Manchester is famous for a number of things. It pioneered the Industrial Revolution, gave birth to a tonne of amazing bands (and Oasis), and the shirts of its Premier League football teams are worn all over the world.
But when it comes to food, the city falls short. Unless you're a fan of parched peas and Chorley cakes, then Manchester probably won't make your gastronomic must-visit list. There are exceptions—the cafe culture of the Northern Quarter and the neon-lit South Asian eateries of the Curry Mile—but it's fair to say that few people come here for the food.
The stats bear this out: London has 80 Michelin-starred restaurants, the accolade given in the French tyre company's annual dining reference guide, first published in 1900. Birmingham has five and Edinburgh four, while Bristol and Bath both have three.
But Manchester? Zero. Zilch. Zip. Even Newcastle, whose claim to food fame is that it gave us Greggs, has a Michelin star pinned proudly to its chest. (I'm guessing House of Tides doesn't serve Parmo, though.)
It wasn't always this way. In 1974 a Manchester restaurant made the very first UK Michelin Guide. That place was The French, a fine dining establishment hidden inside the iconic Midland Hotel. Built in 1903 to serve the city's railway station in a rather ostentatious Parisian style, it was a place of expensive wines, elaborate dishes, and overly attentive staff. But while the decor remained, the star did not and by 2007, food at The French had fallen so far that Guardian restaurant critic Jay Rayner suggested it would taste better if it were set on fire.
That all changed when Simon Rogan took over in 2013. With two Michelin stars already to his name via his Lake District restaurant L'Enclume, the chef made it his mission to win back Manchester's Michelin star. Rogan is best known among cheffing circles for locally sourced, multi-course creations (also a scene in BBC sitcom The Trip that sees Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon compare one of his creations to alcoholic snot.)
Needing a second-in-command to help realise his vision for The French, Rogan called on Adam Reid, a born-and-bred Mancunian with experience of hotel kitchens via stints at Kidderminster's Brockencote Hall Hotel and the Chester Grosvenor. But nothing could quite prepare Reid for what awaited him in Manchester.
"From Simon deciding to take on The French and it opening was just six weeks, so it was very pressured," recalls Reid as we recline on the restaurant's soft leather sofas. "I was hired and went to straight to Cartmel for two weeks [the village home to L'Enclume and Rogan's farm]. I spent a week on the farm digging a trench—and got a cold because it was February and raining—and then spent a week in Aulis, which is their development kitchen. Then it was, 'Here's your kitchen, here's your menu. You're opening in three days.'"
The challenge made tougher because Reid wasn't just cooking his own dishes but Rogan's too. With every hint of herb, sprig of seasoning, and dash of dressing, he had to ask himself: "Is this how Simon would do it?"
"It was hard at first," admits Reid, "especially that transition period in the first six months between him doing everything and me taking over. You find yourself second-guessing everything. But now we work on a very fluid basis, and Simon has the trust in me to create dishes that are reflective of his style. Because our menu is seasonal things are constantly coming on, going off, or getting tweaked to suit the available ingredients."
Right now, that menu includes crispy pig trotter, smoked eel in cultured cream, and nasturtium with truffle and turnip juice. Most of the ingredients come from the Lake District farm that grows produce for Rogan's six-strong eatery empire. What can't be sourced from there can is grown in the microclimate cabinets that line the corridor between The French's dining room and the kitchen, or up on the Midland's roof.
"We have 18 raised beds up there, which I started in the first year we opened," Reid explains. "We got a really good harvest out of it in the second year, I'm aiming for about 25 raised beds this time around."
At this point, I take a look around the dining room which, while stylish, is not quite the effete and over-the-top interior I'd been expecting. Nor have any waiters bowed, grovelled, or acted at all sycophantically in my presence (to my slight disappointment). That, says Reid, is because the food isn't the only thing he and Rogan changed about The French: its whole fine dining ethos required a radical remodelling.
"It used to be this very 70s French gastro-restaurant pink—we got rid of that as soon as we could and put in this lovely natural green," explains Reid. "The whole thing is that we cook Simon's food which is stripped back, modern, British, and very natural. But we do it in this great setting with professional rather than pompous service. It isn't formal like the old French."
It's at this point that the missing Michelin star comes up. Although The French has received mostly glowing reviews, coming as high as 14 in The Good Food Guide's list of top UK restaurants, it still hasn't won back that most prestigious prize, despite being open for three years now. Failure might be too harsh a word, but it must be disappointing for both Reid and Rogan.
If it is, Reid doesn't show it.
"One of the fantasies when we opened was to reclaim that star. But that was a very formal restaurant, and we don't want to be that—we want to gain our accolades for the food we're doing rather than the formality of the service," he says. "We don't cook for the guides. We cook for Simon, for the guests, and for the way we think food should be. If and when the accolades come then they're very welcome, but we all know there is no guarantee of anyone getting anything."
But what about the rest of Manchester? Why has such a big city got so few progressive dining establishments?
"I come from Manchester but had to move elsewhere to progress my career," admits Reid. "And I think that says a lot about what's on offer here. There are plenty of establishments producing high-end food in the North West but they are very spread out—there isn't a cluster of them like in London. And I think that's because of the market you're catering to. People from Manchester don't want formal service, it's just not in our character."
Reid expects to see this change over the next few years and hopes The French can lead the way.
"That's what we are aiming to achieve here—a middle ground where you can have professionally served high-end food. We try and engage the customers, we're not stand offish," he explains. "We talk you through the menu because we need to: the food is new to a lot of people. If you want to ask the waiter, 'What's this?' they can tell you. It isn't about the pomp and pomposity, it's about sitting down for a nice meal."
A nice meal and, whether Reid and Rogan will admit hoping or not, maybe a star one day too.
Want more fine dining? Check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, running everyday this week on MUNCHIES.