Where the culinary magic happens

06 Feb 2015
4 min read
FOUR finds out what happens behind the scenes of one of the UK’s most prestigious food festivals: Obsession at Northcote in Lancashire.

Northcote’s Obsession is celebrating its 15th year and as this now international food festival draws to a close, FOUR escapes the icy cold Northern English countryside to sit down with founder and Michelin-star chef , in the newly refurbished, stylish but cosy hotel bar.

The Northcote celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, you were here from the beginning – how much has it changed?

Craig Bancroft and I came together 30 years ago in 1984 as chef and manager. We ended up becoming shareholders and then buying the place as we loved it so much and could see the huge potential. We started with only six bedrooms and we have gone through several different phases of refurbishment and extensions. In the last phase over the last 18 months, with the help of our new investors, Richard and Lynda Matthewman, we’ve put in a new extended kitchen, including a fantastic cookery school and a chef’s table, refurbished and extended the restaurant, built another 12 bedrooms, extended the private dining room and added staff facilities, so we have more than doubled the size of the place. We feel that we have been able to create a true culinary destination in the heart of Lancashire.

Where did the idea for Obsession come from?

Obsession came about by a customer of ours, telling me about the Festival of Food of Wine in Cartmel in California. He said it was a great gig. That same year I went over to do the festival, spent a week helping out with the likes of Alice Waters, Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter and came back inspired. I wondered whether I could do it here.

How did it start out?

I launched it in 2000 with three chefs and myself. It meant we could create something for the customer and stimulate business in January. January used to be the quietest time of the year, now it’s our busiest – that’s how it evolved over 15 years. We could do it over 20 days, but we wouldn’t be alive after it. There’s only so much that you can do while it’s still enjoyable.

Who is visiting the food festival?

Most people are local from within a radius of 50 miles. Obviously there are people from London and Manchester coming over, but the density is from the local community so it’s connecting, which is really important. The food festival has really helped – everyone is looking forward to it.

How do you choose the chefs?

It’s generally through connections and people I know. And people write to me, asking if they can be part of it. I did for the last couple of years and through them I also got to know a couple of new chefs. This is the first time we’ve ever done a global event, which means we’re stretching out of Europe in a bigger way than ever before. Generally speaking it’s been Europe so far. Now we’ve secured sponsorship for the flights, it means we can trawl the world for great chefs. Chefs can be fussy and now we can deal with the idiosyncrasies of the chefs really well. It’s a challenge to coordinate.

What are you asking the chefs to do?

This year we are celebrating our 30 years in business and we’re trying to present a regional side to it. Because we’re going global, we said we wanted to focus also on the region. We’ve asked each chef to use a regional ingredient, so the chefs have built their menu and then added a local ingredient. In ’s case it was lamb chops.

What are the challenges of coordinating the ingredients for each chef?

We’re very fortunate that we have very good suppliers. Obviously we’re not in the best time of year for growing here. Nothing much grows between November and March. But we have got a European network that can virtually get anything. Some of the chefs work with the seasons and some don’t. Depending on where you’re working you might have a much more global or cosmopolitan feel. Everybody stuck to the fact that it’s truffle season. I’ve used 8.5kg of truffles up to now – they are very popular. Being an island, we can virtually get anything. We’ve always imported stuff from far afield if necessary. And the culture of British produce has grown incredibly strong in the last 10 years. We’ve got growers that are growing an awful lot of specialised herbs, salads and flowers that a lot of the chefs are demanding at the moment.

Are chefs providing you with a shopping list in advance?

That’s not how chefs work. We do get some menus in advance, but a lot of them are a week or a few days before. But we don’t make a fuss. And I think that’s one part of the success. If you want something we try and get it for you. We make time for people and we make time to try and get the ingredients. Something like sheep’s brains or rocket flowers – not the right time for rocket flowers. But we can somehow manage to get them in. We haven’t gone as far as flying things over from America but most of the weird and wonderful we have managed to get hold of. The UK is so diverse now.

What aspect are you most concerned about?

The most important thing for me is that the quality we get is top drawer. You can’t have the top chefs of the world coming over and having inadequate ingredients. When they want a scallop, they get a scallop in the shell and still pumping. So the chefs are going away satisfied that we have made the endeavour to get the best ingredients and that is crucial. Like last night [with Japanese chef Tsuyoshi Murakami], when you’re dealing with raw and semi-raw ingredients, everything has got to be delivered on time and not before.

In what way do you profit from the guest chefs’ expertise?

For the brigade it’s incredibly interesting to have global chefs visiting. If you have chefs from London, they will prepare two thirds in their own place before they arrive. Someone like Gaggan can’t make everything in Bangkok if he’s travelling for a couple of days.

It seems to have been a roaring success…

Somehow we can do it and that’s the spirit of the whole thing. We make the chefs feel good. We don’t give any negatives. If somebody has forgotten ingredients, we just go out there and get them. As long as the chefs go away happy, that’s all that matters. Chefs are giving up their time to do this, it’s a huge commitment, particularly when they’re travelling across the world. The least I can do is provide a really good platform.

Images © Allen Markey