It’s three years since an abandoned 200-year-old boozer off Cutting Room Square, Ancoats, was exhumed. Another reminder of my own imminent decrepitude – I’d propped up the bar at the Edinburgh Castle as a national hack working out of the nearby Express Building in the 1980s. Not the friendliest of street corner locals then; today’s stylishly restored version is infinitely preferable, even if some question if it recreates a true pubby vibe. But do any of us yearn for sticky carpets, nicotine-stained ceilings, neolithic toilets? The new model was doing something right, though, since it won Pub of the Year in the 2021 Manchester Food and Drink Awards
Inevitably it has been the upstairs gastropub element that catches the attention in a neighbourhood feted as a foodie destination. Cosy and candlelit, the 36-cover restaurant has had aspirations from the start, either side of the lockdowns, but culinary continuity has been lacking.
Two chefs who have headed up the EC kitchen I count as friends. Kiwi Julian Pizer launched with his signature bee’s wax aged beef but moved on and remains a real contender, running Another Hand in Deansgate Mews. Similar acclaim greeted Iain Thomas at The Alan Hotel before his recent departure to run private dining/pop-up operation Our Place. A year ago when he was head chef at the Edinburgh Castle he hosted a quietly daring ‘Trust The Chef’ blind tasting game dinner featuring venison, woodcock and partridge.
The baton has now been passed to Shaun Moffat, still in his mid-thirties but with a wealth of experience, in the South West and then London, latterly at Manteca in Shoreditch (No.11 in the National Restaurant Awards). His new exec chef remit covers not jus the Edinburgh Castle but also sister bar/restaurants Cottonopolis and Libertine, which I welcomed recently – Cooking on Sizzlng Hot Coals.
Live fire cooking features heavily in his CV at London’s John Salt and the trail-blazing Middle Eastern grill house, Berber & Q. So is he going to set Manchester on fire? I caught up with him after cooked an exquisite ‘soft launch’ dinner at the Castle (mussels, chicken parfait, slip sole, Tamworth pork chop, treacle tart – he may become my friend, too) and quizzed him on his culinary philosophy and plans for the group…
Tell us about your journey to Manchester (and I’m not talking Avanti West Coast) I spent time working in small independent restaurants in the South West, Bath mainly. For Jamie Oliver, too. Moving to London I worked for Mark Hix at both his Soho site and the original Oyster & Chop house. I spent two years at The Conduit (private member’s club), Nest in Hackney and at Berber & Q. I finished my tenure in the city with Chris Leach and David Carter at Manteca.
Where did you originally call home? I am originally from South Africa, living there until I was 13 and relocating to the UK with my mother. Both my parents are British citizens and in turn so am I. I am now bordering on the age of 35. My wife Natalie is from Manchester and since we’ve had our child a few years ago the move out of London for a better quality of life was always on the agenda.
Are you an admirer of the city’ food and dink scene? Name names! Definitely. I’ve followed what’s been going on here for a long time. There’s a real clear drive from the industry here. I’m a massive fan of the team and offering at Erst, I have frequented it a lot in the past. The team at Suppher have been doing some great work as well. Everything the Flawd team are putting out looks amazing and also just a lovely bunch of individuals there. With the scene being a smaller pool than I’m used to there is a real sense of support and involvement from everyone.
Who/what are your culinary inspirations in your career? A tough one to answer, I’ve taken inspiration from basically everyone I’ve worked with and had conversations. There’s an abundance of really talented people in this industry and it would be an injustice to only name a few. Personally my aspirations are to cook food that I want to eat and that people want to eat. I get excited by great produce and producers who generally care about what they’re growing, farming, harvesting or rearing in sustainable ways. Moving forward as community, I feel there is a real need for this connection between people and produce.
You are in overall charge of the three very different kitchens up here. What changes will you make? In particular at Cottonopolis with its Asian-inspired menus? Cottonopolis will be altered to align with the ethos of the other sites. The menu and offering will be more concise and sustainable and using British sourced ingredients
from fish to soy sauces and misos, using preservations for its dashis and XOs. But there will be obviously some produce from abroad as we’re not trying to change the DNA of Cotton. There’s a lot of character there.
Who are your prime suppliers? I’ve been luckily enough to secure supply from some amazing places. Our bread comes from Pollen, who arguably are putting out the best bread in the city. We are using Wildfarmed flour for all of our flour work here at the Castle and at Libertine. It’s Henderson’s Seafood for our dayboat fish. They have a massive focus on sustainability and not over fishing the waters. We are sourcing chalk stream trout through them as well. And we’ll be using Keltic Seafare in Dingwall for a Scottish shellfish supply .
Fruit and vegetables come from Cinderwood market garden and we are also utilising the British produce on offer from Organic North. Relying on their seasonal lists helps steer the direction of the menu. Meatwise we source from Swaledale in Skipton, who are working with some really incredible farmers based in the Dales. And we get our mushrooms from Polyspore in Altrincham.
We loved the simplicity of the slip sole and Tamworth off the new menu. Is that a key to your cooking style? I appreciate that, To a point I think simplicity is crucial a lot of the time. I dislike busy, crowded plates filled with a list of items. I feel nothing gets a chance to shine. The way I cook concentrates on the flavours that are already there, only elevating and accentuating with items that tie into the main product naturally. I feel that food should be sourced well, seasoned well, cooked well and served well.
You have a history of cooking with fire. What does this bring to the party? It seems an important part of the Libertine. It’s one of my favourite ways to cook. We have a small Konro (Japenese grill) at Edinburgh Castle as well. The majority of the menu at Libertine is either cooked over the coals or through the wood-fired oven. I generally find it very a natural and organic means of cooking, there’s just so much that can be done and offered.
Main shot of Shaun Moffat by @lateefphotography. Pork chop and parfait images by Olivia Morgan