Simon Shaw is chef patron of the popular and highly acclaimed El Gato Negro Tapas Restaurant and bar in Manchester’s King Street. It was the only restaurant to win a Michelin Bib Gourmand in the city centre in 2016. Celebrating a successful first year, Shaw tells Eatnorth what drives him and reveals, where to next.
BIRMINGHAM-born Simon Shaw fell into cooking to ease the burden on his single mum trying to hold down three jobs. Finding himself in the unfamiliar world of Kingston upon Hull aged 11 and teased for having a Brummie accent, he found cooking gave him a creative outlet. He was soon holding down a five-night a week kitchen job under the watchful eye of David Spencer at Rowley Manor Hotel in Cottingham, Hull, whilst still at school. His career map was further cemented when he got the chance to learn the art of Classic French cooking and the French lingo at Willerby Manor Hotel, Hull.
His hard graft led him to reaching head chef status at the Leodis Brasserie in Leeds aged 27 years-old. But his big break came along after he landed the highly sought after head chef role at Harvey Nichols Leeds when it opened its first flagship store outside of London.
Shaw went from Leeds to London to head up the kitchens at Harvey Nichols group’s 230-cover restaurant, Prism, in the City of London. With his home base in trendy Shoreditch and weekends off, life was sweet. He began to become more than ‘just that kid from Yorkshire’ when his Modern British cuisine with a twist of Yorkshire dish, Tempura of Whitby Cod with a mint dressing, just flew out of the kitchen and caught the attention of influential food critics.
Never content to sit on his laurels, Shaw took on the huge challenge of turning around Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge Fifth Floor restaurant that was quite frankly “on its arse” according to Shaw. “I kept asking myself ‘What have I done?’ I had a nice life working at Prism but I wanted the challenge of turning around one of London’s most iconic restaurants.”
In his own words…
Q. Where did the love for Spanish food come from?
We used to do a taste of a country at Harvey Nichols Fifth floor restaurant. One year we did Spain and I was nominated to go and do some research in Barcelona. I instantly fell in love with the food and the place. I visited Barcelona a few more times after that and was fortunate enough to get a reservation at the famous elBulli Restaurant. That was the big turning point for me. Up to then, I hadn’t realised tapas could be done in such a modern way. To me, the way tapas were served in Barcelona was the precursor to today’s tasting menus.
Q. What do you like about Spanish cuisine?
When we talk about modern British cooking, there are variations but it would generally be a set of ingredients interpreted differently by regional chefs. That’s not the case in Spain. Spanish cuisine is regionally so different. And, for me, the food culture in Barcelona is the most exciting. It’s a melting pot of different cultures and cuisines merged into one.
Q. Ok, so Barcelona has influenced you greatly. So, explain ‘your take’ on Modern Spanish cuisine?
“I am driven by what I see in Barcelona, so my dishes may be fused with Japanese, Middle Eastern or Peruvian.Ultimately the dishes have to taste good. I am a great believer in keeping it simple but using the freshest and highest quality produce available.”
Q. What made you open El Gato Negro in Ripponden, West Yorkshire?
After London, my business partner – at the time – Chris Williams (former general manger at Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge Fifth Floor Restaurant, and I were looking at North Yorkshire because of its affluence. Our original idea was to launch a gastro pub with a tapas bar but a couple of opportunities fell through. Our agent persuaded me to look at The Junction pub in Ripponden and knew straight away it was perfect. Rumour has it the pub had previously been called The Black Cat. I had always known I was going to call our restaurant El Gato Negro Tapas.
Q. The restaurant was successful in Ripponden so why the move to Manchester?
I wanted people to be able to be able to get to the restaurant without having to drive so they could experience the whole food and wine package. Manchester is an exciting place and it just seemed right.
Q. It’s been a year since you opened in Manchester. Where to now?
The first year has been amazing. The challenge is to keep the menu fresh and keep the specials exciting. This is just the start of an amazing journey.
“We have a few things in the pipeline that I can’t quite reveal yet. We have a good business and brand and it would be silly not to do more.”
There are some fantastic developments happening in Manchester such as the beautiful heritage buildings of London Road Fire Station, around Piccadilly, and Ancoats.
Q. And the competition?
In a city the size of Manchester, I feel it can carry eight mid-range Spanish restaurants as long as everyone is doing something different. I’m watching the new restaurant, Suri, opening down the road. They will be serving Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern style cuisine. I love competition and am certainly not frightened by it. It will bring more people onto the street and that is effectively what we want. If anything, competition drives us to be better.
Q. What opportunities are there for the northern food and drink scene?
I see lots of opportunities for mid-range restaurants in Manchester and less so for high end restaurants striving for Michelin Stars. There are major developments happening here and I also predict that more people will visit the north from London or move out of the capital all together to be mortgage free in the north. There are a lot of people who live and work in London and still endure a 1.5 hour commute. The train companies are talking about shaving another 20 minutes off the current two-hour London to Manchester train journey. It’s a real dilemma for people who bought their London houses for say £180,000 and they are now worth a million. They wouldn’t have to work if they lived in Manchester.
Q. Brexit: Has the pound fluctuation had an impact?
Our main Spanish supplier is Brindisa and yes ingredients are more expensive to buy since Brexit. The biggest problem is if prices continue to rise, how do you pass that cost on to the customer? It’s a fine balance between what the customer deems reasonable and how much we can absorb. Wine is the big one. It’s going up across the board. Our wine suppliers have been swallowing the cost for a year now.
Q. How hard is to source good seafood?
Things have improved since I started 12 years ago but it’s still not quite there. If you try to get fresh chipirones (baby squid) in the UK, it’s virtually impossible. They come frozen. Again, in Barcelona, I would visit the markets at 7am and the seafood is so fresh. If only I had this produce to hand in the UK I could do amazing things. I know I am getting the best available as we use Wright Brothers. They supply us with oysters, mussels, tiger prawns etc. The Cornish mussels we have at the moment are incredible. In the 35 years of my career, I have never tasted mussels like it. Maybe one positive from Brexit is that British seafood suppliers will look for more business in the UK rather than selling the majority of what they catch to Europe. Time will tell.
Q. Do you use local producers?
What you pay for in a good supplier is their knowledge. Without local suppliers we couldn’t survive. If I am looking for somebody, I will ring another chef because the best recommendation comes from somebody who is already using them. We currently use two local butchers and a local fish company, two local greengrocers and a local guy for the bread, Companio Bakery. We try very hard to keep it local.
Q. Any thoughts on foraging?
I would love to know more about it, although I can’t see myself foraging in Manchester. I am fascinated by the fact this stuff grows wild. We have a guy who picks mushrooms for us. I wouldn’t dream of picking wild mushrooms because you can kill somebody. The only problem I have with using foraged food is there is not a consistent supply of it. You can’t say ‘I need four kilos of that’, when there is only a kilo available. So putting it on the menu on a regular basis is probably a challenge in a restaurant of this size.
Q. You have mentioned wine being an important part of the dining experience. Tell us more?
A good wine list in a restaurant of this quality is very important. Andy Paterson, owner of the Halifax Wine company, was fantastic at guiding me. He introduced me to Miles Corish MW. His knowledge is incredible and I trust him to source all of the wine. To be fair he has not brought me a duff one yet. We tend to serve Spanish wine. It gives decent French wine a run for its money.
Q. What is your favourite childhood food memory?
The whole family coming together for Sunday lunch and eating left over Yorkshire pudding with treacle the day after. Those memories will stay with me forever. My mum’s shepherd’s pie was always a treat. She was a great baker too. Food was important in our lives it meant something.
Q. Most fascinating cooking technique?
Pressure cookers! I remember my Nan had one and she used to cook with it all the time making fantastic braised dishes or a mean stew. She cooked rabbit in a pressure cooker. But as a kid, I was scared of it, thinking it was going to blow up. Top-end chefs are starting to use them again. They are certainly coming back into fashion.
El Gato Negro Tapas
52 King Street
Manchester, M2 4LY