Is it fanciful to judge chefs from the books on their restaurant shelves? Obviously there to make a statement. True, what they put on the plate is paramount, but any committed artist is in part the sum of their influences. Take the wondrous Moorcock Inn at Norland. Among some hefty cookbooks in the bar you’ll find the (out of print) eponymous cookbook of Kobe Desramaults. At his legendary Michelin-starred In de Wulf in Belgium he was once mentor to Moorcock chef/patron Alisdair Brooke-Taylor and the legacy shows.
Aspirational younger chefs are keen to display an inventory of their own inspirations. Just a couple of impressive examples I recall – Steven Halligan at Restaurant Metamorphica in Haslingden and Paul Sykes at Hyssop in Glossop.
A shout-out for the latter restaurant which was gutted by fire recently. Paul and his partner Jess have launched a Crowdfunder “to help raise the funds to get us trading again, on a smaller scale, while the bigger project of rebuilding Hyssop starts.” Well worth supporting.
Newly crowned Manchester Chef of the Year Eddie Shepherd’s own book collection sits in his living room – as do we at one of his acclaimed Walled Gardens dining experiences along with eight other foodies. He calls it his ‘Underground Restaurant’ suggesting some Hobbit hole or a homage to the Beat Poets, but the bijou setting is in a Whalley Range housing development. To call it a ‘gated community’ would bely its charm. There is something otherworldly about it. His enclosed garden is home to the beehives and herbs that fuel his perception-challenging project. His home is his laboratory. The knives on the wall he forged himself, few domestic kitchens could host his cutting edge molecular gastronomical kit (a £10,000 electric homogeniser, anyone?) and the names on those book spines above our table … El Bulli, Noma, Alinea, El Celler de Can Roca. It’s a roll call of the runes of experimental cuisine.
So how does self-taught Eddie, a philosophy graduate who found his kitchen calling by chance, fit into the lineage of Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, Grant Achatz and the brothers Roca?
Impossible to compare a solo suburban explorer like Eddie – let’s call him the Alchemist of Alexandra Park – against their beefed up brigades and well-stoked international hype. He is a one-off.
For starters let’s explore one of the 13 dishes in the £85 tasting menu he serves us across a Sunday afternoon of recurrent delights. A visual feast too. Made all the more enchanting by his modest refusal to detail at length the intricacies of preparation for each dish, though he was happy to answer questions from the exclusive gathering. For all the answers visit his exhaustive You Tube channel.
With BYOB the meal itself is an absolute steal. He’s been doing it here for six years, three long weekends a month and has no plans to open a conventional restaurant.
Cured mushrooms with vanilla and beetroot is a stand-out among stand-outs. He explained its gestation to my Manchester Confidential colleague, Davey Brett: “Eddie takes a mixture of mushrooms, thinly slices them, dehydrates them and soaks them in umami stock to rehydrate them, taking on the stock’s flavour. He then sets them in a block with an enzyme and this compressed block is cooked for two hours, cut into small pieces, smoked with oak, before finally being seasoned and marinated in oil.
“The whole process takes several days and concentrates a punnet’s worth of fungi into roughly two mouthfuls of cured mushrooms. It’s a ridiculously luxurious dish, but when you consider the steps and processes that go into a raw Wagyu steak or traditional cured meats, is it really that bonkers?”
It tastes as extraordinary as it sounds, coming after he has served us a lemon verbena and grapefruit G&T with his own gin and infused tonic and an ultra-instagrammable dandelion petal fruit pastille each. Soundtracked deliriously by REM’s Shiny Happy People. Northern Soul and Gomez also feature in Eddie’s eclectic playlist, which adds a surreal homely feel.
Next up is even more visual (see main image), his latest in a series of dishes investigating the culinary potential of blue algae. Yes, this miso is very blue, a light below exaggerating the effect as it cradles a cube of tofu garnished with pickled mushrooms. Another glowing (sic) report for the extraordinary range and subtlety of the plant-based palette of flavours.
The sole dairy presence comes with the only ugly course. Split open that black charcoal carapace and inside it is a rose and koji marinated halloumi. To accompany, a pot of rhubarb molasses. It’s a playful rejoinder to the bad old days of the grilled Cypriot cheese as token veggie dish on a menu.
Playful also sums up carrot charcuterie as a dead taste ringer for the real thing, topped with a show-stopping dehydrated carrot tuile. It is cultured with koji and cured with juniper and black pepper, and smoked before drying. Not necessarily all in order. I smudged my notepad.
Superficially more conventional nettle soup, a fluffy aligot featuring potato, truffle and Blue Wensleydale and a glorious treacle and walnut bread provide ample comfort eating. Eddie bakes every day, but he admits none of his own cultured butter can match the bright yellow ‘Bungay’ he has set before us.
This is hand made in Suffolk by the folk behind Baron Bigod cheese using the same raw milk from their grass-fed Montbeliarde cattle. For my close encounter with this breed in their native Jura follow this link.
Another daily task in the Shepherd household is the preparation of proper tortillas, inspired by Eddie’s travels in Mexico. Most Gringos wouldn’t trouble to grind corn into masa to make their own. I’ve tried it in Tijuana once; it’s messy. You have to niximalise in an alkaline solution the corn (in this case heirloom olitillo blanco from Oaxaca), grind it to make fresh masa and then press and cook the tortillas fresh at service.
During this visit our host takes Mexican fave one authentic step further with his huitlacoche (pronounced whee-tla-KOH-cheh) topping – a direct link with the Aztecs, They prized this staple, thought to have more protein than than regular corn and high amounts of lysine, an essential amino acid.
Whatever its attributes huitlacoche – also known as corn smut, fungus or Mexican truffle – is essentially a plant disease that grows on ears of corn around the kernels in puffy, grey clouds. I looked all this up afterwards. A meal at the Walled Gardens is nothing if not thought provoking. The taste? Mushroomy, a hit of smoked chipotle, a dash of gooseberry salsa that works a treat. Gone in one.
Puddings are equallly left-field obviously. Chamomie and Raspberry, Honey and Wildflowers (bees are his current passion along with knife construction), Pinecone Sorbet and finally another example of mind-blowing technique with a purpose.
Scotch Bonnet Truffles are created by distilling the searingly hot chillies at low temperature in the rotary vacuum evaporator to capture their flavour but remove any spice and heat.
The resulting distillation is blended with double fermented Valrhona Itakuja chocolate to make the truffles. All the vivid aromas of the chillies without the burn. The dish is finished off with shards of fruit glass, in this instance made from passion fruit. I think. For more information on Eddie’s Youtube there’s a video and a printed recipe if you want to attempt it at home. I’d suggest instead you high-tail it down to the Walled Gardens. Eddie will soon be offering slots into 2023. What has been a hard booking to arrange probably got that little bit harder.
For a full list of winners at the Manchester Food and Drink Awards and my thoughts on the event visit this link.