It is so called because for those who take part it is just that, an obsession.
Set in the chilly Lancashire countryside, the Michelin-starred hotel Northcote has once more lowered the curtain on a celebration of such gastronomic stature that any food festival in the world would be proud to boast its line-up.
A staggering 18 nights – it has been going and growing for 18 years – featuring 21 world-class chefs with 17 Michelin stars between them, book out the hotel with food and drink enthusiasts hoping for a chance to try an exclusive menu in a once-in-a-lifetime setting. The great and the good of the UK hospitality industry, as well as many celebrity gastronomes, fill the seats of the restaurant, private dining room and sensational chef’s table – more than 130 purveyors of fine cooking – expecting Obsession.
Described as both “pressure and pleasure” by one former participant, hosting your own night at Obsession takes planning, coordination and execution. And because of the festival’s huge notoriety, all of this is now done in front of roaming videographers and any number of snappers. Each dish is circulated on social media in a heartbeat, meaning that every meal is under huge scrutiny and every culinary team in the kitchen is wanting to perform at their top level.
Northcote’s chef patron and Obsession co-founder Nigel Haworth said: “This year we’re celebrating 18 years of Obsession and it just keeps getting more exciting each year. We’re bringing different styles of cooking, different cultures and different flavours to Northcote for both our guests and our kitchen team to experience. Sharing ideas has got to be one of the most important and inspirational things we can do in cookery and we’re in a privileged position that the Obsession 18 chefs are open to sharing their ideas with us.”
On the night I was lucky enough to attend Obsession – for the second year in a row thanks to sponsor Electrolux Professional – multi-Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton and his team were in the kitchen.
Atherton has a 17-strong portfolio of restaurants worldwide, with the Social Company group stretching from the flagship Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social in London to New York, Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney and Cebu in the Philippines.
Atherton trained with some of the legends of modern gastronomy, including Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis, and was the first British chef to work alongside Ferran Adria at el Bulli in Spain. He joined the Gordon Ramsay Group in 2001 and launched Maze in 2005, bringing the concept of modern small-plate dining to London for the first time. It was so successful that Atherton oversaw the opening of a further five Maze restaurants around the world.
Atherton broke the mould again when he opened Pollen Street Social in Mayfair in 2011, deformalizing fine dining with a large buzzy cocktail bar, stylish but relaxed dining room and London’s first dessert bar. Proudly using seasonal British produce from selected suppliers, his menu features dishes such as a tasting plate of Lake District lamb with loin and braised shoulder shepherd’s pie served with spiced tomato and mint sauce.
But a one-trick pony he isn’t.
His London restaurants alone cover everything from grill and deli food at Temple and Sons, refined Japanese cuisine at Sosharu and New York Italian at Hai Cenato, while his global destinations include The Pig and Palm in Cebu serving Spanish tapas and Kensington Street Social in Sydney specialising in British-Mediterranean sharing dishes.
In the private dining area, guests on our table including Sunday Brunch’s Simon Rimmer, Manish Mehrotra of London’s latest hot-spot Indian Accent and the team from the Sticky Walnut by Gary Usher in Chester (the following night’s Obsession chefs) were treated to some Pollen Street classics in canape form, including a spoonful of “fish and chips” and a foie gras Eccles cake.
Northcote is an amazing mix of traditional mansion house and modern hotel get-away, with contemporary seating, lighting and bar space alongside wood panelling and open fires.
But one thing is sure, the whole hotel is geared up for the dining experience. The kitchen has been extended over the years to cope with the growing Obsession brand, while the customer’s festival experience has been enhanced with facilities like the chef’s table and the live CCTV feed of the kitchen out to the dining area.
Atherton’s first seated course was a raw Orkney scallop with pickled kohlrabi, lemon, black olive and jalapeño granite.
“It was inspired by a trip to Japan,” says Atherton. “I was so impressed by the quality of sashimi and quality of fish and shellfish. And in honour of that, a few years ago I invented this dish.
“So, really, it’s a sashimi of scallops, with jalapeño granite, two different oils – one a black olive oil and one green one with sea herbs, pickled pear and yuzu puree.”
As with every course to come, it was paired by a wine chosen by award-winning managing director of Northcote and sommelier Craig Bancroft.
“Then we were on to the line-caught turbot from the coast of Cornwall with a roasted celeriac puree and chestnut gnocchi,” says Atherton. “Sliced truffle, which is bang in season right now, for the truffle sauce to go with it.”
This was paired with a rare and stunning Gloria Reynolds Branco from Portugal, before our dishes headed north.
“One of our classics this time of year at Pollen Street comes not too far from here, the Lake District,” says Atherton. “Beautiful venison with pear puree, roasted Jerusalem artichoke and artichoke puree,” not to mention chocolate vinegar.
A Chardonnay poached pear and buttermilk spiced granite followed by an English bramble Eton mess sweetened things up. “We call it a ‘Tidy Eton Mess’ because it comes as perfectly round meringue, and we mess it up for you at the table by breaking it and serving lashings of vanilla cream over it.”
This was devoured shortly before Atherton addressed the restaurant to talk through a few of his dishes and his mamories of Obsession, having also taken part some 10 years earlier.
In 2018, the chefs appearing at Obsession included Jason Atherton, Gary Usher of Sticky Walnut, George Blogg of Gravetye Manor, Larry Jayasekara of Petrus, Tom Kitchin of The Kitchin, Tommy Blanks of The Black Swan at Oldstead and Jean-Philippe Blondet of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.
Northcote continues to set the standard of what hotels can achieve with their restaurants, arguably starting the trend of pop-ups and guest chef nights, while also striving to see how far they can push innovation on a plate. For them it really is an obsession.
NORTHCOTE – Electrolux Professional powers the prestigious kitchen
For critically acclaimed, award-winning chef Nigel Haworth, the recently refurbished kitchen at Northcote, his luxury hotel and restaurant situated on the edge of the picturesque Ribble Valley in Lancashire, was worth the wait.
Having overseen Northcote’s cuisine alongside his long-term business partner Craig Bancroft since 1984, the site has become one of the most respected kitchens in the UK. Possessing his Michelin star since 1996, proprietor Haworth developed the new £380,000 kitchen and utilised his talents and vision when it came to the design, consulting with Electrolux Professional authorised partner C&C Catering Equipment to bring the concept of a unique working environment to life.
Haworth envisaged a full suite of equipment that could match his idea of productivity and culinary precision, streamlining the complete cooking process. The proposed concept for the new kitchen suite was an extension comprising a housing suite of cold rooms and preparation areas to make the kitchen space a third bigger, a dedicated breakfast area and a glass-washing area separate to the dish and pot wash.
The cutting-edge design was based around clean lines, removing shelves to give chefs more space to be calm and creative.
During the consultation process, Electrolux Professional invited Haworth and head chef Lisa Allen to its factory premises in Switzerland, where they could get a feel for the equipment, put it through its paces and learn about the benefits on offer.
Haworth and Allen opted for an M2M thermaline solution from Electrolux Professional as an island unit. The bespoke design features two planchas, each with four independently controlled zones, two induction hobs, a bain marie and a rise and fall salamander grill. With the thermaline’s M2M solutions, Haworth was able to tailor the kitchen to suit his menu, staff and level of output, which is a design principle backed by the internationally renowned Red Dot: Best of the Best award.
Northcote’s thermaline system also boasts two tilting ProThermetic braising pans, creating an ideal ‘multipurpose system’ to boil, braise, griddle, steam or pressure cook, all in the same appliance. The control panel also enables the extensive team of chefs at Northcote to add up to 1,000 recipes using the programmable features, facilitating consistency across staff rotations.
Haworth, chef patron at Northcote, said: “Working with the chefs in Switzerland was a great opportunity to get a feel for thermaline and see what the range I’d heard so much about had to offer.
“We wanted the kitchen to have a clean and bright feel – it was always destined to be a commercial kitchen with high output capabilities, but I wanted to avoid an industrial atmosphere. I wanted planchas to facilitate the use of less plans and more direct cooking. After extensive research it was thermaline from Electrolux that suited me best, and I was really impressed with the clean design and simple controls.
“Northcote isn’t a small restaurant – it seats 70-80 in the main area and private dining rooms can hold an additional 50. On a busy night we can be serving over 100 customers at a time, and considering the high quality of food we’re producing, this can be a challenge. The kit enables us to be organised and flexible and it’s safe to say I’ve had friends from the industry visit with a distinct taste of envy!”
Jason Atherton’s Menu
RAW ORKNEY SEA SCALLOP
Pickled Kohlrabi, Lemon, Black Olive, Jalapeño Granité
Vat 1, Hunter Semillon, Tyrrell’s, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia, 2009
SOUTH COAST TURBOT
Chestnut Gnocchi, Périgord Truffle Jus
Gloria Reynolds Branco, Reynolds Wine Growers, VR Alentejano, Portugal, 2014
CARTMEL VALLEY FALLOW DEER
Pear and Cocoa, Jerusalem Artichoke, Chocolate Vinegar
Reserva, Viña Tondonia, Rioja, Spain, 2004
CHARDONNAY POACHED PEAR & BUTTERMILK SPICED GRANITÉ
Malaga, Mountain Wine “Mr White”, Telmo Rodriguez, Spain, 2013
ENGLISH BRAMBLE “ETON MESS”
Elysium, Black Muscat, Andrew Quady, California, USA, 2015