For those unfortunate enough to have never been to Northcote’s Obsession food festival, there is still an element of mystery.
There is something that the video cameras, the social networkers and the mountains of coverage can’t capture. Atmosphere.
The Relais & Chateaux hotel, dining destination and school of culinary arts has been attracting the best chefs and gastronomic enthusiasts to this quiet corner of Lancashire for 17 years.
Headed up by Northcote’s chef-patron Nigel Haworth and managing director Craig Bancroft, Obsession is now an institution of British cookery, while internationally it also attracts both guests and world-renowned chefs to showcase their skills.
This year, for 17 consecutive evenings, 1,800 of diners took their places to experience a meal from some of the brightest cheffing talent that the UK, California, Japan, Portugal, Australia, Slovenia and China have to offer.
The hospitality industry’s obsession with Obsession continues to grow, not surprising given the talent that has been on show over the years with the likes of Tom Kerridge, Heston Blumenthal, Phil Howard, Brian Turner, Sat Bains, Mark Hix, Chris and Jeff Galvin, Raymod Blanc, Michel Roux Jr, Pierre Koffmann, Angela Hartnett, Jason Atherton, Theo Randall, Nathan Outlaw, James Martin, Claud Bosi, Bruno Loubet, Ken Hom, Andrew Fairlie, Theo Randall and Simon Rogan all gracing the festival.
And this year the social media and online reach extended well beyond previous levels.
“We increased massively on last year,” says Haworth. “This year we produced videos of each chef’s evening night. It was a bit of a gamble because of cost, but I felt we needed to connect with the chefs who may want to do it again but also to show people who we don’t know to bring them here. It is a powerful medium.”
On social media, the festival (including the 33 videos that were produced) garnered 3.6m impressions, 3.3m Obsession17 hashtags and 113,000 engagements and the team received 5,000 direct messages.
But, as it is always said, there’s nothing like actually being there.
“The change of Northcote has helped the growth of Northcote,” says Haworth, referring to the
multimillion-pound investment that helped transform a six-room country house into a 26-room hotel complete with new private dining room, expanded kitchen, cocktail bar and cookery school.
“With regards to the festival, we can comfortably do 100 covers on a night,” explains Haworth. “And actually, we like to do a little more than that because when the place is full, it makes for a
Obsession includes a VIP area for special guests and sponsors, such as equipment supplier Electrolux Professional, as well as a stunning chef’s table in the kitchen complete with its own video monitors so that none of the action is missed.
Haworth continues: “We did restrict covers on four nights this year. And I can fully understand why. Cooking for 90 covers in a night is an awful lot, at that level, but we like it to be as full as possible.
We are very well organised here and I am confident enough to tell the chefs not to worry because our team can help.”
As you’d imagine, each of the 22 guest chefs (who share some 16 Michelin stars) had their own way of doing things. Some will bring a small team of their own, as well as any extremely specialist ingredients they want to use for their showcase.
However, many of the requested ingredients are sourced by Haworth’s team, led by executive head chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen, while the Northcote kitchen and service staff support the guest chefs on the night.
“We get some weird requests for equipment,” says Haworth. “We always get asked if we have a Thermomix, an ice-cream machine, liquid nitrogen. The technology that people use in basic cooking these days, we just have to have in already for them.”
Haworth stresses just how important it is to make chefs feel comfortable in coming and showcasing at Obsession. There has to be trust between both parties as they are both putting their reputations on the line.
“I have done food festivals before where you aren’t looked after properly,” he says. “It’s important that you make the chefs feel special from the moment they enter the building to the moment they leave. You tend to find that chefs don’t actually want much, but what they want you must make sure you give them.”
So do chefs fear trying to operate out of their comfort zone?
“It’s all part of the discovery,” explains Haworth. “Unless you come and do Obsession, you don’t know our platform. As chefs, we all go to places and have to use kitchens that aren’t as good as hoped, but the people you work with get you through. But here, you have both: really good quality back-up staff and a kitchen where they have space to get their prep done and they can rely on the control and quality of ingredients.”
As in every kitchen there are moments in Obsession that go wrong. Haworth regales the tail of the Chinese chef who was deported on arriving at a London airport this year. But in the kitchen,
Haworth says that the creativity and positive energy far outweighs any mishap.
“There have been times when I’d hoped the chefs would have listened to me and I’m always assessing everything,” he says diplomatically. “But most of the time the chefs are free spirits and they do what they want.
“We provide the platform which hopefully allows them to serve their food at its best quality. It’s very rare that you get frustrated and we only invite a certain quality of chefs now and this year it has been inspiring. The top-line chefs of all ages really know their stuff anyway.”
At Obsession17 guests were fortunate enough to experience the cooking of hotel chefs such as Michael Wignall of Gidleigh Park, Gareth Ward of Ynyshir Hall, John Williams MBE of The Ritz London and James Close of Raby Hunt as well as Atul Kochhar, Issac McHale of The Clove Club and Michael O’Hare of The Man Behind The Curtain.
But how does Haworth pick who to bring in each year? And is it easy?
“I try to look at what is happening in food around the UK and try to make a jigsaw of that, contact people and fit the pieces together,” he says. “I use friends and contacts of mine to get in touch and to get to where I want to get to.
“For example, we had Ana Ros this year and she has just been named best female chef in the world. She had been at a women’s cheffing event with Lisa (Goodwin-Allen) in 2015 and we started to speak to her about coming to Obsession, but it didn’t happen. So we stayed in touch and built a relationship and this year she came.
“It is just about building confidence and a relationship where they are comfortable enough to give up their time.”
And while many chefs will benefit from the exposure to new customers as well as the world’s media that comes with Obsession, Haworth is very proud of the cooking fraternity and the camaraderie shown.
“A lot is said about the egos and bitchiness of chefs, but only chefs would do this for each other,” he says. “The amount of festivals like this that are done for free in hospitality is unlike any other industry, I would say.”
With the support of sponsors like Electrolux Professional and other sponsors, a total of 9,350 dishes were served to more than 1,800 guests with 633 bottles of champagne and 2,040 bottles of wine poured during this year’s festival
“We have built a really good background of sponsors who are willing to help us put a really great platform together,” adds Haworth. “They love it and get a lot out of it.”
Our night: Issac McHale of the one-Michelin-starred The Clove Club in London’s Shoreditch.
Smoked Brown Trout Tartare
With sansho, warm potato sauce and oscietra caviar
Pinot Blanc, Mise du Printemps, Josmeyer, 2013
Raw Orkney Scallop
With hazelnut, clementine and perigord truffle
Saint-Péray, Domaine du Tunnel, 2011
Warm Chestnut & Oyster Broth
with wild scottish seaweeds
With suckling pig, berbere spice
Hochar, Chateau Musar, Lebanon, 2012*
With fermented cabbage and blackcurrant purée
Cornas, Granit 30, Domaine Vincent Paris, Rhône Valley, France, 2013
With kampot pepper
Moscato D’Asti, Pio Cesare, Piedmont, 2013
So will 2018 bring 18 days of the festival? Haworth believes so and thanks his team for their support.
“I delegate now a lot of things I just used to do,” he says. “Lisa is great at getting in the ingredients. I’ve got an executive chef, a head chef and four sous chefs, so they all want to have a bit of what’s going on in Obsession, and that shows that we are developing. Even with the apprentices, we make sure they have a role in it so that they are not just stuck in a corner – they learn.
“Obsession happens almost automatically now. My senior staff know how I want it run and they go out and do it. I try and back off and allow it to run and when I’m needed I will come in.”
With 17 days of very late nights and very early starts, as well as the pressure of instructing new levels of digital coverage of the best food in the country, the Northcote team have their hands full. But Haworth wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It keeps you in touch with the young talent coming through,” he says. “People like Gareth Ward or Michael O’Hare; it’s great to have these guys wanting to do the food festival.
“Obsession evolves and rolls on, and every year, we think, it surpasses the last and brings in something different. It is such a fun thing to be part of, stressful at times, but the personalities that come here are amazing.
“It’s nice to do something and to think that people genuinely enjoy doing it, too.”
Michael Wignall (2 stars) – Gidleigh Park, Dartmoor, UK
Gareth Ward (1 star) – Ynyshir Hall, Wales
John Williams MBE (1 star) – The Ritz London, UK
Gennaro Esposito (2 stars) – La Torre Del Saracino, Vico Equense, Italy
Lisa Goodwin-Allen – Northcote, Lancashire, UK
Chantelle Nicholson, Tredwells, London, UK
Claire Clarke MBE
Anna Hansen, The Modern Pantry, London, UK
Michael O’Hare (1 star) – The Man Behind The Curtain, Leeds, UK
Pasi Petanen – Sydney, Australia
Daniel Puskas – Sixpenny, Sydney, Australia
Hans Neuner (2 stars) – Ocean, Vila Vita Parc, Algarve, Portugal
Lu Yao – Yihe Mansions, Nanjing, China
Ana Ros – Hisa Franko, Slovenia
Justin Cogley – Aubergine at L’Auberge, Carmel, California, USA
James Close (2 stars) – Raby Hunt, Darlington, UK
Ben Spungen – Sierra Mar Restaurant, Big Sur, California, USA
Tony Baker – Montrio Bistro, Monterey, California, USA
Isaac McHale (1 star) – The Clove Club, London, UK
Shinichiro Takagi (2 stars) – Zeniya, Ashiya, Japan
Atul Kochhar (1 star) – Benares, London, UK
Nigel Haworth (1 star) – Northcote, Lancashire, UK