Lancashire-born chef Mark Birchall worked his way up at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, including The Walnut Tree in Wales and Northcote Manor in Lancashire before landing his first head chef role at Haighton Manor in Lancashire in 2004. In 2006 he went to work with Simon Rogan as head chef of L’Enclume in Cumbria and remained there for eight years, during which time he won the Roux Scholarship (2011). After two years as group executive chef for Simon Rogan’s Northern operations Mark left to launch his own venture – Moor Hall. The restaurant with rooms in West Lancashire, which Mark runs with business partners Andy and Tracey Bell, opened in March 2017 and gained its first Michelin star in October 2017. It has since gained four AA rosettes and has picked up a host of other awards and accolades.
The first three months at Moor Hall were very difficult, but we’ve settled in now and the team’s developed. We’ve still got the core team with us which is the main thing. I think the experience for guests is better now in comparison to when we got the (Michelin) star. We’ve grown so much in just 18 months.
We got lucky and got a really good team, but we’re also in really great surroundings, we’ve got a a fantastic restaurant and great grounds. I feel like we’ve got the whole package so we don’t have to work too hard to give a great guest experience really.
We’re currently getting our dairy up-and-running. It will be open sometime later this summer. The charcuterie is already going and we’re serving our own charcuterie on-site now. We’re hoping to have a bakery and brewery over the next two years. Everything we do at Moor Hall is done to enhance it – the product and the guest experience.
We’re learning every day here. We don’t know what’s coming because we are so new, so we want to try and educate ourselves and grow what we do, just to make things better. We’ll never stand still, we’ll always try and make every day, every week and every month better than the last.
Our food miles here are pretty low. If we have to go to the south coast for fish we try and use sustainable fish, or wild fish. As long as it’s in season and plentiful we’ll use it. We try and use suppliers who won’t buy unsustainable products anyway and recycle as much as we can. We minimise our use of single-use plastics – we use stainless steel straws in the bar and bits like that. We recycle the coffee pods from the rooms and do lots of composting. We don’t do ridiculous amounts but we do everything we can.
Summer’s my favourite season. January and February are always difficult seasons for produce but the summer – right through to September and into October is really great. I like cooking with any produce really, but we get these cauliflowers from an organic grower around the corner and they’re amazing, especially in the summer. We do a classic combination of roasted scallops and a ragu of grains with some truffle and cauliflower in that, some roasted cauliflower, a cauliflower puree and make an apple reduction with some truffle. It’s really good.
There’s no secret to getting a Michelin star and winning awards, it’s just doing things properly, just serving excellent food, giving excellent service and making the guest feel amazing. That’s equally important as serving a great plate of food. As chefs we try and serve some amazing food, but if it’s served without any care the guests just aren’t going to enjoy it. They’ve got to feel special and like they’re being looked after and relaxed in the restaurant. I think we try and do all three things: We serve great food, give good hospitality and look after guests. That combination just does it. We have a great, eclectic wine list too, plus the surroundings are beautiful. It’s the whole package really.
We’re closed Monday and Tuesday to give staff time off and provide consistency. When we’re open, I’m here. I don’t just pop in and do a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night service then take the rest of the week off. I think having the same nights off gives us stability and consistency and keeps the standard as high as possible.
Recruitment, like everywhere, is always a challenge for us. We are trying to work with colleges and get as many colleges in as possible to see what we do. We’ve probably had four or five of them come in during the last six months. It’s about getting students interested in what we do. There aren’t that many chefs out there, so you have to do everything you can to encourage them and get a bit of a relationship going. We also work with the North West Young Chef competition to help.
Colleges are almost failing the students by not helping them get trials in kitchens. Instead of letting students just leave college in July and find work, they should be helping them to arrange trials and interviews beforehand. Often the students I speak to just plan to carry on working in the job they were doing part-time while at college. There doesn’t seem to be much aspiration there. I know it’s difficult, because budgets are cut, but I’d happily take two or three students every year. It’s the only way we’re going to grow the workforce by taking them from college, but if they’re not coming through to you, what can you do?
Everywhere I’ve worked I’ve taken something on board. I spent nine years at l’Enclume and it was a massive part of my life and career, almost a third of my life when I left. Simon (Rogan) was inspirational dish-wise. He’d come up with some wacky things that were real eye-openers. I really enjoyed working with Nigel (Haworth) at Northcote too. He is the best sauce chef and I learnt a lot about butchery and meat cooking from him.
My stage at El Cellar de Can Roca as part of my Roux Scholarship prize was amazing. The Roca brothers are amazing people as well, so that was really good. It was great to spend a bit of time taking in a different culture.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor