Is this the region's best qualified – but least celebrated – chef?
WHEN chef Mike Shaw was 34 he had a decision to make. Move to California where he'd been offered a job in esteemed restaurant, The French Laundry (which has the likes of Anthony Bourdain calling it 'the best restaurant in the world, period.') Or work at a pub up the road from where he grew up, in a village on the edge of Oldham.
He went with the pub, The White Hart at Lydgate, choosing nearby family and the windswept Pennine hills, over the celebrity clientele and sunshine of California.
We want to treat the customers to something they've not experienced before.
It was a brave decision, especially considering his pedigree as a chef. Shaw began his career as a pastry apprentice at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, before moving on to Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall. He later worked as Gordon Ramsay's pastry chef at Aubergine then as sous chef with Pied a Terre's Richard Neat in Cannes. Before taking up his role at The White Hart, he was head chef at Gilpin Lodge, where he helped them secure a Michelin star.
So what was it like to go from Michelin-level kitchens to the kitchen at the local pub?
Says Shaw: “It was a tough job. There’s a shortage of chefs in the industry so we often employed apprentices who we train up which is a challenge in itself. But together with my loyal sous chef Archie who's been with me six years, we've turned things round and made it work”
The White Hart now has a stack of accolades including listings in the Good Food Guide and the Michelin Guide. And Mike Shaw is leading them into the next stage of their development – their new fine-dining restaurant The Dining Room where his tasting menu gets rave reviews from food critics.
But what about the punters? Do they share the critics' enthusiasm for his high-end approach to dining? Shaw says his tasting menu is “well received” but describes catering for the White Hart's clientele as “a difficult balancing act.”
“We have different options at the White Hart – we have the Brasserie which is more traditional, more classical, and then we have the Dining Room which is more modern and always based around seasonality. The aim is to cater for our range of clients”
Ah, seasonality. That restaurant buzzword. Here's another: local produce. And this is where Shaw diverges from the standard script:
“People always harp on about local produce and I agree with them to a certain extent. But I import my pigeons from France because they're the best pigeons around. I was brought up at the Manoir where they used the same French pigeons. And we had the same pigeons at the Aubergine. They're a quality product.
Once a week I have my pigeons, cheese and truffles shipped over from France. My hand dived scallops are couriered down from Scotland twice per week.
“I source the best ingredients from wherever they come from, where I feel is best. We want to treat the customers to something they've not experienced before.”
Shaw's time in Michelin-starred restaurants has shaped his approach in many ways, not just in where he sources his produce. He describes himself as “quite tough to work for” (we suspect this is an understatement) and puts this down to his experiences as a 16-year-old apprentice at Le Manoir.
Says Shaw: “It was an eye-opener. You start at 7am, get an hour off in the afternoon, then when you finish after a busy service, the last job is to get the Brasso out and clean the stove because you respect the top equipment they use. But the customers who go to these places are celebrities, so you just feel good about things. You get up in the morning with a smile on your face.
Nowadays, he hires young apprentices himself. When one recently told him he wanted to leave the White Hart to work in a Michelin star kitchen, Shaw got him a job at two star Midsummer House in Cambridge, where he's now been for a year. Shaw says, “I take great pleasure in that.”
Back at the White Hart, pastry is still Shaw's passion. He thinks it was a wise decision to train in this area, which is seen as one of the most technical skills in the kitchen.
He says, “Every chef I've worked for struggled to get a pastry chef. It's a massive skill and not many people want to do it. Gordon [Ramsay] wasn't pastry trained. Richard [Neat] had his limitations in pastry, which is why he left me to do it. I'm very passionate about it.”
This is evident in The White Hart's tasting menu where Shaw's desserts are impressively accurate. On a recent visit Confidential sampled a salted caramel tart with perfect 'wobble', and intensely-flavoured sorbets and ice creams made from scratch in his kitchen.
The whole experience spoke of a class act. When Shaw accepted the role there, one of the factors that swayed his decision was owner Charles Brierley's support for his culinary vision, and his willingness to invest in creating a destination restaurant, including buying £150 plates for the Dining Room.
Says Shaw, “He doesn't say you can't do this and you can't do that. I can do what I think is right.”
By all accounts, it's an approach that's paying off.
The White Hart at Lydgate is at 51 Stockport Road, Lydgate, Oldham, OL4 4JJ. Rooms are available. To make a booking for the inn or restaurant, call 01457 872566 or email firstname.lastname@example.org