We talk to Sam Buckley about cultivating plants and cultivating chefs
It's one of the most progressive, interesting and influential restaurants in Greater Manchester but Where the Light Gets In was only supposed to be a two-year pop up in Stockport. This month, it celebrates five years in business in a once unassuming town that's currently having a bit of a moment.
I'm seeing these amazing people do this amazing stuff. Regardless of my existence. It feels fucking good. I'm proud.
“I was going to try and get a name for ourselves and hopefully get some investment and open something in a more suitable space,” WTLGI owner Sam Buckley tells me when I call him to congratulate him, “But we never got a name for ourselves or attracted any investors. People that want to try and make money avoid me like the plague.”
Sam’s pathological self-deprecation extends beyond himself. Born in Stockport, he makes no bones about having been reluctant to open there. “I don’t think anybody wants to go back to where they’re from,” he says.
As a Chorley lass, I concur. But conversely, he calls himself parochial too. “It's how you frame this parochial attitude. Whether you see it as insular or whether you see it as being a place that you can look out to the rest of the world and bring things in.”
Nostalgia for the old Manchester
He also has this misty-eyed romanticism about old Manchester and deep scepticism about what he calls “the Capital and Centric model”. The Londonification of the city. Something we at Confidentials discuss a lot.
He quips that his stomach dropped when the Boddingtons factory closed in 2004, "You can almost imagine that week on Coronation Street, Jack Duckworth would have had a heart attack. Jack Duckworth and Boddies represent the old Manchester. I wouldn't be surprised if that week he got sick.”
A progressive chef that's so nostalgic? Sam's a mass of contradictions, but then isn’t modern sustainability just a return to the old make do and mend mentality? He doesn’t own a vacuum cleaner or a kettle. He lives and breaths the lifestyle he promotes and loves Manchester but feels its identity is in danger of being eroded away as the city develops commercially.
“I don't like brands. I don't like uniformity. Everyone going to Zizzi and eating arancini and drinking Aperol Spritz. I walked past The Corn Exchange in summer and I was repulsed. There was a sign that said "Aperol Spritz: made in Italy, perfected in England” says Sam.
“I remember going to Italy on holiday. It’s dusk and the sun starts setting and it gets a bit cooler. You've been on the beach and you’ve got sand in your bum and you sit outside the cafe and have an Aperol Spritz. That's the time. But in-between showers in Manchester, at a formica table?”
Does Sam feel nostalgic for five-years-ago WTLGI?
“No. It's been the most challenging five years of my life - but probably the most rewarding. I've been out the kitchen for four weeks now (ed. following a bike accident which left him hobbling on crutches). I just got back in this week and I'm not needed. What an amazing thing. This week I've been thinking: How much can I further that restaurant? How much does it actually belong to me? How much ownership have the people that are there got? How much are they driving it forward?
“I'm seeing these amazing people do this amazing stuff. Regardless of my existence. It feels fucking good. I'm proud.”
Where The Light Gets In's many gifts to Manchester
What strikes me about WTLGI is how many interesting things it has spawned in the city. A lesser, more ego-driven chef might not want to focus on that but when I suggested that we make this a key part of an article. Sam was thrilled.
“Watching these people take those philosophies that we had and we grew. Not in a big-headed way but we were the first people in this city to be doing any of that, to be thinking like that, to be asking these questions and now everybody's at it. Everyone's got like a ridiculously long name, everyone's locally sourced or wild game or whatever. This is great. I do feel like a pioneer. Someone else would have done it, it was coming through anyway. But I feel like we were some of the first, people on the scene.”
Is Buckley the Ian Brown of Manchester's food scene (“I’d rather be the Ian Curtis”) spawning a load of restaurants in his image? That’s surely a great thing, especially when that image is so progressive, sustainable and thoughtful.
“Without a doubt, the wine we were pouring at the restaurant was the beginning of all this in Manchester. It's funny now, going to any natural wine bar in Manchester and watching them where we were five years ago. Going through those same wines we were pouring. Trying to get that funky stuff. I don't want to sound condescending but they've all got a long way to go to understand what they want to do. It starts with, well we just want to pour natural wine. But you have to start questioning that: Why are we doing it? What are the values? Is it just marketing? Is it just hype? You have to jump over all of those hurdles. Find the style of wine that really suits what you're trying to do. It's not just about the hype, the marketing. It’s not just about ethics. It’s about working with the producers that you feel have got a similar story or a similar tone to the flavours, that work with what you do. It's all a journey, isn't it?
“Manchester is the slowest city. Leeds, York, Sheffield, Liverpool have all been on that [natural wine] journey for a while. We're really behind with our food scene in Manchester because of the Londonfication.”
What inspired Sam and Where The Light Gets In?
“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.
“There was this moment, in cooking, when NOMA was coming up. There was something intelligent happening and that's why I got back into it. This whole farm to table movement. I was dismayed when I went back into the kitchen and saw that intelligence hadn't been bred into the kitchen environment and it was still very male orientated, still very pressure orientated. Straight away we were four days a week and family meals and things that. I continue to try and be as progressive as ever in the kitchen and I’m trying to get my chefs to work less.
“We have yoga every Wednesday morning. But it's never enough. [Looking after] the team is the hardest thing. But at the same time, when I walk in now and there's this stalwart team cracking on and doing amazing things and full of creativity and energy. I can't be more proud of that. But it takes a long time to get there.
“You put time into the team and try and really understand what they want. The team have got so much freedom within the confines of WTLGI to explore and express themselves and grow and learn. I've watched so many people do that and the ones that have left are carrying that philosophy of the restaurant forward.”
The cost of good food
In five years a lot has changed. A surprising change is that it’s now cheaper to eat at WTLGI. You don’t see restaurants at the top of their game reducing their prices. Mana has put its prices up twice since winning its star and newcomer District increased the price of its tasting menu after only 3 months. What was the thinking behind that?
“I put the price down 30% because I wanted to democratise the fact that you can get good food.” Says Sam, “It should be accessible to all. It's now £75. That is fucking cheap. It's £27 for a packet of tobacco. I just had a hot chocolate in Heaton Norris for like £3. Seventy-five quid for 10 courses of food that people have gruelled over. The work that we do in that kitchen in the background, the way that things are sourced.
“That’s my conflict of interest. I want people to experience these amazing flavours and stories and to really be transported away from their lives for the night. I want them to have these wonderful evenings that we get in theatres and art galleries but I don't want people to have to pay like 700 quid between them. There’s only a few people can do that. It's nice when you go to Manchester museum or the art gallery and you see families from Gorton and Wythenshawe. People are all being educated and entertained in a democratic way. I think that's important. So that's why we brought the price down really. It means we won't make money and it means we're undercutting ourselves to some extent.”
“I've just bought some expensive socks though. I bought a shower curtain as well. It's 100% organic cotton. I can't have polyester, can I?”
Where the Light Gets In has always nurtured and cultivated its staff, regardless of how much experience they have when they arrive. In fact, Sam encourages people with less experience to join the team.
“A lot of people that have been brought in - especially males - bring with them a bit of ego. It’s not all been roses. I built that place, so there's always going to be my ego at the door. I don't want to flaunt that around and It's not ‘my way or the highway’ but my whole fucking being is in that place. So it's quite nice to be able to bring people in and them work up. A great example is Sam Munstermann who’s now our head chef. For two years, we barely exchanged words. He just did his work, did it well, was never a problem. He was starting to have ideas and he was always going to the next Head Chef. He rode the storm of the COVID thing. We worked so well together and became so close, and now he's there running the kitchen, putting dishes on. Such a beautiful man. So fair. So talented. So kind. I'm so proud and so happy to have him with us. He's not going to be there forever. He's going to have to go and do his own thing. Anything he wants to do, I'll be there with him.
"James Galton our GM too. He is the absolute antithesis of me. My radical, chaotic, unbalanced, impractical, obscene idea. He just balances it and does it all with a smile and just accepts me for being an absolute moron. He just levels the whole thing out. He's unbelievable.
Five Manchester food and drink innovators with Where The Light Gets In on their CV
Caroline Dubois - Isca
“Caroline started a few weeks after we opened. She started this natural wine programme that ran with the food and we worked together. It’s not just about low intervention wines but how we serve wine in the restaurant, how we serve people. She was a dancer and I was a musician. I think we saw that in each other.
“I used to keep a wine glass just tucked behind this cupboard on the pass. Caroline used to keep me topped up because I had to get drunk to get through the night. It was fucking hard. Issy used to come and help on a Saturday night and do service for me and just nail it. So they both had a hand but Caroline's still there [wine buying with current sommelier Emily Klompf]. Her blood is in the walls. She'll never be able to leave.”
“People think of Isca as a cafe or a deli or a wine shop but it's actually an incredibly inventive dining room. It's vegetarian but everything's tasty and innovative but natural. There's just a flow and an energy there that’s just so beautiful. In this tiny space in Levenshulme. It's just a shame it's only eight or 10 people that can eat there at a time.”
Josh Shanahan - Tine
“Josh was one of our first chefs. He helped me paint the fucking bathroom. He was there from before day one. It was me, him and Caroline. I used to get drunk at the pass and have to serve 26 guests. If it wasn't for Josh, it wouldn't have made it through. He’s got this proper Manc attitude and it ended kind of badly. He walked out as we got more chefs and then we got this amazing review in The Guardian. But Josh was there every day. He worked his arse off. Incredible talent, and I just couldn't give him the support. I went to Tine recently and ate and it was lovely and we had a bottle of wine together afterwards and shared stories. It was really nice to catch up with him and see what he was doing.
“What an amazing cook. What a talented lad. It was good to reconnect with him.”
“Joe came over from Copenhagen when I'd had a baby and he only ever wanted to give me a year. He was the first head chef that I had really. That was quite a hard relationship because it was like, I'm still in creative control but I need a head chef to run the kitchen day to day, and I was building the farm as well. What Joe's doing now is, that whole philosophy, something he was attracted to at that time.
“Flawd is three lads from the international dining scene that we're lucky to have in Manchester. It's part of this new generation of natural wine bars. It's a really cool atmosphere, really buzzy. Good for getting a young crowd into wine which is a part of making good food accessible to all. It's really important to get that young generation into it. It's got this tiny kitchen and they're doing some lovely little bites as well.
“You've got Joe from Relais in Copenhagan, the general manager of Blue Hill, and then Daniel was a waiter at NOMA. They're all amazing restaurants. Fuck knows why they're in Manchester. You’ve got three of the most talented savvy young people from an international dining scene. Why is nobody throwing them 250 grand to do what they want? So I'm really glad they've set up by themselves. It's exciting that, and of course they've got the farm as well - Cinderwood - which is unbelievable. It’s gonna be really interesting to see what they do. Manchester should treat them well because we want to keep people like that in the city.”
Lorcan Kan - Things Palace
“The fermentation that we do. me and Lorcan worked together really closely on all that stuff. He just took over that. I watched him grow and learn and research and develop. With that, the restaurant grew up and learned.
“One of the most intelligent cooking brains I've ever had the pleasure of working with. Finding a way of doing things in a really intelligent way. He’s the kind of guy that could do anything and cooking's lucky to have him. He'd make a great scientist. He asks all the right questions. Really well balanced.”
Rosie Wilkes - Yellowhammer
The next big thing is Rosie Wilkes who has been with us for a year and a half. Yellowhammer's her bakery project. I'm only a 50% partner in that business. She came with so much talent and so much knowledge, from the Queen's Head and the Ten Bells in Paris. She brought all of that knowledge without any ego. She’s creatively so good to work with. Ethically, we're just on the same page. She just came to hang out because she was opening her own business and we decided that we should do it together because we just got on.
Flying the nest
"It's lovely to watch them grow." says Sam, "It's a bit like flying from the nest. It’s always sad but then it's also lovely to watch what they do."
Sam is also keen to highlight some brilliant women that helped make Where The Light Gets In what it is and have now moved away from Manchester.
“Emma Underwood is heading up the Hilton in London with Sally Abe and an all-female team. She represents the equality we believe in. She's a ferocious woman. She was here at a critical time when it exploded. She sorted out the booking and got systems in place that we didn't have. She was amazing.
“Emma Tillyer was our pastry chef and is now one of the most revered. She'd been at Trove making cakes and she came in and didn't know much. We gave her a chance and she just took it and worked her arse off. Emma worked on pastry and desserts that take people back to their childhoods. She just grew and grew and became the head baker of Lyle's and Flor. She's living in Margate now. I hope she'll do something of her own one day. She's so talented.
“All these women, their blood's in the walls - blood, sweat, tears. They gave so much to the place."
Where The Light Gets In 7 Rostron Brow, Stockport SK1 1JY
Read again: REVIEW | Where The Light Gets In, Stockport (from 2016)
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