, his stint at the legendary Reform Club was anything but. He writes in his cookbook: “A brigade of chefs that gave me their all. Hard-working, aggressive, caffeine-fuelled monsters. Each with their own demons, all dancing to the beat of my drum. Waiting staff? Girls in high heels and mini-dresses so tight and short that serving food decently was almost impossible. A client base of footballers, movie stars, gangsters and their entourage. A Spice Girl ordering poached fish and steamed vegetables with a jug of aged balsamic to pour over it. She was on a diet. When she ordered two crème brulées she wasn’t. Then there were others who just came to stare. Champagne delivered by the pallet load.
“It was a place where I learned the power of the press. We sold caviar, a lot of caviar, touching 500g a week. I received a phone call one day asking about who was buying it. My response was ‘footballers and gangsters and none of them cares what they are eating.”
While Rob clearly remembers his time at The Reform Club fondly, it was perhaps in reaction to the hedonism there that his style coalesced. The Reform served early noughties classics such as Thai fish cakes and smoked chicken tagliatelle. Not very Rob perhaps; though a peek of his signature love of local produce was seen in the cheese board, which featured a Lancashire, a Cheshire and a Stilton. He often said that England made the best cheeses in the world.
After such licentiousness, it was clearly time to assert a bit of good old-fashioned Northern straight talking. Jay Rayner says, “I think the first time I met him was at The Bridge and I asked him about a dish he did with peas, - why they were called little peas? And Rob said, ‘Because you're in Manchester not in France. They’re not petit pois. They are little peas.’ And I thought ‘Oh, you’re good.’ What sounded like grandstanding actually carried through onto the plate. A very straightforward approach to the good things.”
The Mark Addy was where Rob perfected his northern interpretation of the nose-to-tail philosophy (its foremost proponent, Fergus Henderson, is a great friend). There would often be a tripe dish or something good with liver. When asked about the quintessential Robert Owen Brown dish, Jay Rayner says, “It has to be devilled kidneys on toast. The stuff he does with kidneys, with black puddings. It’s all the good stuff.”
Certainly, his cookbook doesn’t give many concessions to veggies (though Rob himself cites a red pepper lasagne as a dish he cooks for vegetarians) with almost as many recipes for rabbit (preferably freshly shot, never frozen) as there are for vegetable dishes. Wild garlic, artichokes and the aforementioned peas get a bit of a look in, but it's the furred and the feathered that are the stars.
The much-missed Mark Addy
The Mark Addy, with its long sweep of terrace next to the River Irwell, and canopied windows that projected out over the water, had to be one of the most unusual locations in Salford. The waterside location could be a draw on a sunny day but it also often gave off a slightly, shall we say, musty aroma. Lovingly described as a “The River Café if it opened in a working men’s club”, the smoked glass, exposed brick walls and virile carpet was just about retro enough to inspire some interior designers today, but at the time it was really all about the food.
As Rob says, “I think we are being polite if we say that the Mark Addy, building-wise, was quite rough around the edges. But it didn't stop it getting into the Top 100 Restaurants in the UK. Sometimes you just have to look past the surroundings and look at what's being put in front of you and how it's being put in front of you.”
Rob’s time at the Mark Addy came to an end when the lease was up. The building needed a huge amount of work to be done to protect it from the river and the owner just couldn’t afford it. Three months later, the pub was overwhelmed by flooding and has been slowly collapsing into the river ever since.
Life after The Mark Addy
Rob then, mendicant-like, began a career as a wandering chef for hire. Unexpected fans include Marcello and Carlo Distafano of glamorous San Carlo – so much so they chose to collaborate at a pop-up five years ago. He also worked on the Manchester Internal Festival's Biospheric project, an urban farm that used aeroponics and other technology to grow food, with shades of L'Enclume's polytunnels. Rob created dishes such as shiitake mushroom risotto using homemade stock with a parmesan crisp and micro herb salad for visitors, though, Rob being Rob, Salford snail porridge with sorrel and purslane tempura fritter was also on the menu.
I checked in with Rob to find out what he is up to at the moment: “I’m working a bit at the Cheshire Cookery School (Rob butchers a full lamb in front of the class) and I’m spending a bit of time on The Kitchen Cabinet. Then I do private events throughout the shooting season. I’m giving a domestic service.”
I ask him what he feels like cooking and eating at the moment. “I think it very much depends on your mood and the weather. Looking out the window right now, I want something quite warm and hearty. The last thing I'm thinking about is lettuce leaves on a day like this.
"We wouldn't be in this conversation if we were in France or Italy or Spain. We would be saying - what do we produce in this area? What's the best? What can I do with it? It's become the trendy thing to do and I'm glad it's become acceptable today. We shouldn’t be using strawberries in the middle of January. Let's just rejoice in the three or four weeks they are absolutely the best in the UK. You know, let's not be flying them in from Turkey or Holland grown in greenhouses. That has long been my ethos."
Being local without being parochial could be Rob's slogan. As far as he is concerned, a French chef would put local dishes and ingredients above all else, so why shouldn't a lad from Stockport? In fact, he cites a French exchange trip to the Dordogne as a teenager as a pivotal moment. When many of us were struggling with "où habites-tu?", Rob was tasting lapin and plotting a revolution in how we see the food of Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria - a truly local larder.
When Rob started cooking like this, way back at the turn of the millennium, food miles were an abstract concept and the term "carbon footprint" had yet to be invented. I put it to him that he was an accidental environmentalist right from the beginning. “I didn't start off from an environmental point of view. You know, the nose-to-tail thing is about if we're going kill this animal, we've got to use all of it.”
The iconic image of Rob is the one above this article, shotgun broken in one hand, a brace of wood pigeon in the other, destined to be pot-roasted with elderberries or some other seasonal flavouring. He is a passionate game chef. His portfolio career sees him cheffing at private parties around the game season and he himself is often out on shoots when the season allows. Elsewhere he writes: “Lurking behind nose-to-tail eating is the deep belief that if you are going to take a creature’s life you have a moral responsibility.”
Rob's influence on today's Manchester
Stockport chef Sam Buckley, who cites Rob as an influence, told us, “I hadn't lived here for a while but I remember coming back and thinking Robert Owen Brown, with his wild game and his fishing, was really interesting," says Sam. "I just liked that as a chef he was out there on his boat, tramping marches and whatever, hunting ducks - which is not my thing but it was cool to see someone connected further than just the back door of the kitchen taking deliveries. He went out of the back door.”
Other proteges include Kevin Choudhary of Street Urchin, who said, “I met Robert Owen Brown at Mr Thomas’s Chophouse when he was exec chef, then worked with him at The Bridge and then moved to Knutsford to help him run The Greyhound pub. I’ve known him for quite a few years. I learned a lot from him because he’s a very, very good chef. I learnt about working with the seasons and how to link up flavours.”
Alex Hall at 10 Tib Lane is another former employee. While the dishes on Tib Lane's menus are lighter than classic Owen Brown, the seasonality and commitment to the best local produce shine through. Now Rob has given Manchester the confidence to be thoroughly Northern - gastronomically speaking - it can relax into a hybrid of flavours and styles that takes the best from everywhere, including our own doorstep.
Rob’s other passion is offal but perhaps not always in the way people expect: “I tend to try something new. People might be surprised that I love Asian flavours. The things that Red Chilli on Portland Street can do with tripe never ceases to amaze me. The things they can do with the squidgy bits that nobody wants to talk about – the flavour they can get out of it.”
A night with Rob Owen Brown at The Eagle, Salford
Finally, I ask him about the supper club he is putting on at The Eagle in Salford soon, with Confidentials’ Gordo as co-host. He replies, “I’m a big fan of [Eagle landlady] Esther’s – I have been for a long time. Then I love pubs. I think pubs are the backbone of this country, and they are really coming into their own now. And they need looking after or we're going to lose more.”
Despite the trip into town, Rob is not planning a big comeback. His “domestic service” suits his pirate-chef lifestyle and, as several people I talk to mention, the business side of hospitality has never been his strong point. Instead this is a rare chance to taste the cooking of a man who has influenced the Manchester food scene like no other.
Robert Owen Brown will be cooking at The Eagle Inn, Salford on Tuesday 22 March. Tickets - only available via the Confidentials app - are £59 per person for four courses and a complimentary glass of champagne.
You can follow Lucy on Twitter at @hotcupoftea
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