Lancashire-born Michelin-starred chef Nigel Haworth has used his culinary know-how to put the Ribble Valley’s Northcote hotel on the map. He shares his recipes for success with Boutique Hotelier, from TV triumphs and talented teams to popular hotpots and new revenue streams
Luckily for his foodie fans today, when Rossendale Catering College graduate Nigel Haworth’s early hospitality career hit a cross roads — continue working as a waiter, which he “loved”, or head into the kitchen — he chose the latter, but only so he could clock off earlier and meet his mates down the pub.
This seemingly small decision led the Lancashire lad on a culinary journey from Gleneagles in Scotland to The Ritz in London and other renowned hotel restaurants around Europe.
By the early eighties he’d come full circle and accepted a lecturer role at Rossendale Catering College.
Shortly after returning to his roots, in December 1983 proprietor Craig Bancroft launched Northcote hotel, to be joined by Haworth in March 1984. The manor in Langho, close to Blackburn in the Ribble Valley, was a blank canvas on which Haworth could make his mark with rustic recipes drawing on the provenance of the region.
Just over a decade later, Haworth received his first Michelin star, which has been retained ever since. He tells Boutique Hotelier how, like a “blinkered horse”, he’s driven the hotel restaurant, revenue streams and his reputation as a chef to reach new heights over the past 30 years.
On his business partner
“So yes, it’s my 30th year coming up and I was only coming for six months originally,” Haworth says over the hum of construction machinery seeping in from outside as workers forge ahead extending the hotel and restaurant.
“I said it will just be a stop-gap job, but I came in as head chef and every time I looked to turn another corner, something else happened. I was desperate to paint my own canvas; to say this is how I want to cook, this is me.
“This area had nothing, I was teaching part time at my local college and I wanted to use the provenance of this area because it was where I was brought up, it’s where my heart is.
“When I came to Northcote, I didn’t know if this would be the place where everything would unfold, but I got on so well with Craig. He is a pretty amazing chap because he’s so tuned into food as well as being a front-of-house man and loving his wine,” continues Haworth.
“That’s a major factor in us having such longevity — the partnership is quite unique because he has such an affinity with food and so we never clashed. He’s a closet chef. He loves cooking, but he’s a messy cook. He used to come in and cook some Mondays to give me half a day off. I’d come in later and there’d be stuff everywhere,” he says, laughing.
Over the years, the dynamic duo bounced ideas off each other, and debated every undecided detail to tailor today’s restaurant experience at Northcote, which balances fine dining with a friendly, relaxed service.
“You fall in love with something and you become so driven. You’re like a blinkered horse, you’ve got your goals and your targets and everything moves around you,” says Haworth.
“As a chef you’re tuning into the seasons, you’re looking forward to the next thing and before you know it you’ve built an extension and refurbished the kitchen. The business is changing all of the time. It’s an open canvas. It’s never stood still. I doubt I’d have been here for 30 years if it had.”
On TV fame and hotpot
Many Boutique Hotelier readers will recognise Haworth from his television appearances on shows including Saturday Kitchen and Market Kitchen, and perhaps most notably on Great British Menu in 2009.
His Lancashire hotpot was famously chosen as the wining main course for a banquet hosted by Prince Charles for servicemen and women returning from Afghanistan.
“When I did that on the Great British Menu, I wanted an English dish to be as important as a great European dish like Coq au Vin in France. I wanted it to resonate with people and it did. It was so powerful that programme that I’d be abroad in
Australia or wherever and people would stop me in the streets and ask me about hotpot,” says Haworth.
“It was hotpot mad at one time, I was sick of the sight of hotpots. I was just like Mr Hotpot and everyone wanted a hotpot and I was thinking ‘oh god, is this the only thing I can do — make a hotpot. But it was mission accomplished,” he says, adding that there’s a lot of “regional activity to come” in the F&B space.
“There’s more tourism into Liverpool, and Manchester’s quite a big business city. These cities are drawing more people into the North West of England, and I think they’ll diffuse into the provinces around them,” he says.
Haworth’s TV hit didn’t just put Lancashire hotpot on the menu; it put the hotel on the UK’s culinary map.
“It had a massive impact [on business]. When — after three years — I stopped doing Great British Menu, Lisa Allen started and she was successful on it for another two year. We recorded business was up 15-20% every year. When it first came on tele, the phone never stopped ringing and they all wanted hotpot.”
On star chefs
Haworth says the nation’s fascination with chefs and cooking — largely fuelled by television shows from Great British Menu to Bake Off and MasterChef — is shaping the kitchen teams of the future. “Chefs these days have to have a personality.
It’s great if they can come out and do an interview and go out and meet people,” he says.
“I’m amazed at how many people are interested in chefs. Some people say cooking is the new rock and roll.”
Feeding the public’s fascination for food, Haworth is bringing in various initiatives that connect the chefs with their audience — the diners. A chef’s table has been installed in the kitchen, a cooking school is due to launch and he’s considering introducing some dishes to be prepared at the tableside.
“We’ve sold 64 places in the cookery school and we’ve got 100 people on a waiting list,” reveals Haworth.
F&B makes up around 60% of overall revenue at Northcote, with diversification and a close eye on margins being key to that success.
Diversification has led to significant direct revenue: “We’ve put a budget of £100,000 in place for the cookery school and chef’s table for the first year and the private dining room is a big income stream,” he reveals. “We’ve developed the chef’s table for eight people as a premium offering. It’s got a basic spend of £1000. Some people will be spending up to £2000 so if you sell it once a week you’re onto something.
“In the kitchen, Lisa does particularly well on the budgets and running the kitchens with me because she’s always aware that to be a good chef, you’ve got to deliver a margin. That has to fall on the chef. All the chefs must know what they’re buying in and at what prices.
He says good waste management is also critical in the kitchen.
“We don’t throw anything away and I’m always checking the bins. Everything from the knuckle of an onion to the tops of leeks goes into stock and we have an organic compost heap. Chefs are a bit naughty and they chuck things away if they’re a bit tired. So you’ve always got to remind them that if they’d peeled their carrots before using them, they could have used the trim for stock.
“Your managers need to know what goes on in the kitchen, they need to understand it and everyone should have front-of-house and back-of-house experience,” says Haworth.
Alcohol also fuels the business, and the hotel has an extensive gin — Haworth’s favourite — and wine list.
“There have been many discussions in the industry saying wine’s too expensive in restaurants and hotels, well it might be in some cases but it’s a business, you’ve got a lot of staff, staff want paying better, you can’t get people to work for nothing so you have to make your margins,” he says.
On future plans
Marketed as a restaurant with rooms, the rooms business at Northcote is also a peak performer. Occupancy wise, Haworth says the hotel has been running at an annual average of more than 80%. It’s due to the success of the restaurant and rooms that led Haworth and Bancroft to undertake an extension of the property. The kitchen has been extended, and a second phase will see the expansion of the restaurant area and the number of bedrooms from 14 to 28.
“We’ve got a business plan to build the rooms and pay back the cost of the extension over five years based on 65% occupancy and we normally run at 82%, so if we can get the occupancy back to where it was — and unless there’s a bolt of lightning we will do it — we’ll smash all of the budgets,” says Haworth.
“So we’ll have a lot more revenue coming in from bedrooms which is good because I think the F&B has had to be driven too hard, so if there’s something I just want to give the customers, without making a high margin, then I can do that.”
He says all of the works will be completed by January 15, ahead of the hotel’s annual Obsession at Northcote event. The 2014 edition took place from January 20 to January 29 and involved 11 of the world’s top chefs cooking 10 sensational dinners at the hotel.
Haworth says the 2015 Obsession event will be the biggest to date: “I’ve got confirmation that a Brazilian chef is going to come next year and we’ve got British Airways to sponsor it. It will mark our 30 years in business and 15 years of Obsession, so we’re doing 15 nights, 15 chefs; it’s going to be rock and roll next year.”
Also in 2014, Haworth is eyeing a second Michelin star and plans to extend his Ribble Valley Inns business with several openings, including a new pub in Chester. He’s also got his heart set on a restaurant in Manchester, he reveals.
“The food goal for Northcote is to get five Rosettes, two Michelin stars and keep striving for consistency. I’m not going to drive myself mad if for some reason we don’t get that second star, it won’t stop us trying but it’s about cooking as well as we possibly can and enjoying it. I don’t want a kitchen that’s scared to death.
“Then I’m targeting opening two pubs a year, so Cheshire and maybe we’ll look at another one or two in Cumbria, and we might go into some of the cities. I haven’t ruled out doing a restaurant in Manchester so we’re an aspirational business,” he says. Unluckily for me, those culinary aspirations have yet to take Haworth and his hotpot to my Lancashire hometown of Chorley, but a lass can dream.