Just nine months ago came one of my eye-opening culinary moments of 2022. Despite the launch hype, stylish new city hotels are rarely accompanied by a food offering that hollers ‘destination restaurant’. I had high hopes for The Alan, just across from Manchester Art Gallery. I’d tasted head chef Iain Thomas’s food during his fleeting stint at the Edinburgh Castle in Ancoats. Yet even I wasn’t prepared for the series of masterly dishes he rolled out from the open kitchen for my review.
Flash in the pan? I returned, this time sitting at the kitchen counter with a hard-to-impress foodie friend. He was impressed. Not just by the cooking but also by the commitment to sourcing at odds with the corporate bean counters. The indie Manchester restaurant supports its quality local suppliers like a badge of honour – Cinderwood for salad and veg, Polyspore for mushrooms Crafty Cheeseman, Littlewoods butcher’s and the like. Plus his own allotment produce, where possible.
Iain wasn’t missing a trick. Yet by the autumn his time at The Alan was unravelling. At 36, the much-travelled Tameside lad was desperate to do his own thing. Joining him in this dream is David O’Connell, former sales and marketing director at The Alan. Together they have set up Our Place. For the moment it is a pop-up catering operation, espousing the sustainable concerns the duo share.
Hence the series of supper clubs they are staging as guests of waste campaigners Open Kitchen at their cafe and bar in the city’s People’s History Museum. The first is on Tuesday, December 13 at 6.30pm, priced at £35 per ticket. Do check but this seems to be sold out. Never fear, there will be a further 10 there before the end of April. Monitor their site and social media for other Our Place events.
Before this public launch I was lucky enough to be invited to a private Our Place event at The Perfect Match in Sale. Shortlisted for Neighbourhood Venue of the Year in the 2022 Manchester Food and Drink Awards, it is run by Andrea Follado, from an Italian family of Prosecco makers, and Jazz Niven, once a teen prodigy in the Midland Hotel kitchens, where she worked with Iain. On the night, though, the menu was all of Iain’s making – a melange of ox tongue with Polyspore mushroom, Yorkshire Pecorino and pearl barley; cured rainbow trout (main picture) with Hyde beetroot and nasturtium; shoulder of cull ewe cooked in hay and hispi cabbage; Macondo 60% chocolate parfait and mulled fruit.
The seeds of Our Place were sown during the lockdowns when Iain, without any furlough safety net, found a sense of purpose in the community growing hub that is the Hattersley Projects in Hyde. Following on from that gorgeous taster meal I quizzed Iain about his plans and their genesis…
Tell me about your allotment and what it means to you. Obviously how it helped during lockdown but also how it influences your food.
“The allotment is a place that I have a lot of passion for. It is a piece of land that has done some good in my local community, but it could do so much more. I look at people like MUD (Manchester Urban Diggers) with awe and what they have achieved, and I ask why that cannot happen in my part of Manchester? I have realised that we have an amazing piece of land, we have great volunteers, but it breaks my heart that we cannot get the investment we might if we were in a more fashionable part of Greater Manchester.
“The lockdown was a weird time. I wasn’t permitted to see my family in the early lockdown. However, I was allowed on the allotment in a polytunnel with other people as we were technically food producers. So in a similar way to David’s situation in London, I ended up with a chosen family that supported me through the hard days of being alone.
“The revelation for me was the true meaning of seasonality, and how climate change is impacting that. I have worked in restaurants such as 21212, and Rocca in St Andrews. Whatever we wanted, we picked up the phone to a supplier and it could be with us from anywhere in the world.
“In lockdown, not being on furlough and having virtually no money coming in, I was heavily dependent on the vegetables I was growing. If there were no onions growing or in season, I had no onions. At the moment we are coming into winter, and it has been a mild winter, so I have loads of nasturtiums and globe artichokes coming through… it shows the effect of global warming, as they should not really be thriving in the UK at the moment.”
Explain the Open Kitchen link-up and you and David’s commitment to sustainability.
“I had worked with a friend at the Devonshire Arms by the name of Shawn Lee and, after speaking with him, found out about the sustainability behind Open Kitchen. They are food interceptors, and for example they take food from supermarkets that was bound for landfill; for example, they recently had a crop of cauliflower come in that was not the right shade of white for the supermarket contracted with the farmer.
“Tons of perfectly good food would have been binned straight from the field, were it not for the work of people like them. So although it is not the same kind of sustainable food that I pursue, it was something that David and I were attracted to when deciding to work with Open Kitchen as a venue.
“I think our passion and commitment to sustainability is born out of the working relationship we had in our prior positions. We had never met until January 2021, when I came on board as head chef in a hotel in town. David had come up from London the summer before, and we were hired to make reality a sustainable business. However, it soon became very corporate and we were doing and saying things about being sustainable, that were not truly in the spirit of being sustainable. We both decided that we had had enough of working for other people, and toeing the party line. We wanted our own place, to make our own decisions.”
Was the dinner you served at The Perfect Match a typical example of Our Place’s ethos?
“Yes it was. While Open Kitchen’s way of being sustainable is based on ‘what food is available that would otherwise go to landfill’. I am very much about: what food does the butcher, the farmer, the grower have right now and what can I do with it? What do I fancy cooking today? It can cause David some headaches; as a sales and marketing guy, he is used to telling guests what they can expect to eat. I want to cook what I want to cook, based on my mood and what is available and in season. For example, sustainable meat is a process. When I was prepping for the meal you enjoyed, it was a two month process discussing the cull ewe for the main dish.”
(NB: Culled ewes are retired breeding ewes that for one reason or another have lambed for the last time. They generally come into us between 4-6 years of age, having lived out a happy retirement out on the lush grasslands of Scotland. The meat therefore is complex, gamier in flavour than lamb.)
Who will be your main suppliers?
“I love the work done by Marcus and the team at Littlewoods, and it will be local butchers like them that I work with. I love the idea of talking in October about an animal with the butcher, hearing about the progress on the farm, and being a part of the story from field to plate. You have passionate individuals like Mike at Polyspore, doing great things with mushrooms in Altrincham and Crafty Cheeseman; two sets of people doing what they love and enjoying life.
“When it comes to vegetables, we have some great producers in the region. Cinderwood Market Garden are doing great things; their recent celtuce crop has been the talk of the town lately, and David and I were very lucky earlier in the year to be on their plot and see the crop being sown. You also have suppliers like Manchester Urban Diggers, Organic North, and then of course my own garden and plot on my allotment.”
Davey Aspin and Paul Kitching are obviously inspiring chefs you’ve worked with. What have you learned from them? Any other heroes?
“Paul Kitching is very eccentric. What I learned from him? How to word it is very hard, I need to pause a minute and think about this one. People always say to you: ‘What is a restaurant you would like to eat at blah, blah, blah’ and one for me would be Juniper (in Altrincham). Gutted I never got to eat there. As a young chef, I kind of knew about it and I hear lots of crazy stories about ‘not mushroom’ and some out there stuff.
“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, that I 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.
“Without Davey Aspin, I would be flipping burgers. I was just a chef at The Midland until I worked with him. He is very underrated in my opinion and it breaks my heart when the Michelin Guide comes out that he doesn’t get a star. The man touches a piece of food, it is beautiful and deserves recognition. He treated me like a brother and a part of his family, and taught me 90 per cent of what I know, to be fair. David likes to tease me, after an instagram message from Davey, that my lamb fat cabbage is thanks to Mr Aspin.”
Is the ultimate plan to have your own restaurant? I presume at the moment it’s safer not to have responsibility for your own bricks and mortar?
“100%, but David and I are two lads who met in a hotel, and don’t have the money yet. For the first time in a while, we both felt that there was no ulterior motive and we could trust each other. David and I want to pursue the things we are passionate about in hospitality, but making them feel accessible. We want to really be real, not just say ‘we are real’. We want to showcase artists and creatives that are challenging and interesting, not just say we champion them but go for the more commercial avenue when it doesn’t make money. I really want the food I serve to be local, seasonal, and sustainable. Not just say it as a marketing ploy… I will never use an avocado for example.”
Tell me about Our Place’s commitment to helping the homeless into work.
“That is really an idea down to David. At first I was sceptical, as I can imagine it is not an easy process to help someone from the street to a stable life. David talks a lot about his mum, who you can tell was a rock for him. The one thing you pick up from him is how his mum believed in loving people; the least, the last, the lost. It is a phrase David always uses when talking about Betty and his upbringing with her.
“When she died just before the pandemic, he was alone with her and there was no one who could or would come out to help that last night. It had a real impact on David, and he was diagnosed with PTSD. Of all the people that approached him at his lowest point in lockdown, and dared to intervene and ask ‘how are you?’ It was a homeless person on Mare Street, Hackney who helped David. I think he just wants to repay that.”
At the Perfect Match David stressed the community aspect, featuring artists, musicians, spoken word etc at your events. How is this coming together?
“With the artists, it is slowly but surely coming together. There is a really vibrant community of young artists and creatives in and around Greater Manchester, a lot of whom David was working with in his last role. The challenge is that there is not a lot of money in art, especially when you are at the start. We want to introduce and connect people.
“We believe that post-pandemic, there is a desire for community. However, we also want to make sure that we are bringing people together from different places and backgrounds. We want anyone to feel comfortable eating with us. You do not have to be educated, you do not have to be cool and hip. You just need to have respect for others, and enjoy really good food that we hope will save the planet one dish at a time.”