Check out our expert interview with chef Sam Buckley of Where The Light Gets In, Stockport. Interview conducted by Hilary Armstrong.
For Sam Buckley, professional cooking has always been an on-off thing. The 34-year-old Stockport chef may have worked in some stellar kitchens – Gary Rhodes in Manchester, Paul Kitching’s Juniper, Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume – but he’s interspersed the stints with other stuff: college, backpacking, a journalism degree, going on tour (he plays bass), writing, more travelling. Right now, however, following a perfect 10 from Guardian reviewer Marina O’Loughlin in May for his now year-old restaurant Where the Light Gets In, his cooking career is undeniably, irrefutably, unequivocally on.
“I never ever, ever meant to get back into cooking ever, ever, ever. Now I’ve got my own place, though, I’m screwed,” he says, only half joking.
Sam opened Where the Light Gets In (WTLGI) in a Victorian coffee warehouse up a cobbledy Dickensian alley off Stockport’s market square in October 2016. Without backers but with a £25,000 start-up loan, he did things in a way no bean counter could ever countenance: with zero signage, a mad name (it’s about creative inspiration and “perfection in the imperfect”), no printed menu, no printed wine list, a highbrow concept and a kitchen not so much open as indecently exposed.
The idea was to offer “freedom from choice” with the no-choice dining experience, created “from the day’s catch, harvest and slaughter”. At £75 and a further £45 for wine pairings, it’s a big ask in Stockport town centre. “We have 26 guests a night come here and put their trust in our hands. It’s so adventurous of them to spend all this money and they really don’t know what’s going to go on. I can imagine how nerve-racking that is.”
Sam’s reluctant to define his cooking style. Marina O’Loughlin assays “new Northern”. “That’s quite cool, isn’t it?” says Sam, going on to say that the term will be more meaningful the day he and his northern colleagues – such as fellow L’Enclume alumni James Cross of Lake Road Kitchen, The Forest Side’s Kevin Tickle and Mark Birchall at Moor Hall (check out our expert critic review here) – have anything like the clout with suppliers as their southern counterparts. “If there were a northern scene, it would have to start where we start our menu – with farmers, growers, rearers.”
Securing the best produce is an ongoing struggle. To that end, Sam works with local farm incubator initiative The Kindling Trust and is establishing WTLGI’s own farm, inspired in part by his L’Enclume experience. Also on the agenda is a co-operatively run, affordable organic food shop beneath WTLGI. The staunch sourcing policy shares something in common, for sure, with the new Nordic kitchen, as does the return to time-honoured techniques such as fermentation, smoking, curing and pickling.
Inspiration comes from all over, from his travels, from eating out and, as often as not, from his own fertile imagination. He recalls a weekend road trip with his architect girlfriend to buy a Middle White pig in Oxfordshire; he remembers being taught to polish barley for koji by an old woman in the Himalayas; and he fabricates a story for his ‘summer porridge’, a bunch of off-cuts from an English country garden including lovage stems cooked down in a seaweed broth and pickled beetroot stalks: “I imagine something someone would have eaten 300 years ago, walking down the side of the road and picking stuff in the hedgerow.”
Then there’s a mussel dish with fresh horseradish juice and fermented peach juice, seasoned with hawthorn flower oil. The mussels are eaten with a handmade pick, the broth is slurped not with a spoon but straight from the hand-thrown bowl, so “you’re closer to your food, literally”. He relishes this narrative element and encourages his chefs, who double as servers, to tell the story of each dish in their own way.
Following the Guardian review, WTLGI took 1,000 bookings in two days. The pressure on Sam to develop menus while finding his feet as a business owner and manager has been immense. He’s taken to spending Sundays at the restaurant, just him and some loud music. “I have the whole kitchen to myself. That’s helped,” he says. “I feel I’m gaining in confidence.” His priority, however, is sustainability. “This business is massively gluttonous. We want to be as responsible as we can be. We’re going to put a manifesto on the website. We want to make more of a deal of it. Hopefully other restaurants might follow suit, especially if we’re successful.”
This manifests itself in any number of ways, from eliminating food waste and refusing packaging from suppliers, to recruitment (WTLGI’s workforce is 60% female) and even making their own organic linen napkins. When Sam talks about a recent Copenhagen trip (read about ours here), he doesn’t rave so much about Noma, Relæ and Kadeau (though he rates them all) as about the city’s push to be carbon neutral by 2025.
While Sam has big plans for WTLGI, he doesn’t see himself there long term. So where will he be in five years’ time? Anywhere but here. “Maybe in India frying pakora on the beach,” he muses. “How good does that sound?” wtlgi.co
Favourite drink: Water, because it’s life-affirming and because of how I feel when I forget to drink it.
Most memorable meal: Making breakfast with my girlfriend in India soon after we’d met.
Food heroes: Fergus Henderson at St John, for reawakening an interest in English food; Massimo Bottura for using his status to launch social projects; and Tanja Grandits of two Michelin-starred Stucki in Basel because her kitchen’s such a happy place to be.
Guilty pleasure: Salt and pepper spare ribs, again.