Neil Sowerby laments the loss of a pioneering chef
Genius chef Paul Kitching has died aged 61. I first met him 20 years ago and we bonded over Alan Shearer. I was a Blackburn Rovers fan, he was a proud Geordie, who kept a signed photo of his fellow legend at Juniper, his Michelin-starred restaurant in Altrincham. He was under no illusions, mind, telling me “Alan Shearer is God, but I don’t think he’d like what I cook. He’s a chicken and beans man, nothing fancy. We did invite him to the restaurant, but he couldn’t come. It was a relief really, I was getting dead nervous about cooking for him.”
A true powerhouse of passion for food (with) mentorship second to none
I was profiling him for the Manchester Evening News because Juniper had just been named the Good Food Guide’s English Restaurant of the Year, eclipsing the likes of the Fat Duck. Irony – Paul’s more playful dishes made him the favourite chef of Heston Blumenthal’s kids; conservative adult diners sometimes baulked at wacky combinations – using ketchup, Horlicks, liquorice, Weetabix – in nouvelle cuisine size portions on glass plates as part of vast tasting menus.
Clad in his inevitable white tee-shirt, he defended himself to me by saying he worked from ‘informed tradition’ just as much as a French master or his culinary hero, Marco Pierre White. “We go funky, but we have a lot of respect for the product. I hate frozen food, fusion food, brasseries that aren’t proper brasseries and vegetarians. Tofu, ugh. Quorn, ugh. I’d like to take a flamethrower to veggies. And organic isn’t everything. I want taste most of all.
“A diner today said: ‘If I ripped off the sole of my shoe and gave it to you, you could cook it to taste nice, couldn’t you.’ I could. I’m a chef. But if someone brought in an old bleeding dog, I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fresh. You need freshness.”
So political correctness wasn’t Paul’s forte and he was undoubtedly eccentric, but it served him well on a hard path to the pinnacle. Gateshead-born, after school he drifted into dead-end jobs. Pot-washing at a local Italian ignited his interest in food, but a three year catering course wasn’t a success. His only release was Northern Soul. “I looked rough, angry young man rough, ear-ring, skinhead with a pony-tail. Up there in Newcastle I was nothing, but I got on a coach to Wigan and at the Casino I felt important.”
After the Casino closed cooking filled the gap big time. Twenty-three was a bit old for his lowly commis start in York, but his career swiftly progressed to two-star Gidleigh Park in Devon, where the great Shaun Hill became his mentor. In 1995, the same year Heston opened the Fat Duck in Bray, Paul quit his post as head chef at Cheshire’s Nunsmere Hall to take over at the fledgling Juniper at 21 The Downs, Altrincham. Within three years it won its star, his partner Kate O’Brien had come on board front of house, the number of covers was cut from 50 to 35 and his multi-course, more ‘instinctive’ cooking direction had evolved.
Then after a major revamp only a giant reproduction of Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano remained on the dining room wall. Move forward a decade and in the private dining room of restaurant with rooms 21212 in Edinburgh there’s a blown-up Caravaggio print, signalling the next big step for our culinary Renaissance man.
In 2008, perhaps weary of not securing a deserved second star Paul and Katie upped sticks to Edinburgh (it left Greater Manchester with a Michelin-starred shaped hole until Mana won one in 2019). With a new backer they set up 21212 “to offer upmarket hospitality at their towering Georgian townhouse in the verdant shadow of Calton Hill”.
It was easy to wax flowery about such a sumptuous retreat with four ultra-luxurious rooms and a restaurant that soon won the obligatory star. It lost it in 2019 while continuing to attract awards, moving with the times in 2018 by switching staff to a four day week without cutting pay to fuel the team’s creative flair and help their work/life balance.
The pair invited us to stay a couple of times and we loved it, fascinated by a new maturity in the Kitching kitchen without it abandoning that innate playfulness. It always tickled us that the Scottish capital also boasted fellow icon Tom Kitchin.
21212 was the original dining formula, where the chef disciplined his hyperactive genius to offer a mere choice of two starters, one soup course, two mains, cheese and two puds. It soon engorged itself to 31313, but it didn’t lead them to redo the sign outside or website. To me it was all still 10 out of 10.
I plucked another browning cutting from the dusty bottom drawer to remind of our last Juniper hurrah. Presented in an elegiac mood here is a menu snapshot (a modest 15 courses) from a Wednesday evening in March 2008.
An offer of Champagne with Weetabix liqueur set a tongue-in-cheek, demob-happy tone, as did the kitchen’s amuse-gueule take on gazpacho – a shot glass of grape juice, bacon, cornichon and yoghurt,
Certain ingredients such as smoked salmon, celeriac puree and caviar were to reappear in different combinations, so the whole parade of tiny, perfectly formed dishes felt like variations on a theme. On harmonious combo was a knickerbocker glory-style layering of smoked salmon, caviar, tomato jelly, yoghurt and spiced hazelnut powder with spinach. Similarly well-judged (though it sounded odd) was a nugget of smoked salmon with crispy carrot sliver and a miniscule lemon pancake in a garlicky yeast sauce inside a tiny paper cup.
If a mixture of melted cheese and dried fruits doused in Moroccan argon oil was a misfiring conceit on cheese on toast and the Spanish habit of accompanying the cheese course with fruit (quince membrillo) the unlikely Arab-influenced, grainy combo of chicken, crab and lamb ragout was simply stunning. Throughout the chef’s liking for drying to a powder or candying veg and fruit was much in evidence.
Our eventual main was more conventional, though not a strapping course. A slow-cooked fillet of beef, mingled with an intense melange of mushrooms, honey and thyme. Bacon and mushrooms added the comfort factor, a side of sweetcorn a nod to the chef’s own discreet sweet tooth. An assiette of cheese held a dozen stamp-sized examples, soft goat to reserve gruyere, with tomato relish, preserved mushroom and fruit reasserting the variation on a theme feel.
It was quite lovely, as was a substantial crème brûlée. What an ordinary conclusion, you say. Well, not quite. Snickers crème brûlée with popcorn, Hob Nob and peanut ice cream was a quite extraordinary trademark Kitching yoking together of humdrum products to subvert expectations… and delight. What I’ll remember him for.
What was it like to work for the inimitable Mr Kitching?
Richard Brown, co-founder of Manchester’s late, lamented Beastro, was only 14 when he started work in the Juniper kitchen. “Absolutely gutted right now. He was a true powerhouse of passion for food, his mentorship second to none and his generosity in allowing me to be part of his team will be a part of me forever. His food and attitude to ingredients and dish creation was second to none and he is a huge loss to the industry and his family and loved ones.”
Tameside-based Iain Thomas of Our Place recalled recently (before Paul’s untimely death): “I was lucky to work with him (at 21212 in Edinburgh), when his food became more adult, I guess you could say. His ideas were brilliant. Sometimes working there was frustrating, as I didn’t quite get what was going on. But the lesson for me was when I left that kitchen and came back to eat there 14 months later and realised what a great chef he was.
“One thing that chef Paul said to me was ‘there is a reason I don’t cook chicken liver parfait, sauternes jelly and brioche. Anyone down the road can do that…’ and that is why he did things like his event space POD, Paul’s Odd Dining. That is his vision of craziness, and it works.”
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