It's 20 years since Paul Heathcote first surprised Lancashire palates with the cooking at Longridge. Since then the local hero has won - and lost - two Michelin stars. He tells Rosalind Mullen how he plans to reignite the spark while maintaining the direction of his diverse 11-strong group.
You could argue that Paul Heathcote has put the North-west on the culinary map in the past two decades, although that might put a few other chefs' noses out of joint. What is true is that this plain speaking, straight cooking northern chef has been a major player in raising standards in the region through his intelligent use of local suppliers and inspired reinvention of regional recipes.
Certainly, his flair with previously unfashionable local dishes - such as Lancashire hotpot, black pudding and bread and butter pudding - has injected pride back into regional cooking, and his ambition has ignited the restaurant scene.
When he opened his fine-dining Longridge restaurant in 1990, the only real competition in the region was Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft's Northcote Manor at Langho, the Stannylands in Wilmslow, the Chester Grosvenor and a handful of others. Today, the area boasts more quality restaurants to suit all pockets than you can shake a chef's toque at.
"Standards are higher than 20 years ago and I feel proud that I've had some strong influence, and have perhaps acted as a catalyst for improvement," says Heathcote.
His achievements speak for themselves. Born and bred in Farnworth near Bolton, Heathcote has steadily built up a restaurant empire close to home. Besides Longridge, he also runs the more casual Simply Heathcotes in Liverpool, the seven-strong Olive Press Pizzeria Bar & Grill chain, the London Road restaurant & wine bar in Alderley Edge and Spanish tapas bar and restaurant Grado in Manchester. As if that's not enough, he still has a shareholding in events catering arm Heathcote's Outside, which was sold to Lindley Catering in 2006.
As with any empire, however, there's always one part of the kingdom that needs attention. For Heathcote, it's currently Longridge. It's a testament to his vision that when he opened the restaurant at the age of 29, he managed to raise the necessary £250,000 himself through selling his house and cashing in his pension, and that within 18 months it had won the first of two Michelin stars. However, while it still holds three AA rosettes, the flagship restaurant has lost its stars and perhaps some of its former sparkle.
"We lost our way. But we're going to put more energy into it now," he admits. "While you are growing a business your core values can get diluted and the message doesn't always come across to people who work for you, particularly when staff leave."
To win back his awards, Heathcote has persuaded chef Chris Bell, who helped win the initial star, and his wife Kath, who oversees front of house, to come back into the fold. Their commitment, and the fact the restaurant is "better furnished" nowadays, means Heathcote is quietly confident that Longridge's glory days will return.
Everything else is in place. The northern-influenced cuisine hasn't changed, with dishes such as roast fillet of Bowland beef, fondant potato, creamed and roast parsnips, Savoy cabbage, green peppercorns and thyme (£27). He has stuck with his local suppliers too: he still uses Johnson and Swarbrick for his Goosnargh duck and corn-fed chicken dishes, for example, and is still committed to cooking with the "abundance" of ingredients available in the North-west.
So, had he taken his eye off the ball at Longridge? Probably. Heathcote doesn't particularly like being asked whether he's a businessman or chef, but with characteristic good humour explains that he's both. "Being called a businessman is an unfair tag," he says. "If you run more than one place you do end up running a business, but I still review the menus every month and do the training so I'm no different to an executive chef in a big hotel."
The current 11-strong group is certainly diverse, spanning fine dining to pizzas to Spanish tapas, but he enjoys the variety. As he explains, he started cooking when he was 16 and worked his way through rarified kitchens such as the Connaught in London's Mayfair and Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, so devising pasta and pizza menus for the Olive Press was a nice detour.
In fact, when it comes to the Olive Press Heathcote feels slightly misunderstood. The chain has attracted scorn from foodies who see it as a "pile it high, sell it cheap" venture, but as he points out, it's a quality brand that has proved popular with customers.
"It's been very successful, so I don't care what people think," he says. "It's hard enough to have one success, let alone a number of them."
Across the group, however, success has been tempered by several setbacks. Attempts to roll out Simply Heathcotes were scuppered by the recession, forcing him to close the Manchester site in 2008 and just keep Liverpool. At the same time he quashed plans for a new fine-dining restaurant in Manchester, the Elliott, citing the combination of a "problematic listed site, escalating costs and a nervous trading market due to the credit crunch".
As with many restaurant businesses operating outside London, the last few years have been extremely tough. During the recession, revenues fell by 20% at some restaurants and like-for-like performance slipped by 10-11% across the group, although these figures are now improving.
This year the company will turn over £8m, down from the pre-recession turnover figures of £10m or above. This is partly due to the fact Heathcote has retrenched, closing three outlets - Simply Heathcotes Manchester and Olive Presses in Warrington and Wrightington - and reducing capacity at the Preston Olive Press by a third.
"Three years ago we opened four sites, and now we've closed three. It takes a lot of adjustment and there are painful lessons to learn, but we're back on the road to recovery, and have just employed three new people in head office for the first time in two-and-a-half years, so we're putting some structure back," he says.
Despite the recession, Heathcote managed to avoid redundancies. Instead, the team became more resourceful, making savings on waste and energy usage of £300,000 over the past few years.
Business is becoming more stable, but the recession has clearly spooked Heathcote. Last year, he mooted plans to invest £4m in five more restaurants by 2015. Earlier this year, however, he refinanced the group (giving Manchester property firm Bruntwood a larger equity stake) and announced that he'd scrapped plans for further expansion.
"They say the economy is improving, but I think unemployment will increase over the next five years. I plan to consolidate and hold on to what we've got. I wouldn't expand - unless I got help in rolling out more Olive Presses."
Heathcote has always resisted the bright lights of London and, despite the fact it was tougher out of the capital during the downturn, it looks as if he was right to focus on the untapped potential of the North-west. But there are some decisions he regrets: if he was starting out again, for instance, he wouldn't try to do it all himself. It was a realisation he came to last year, when for the first time in 20 years he took a three-week holiday.
"I want to work cleverer," he says. "Twenty years is a long time in this business and I don't want to keep working as hard as I do. I have learnt that the better the people you employ, the better your business will be. If I had learnt that earlier I could have relinquished some control. Recently, I've taken on people in head office who have skills that I don't have. In the past I would have done their job too, but I would have been working too hard."
LOOK NORTH - HEATHCOTE ON THE SPOT
Why haven't you expanded to London?
We looked at it about six years ago but decided against it as there were still opportunities here in the North-west. I have zero inclination to do it, mainly because it's enough to drive around the North-west, never mind London.
What are the plus points of being up North?
It's a different set of financial criteria when you set up a business. We've got cheaper rents and rates, for a start.
What about the talent pool?
There's a vibrant restaurant scene up here now so the talent pool is a lot bigger than it was 20 years ago. I think we've done well in looking after our staff and retaining our culture. I don't think we could have done that in the South.
HEATHCOTE'S NORTHERN EMPIRE
Smart casual all-day Spanish restaurant, tapas and wine bar
Average spend: £40
Covers per week: 500-550
Best-selling dish: "It's difficult to say as dishes change frequently... cold meats, fish from the grills."
Events catering arm created in 1996 by Heathcote and sold in 2006 to venture capital firm Sovereign Capital, which then merged it with stadia caterer Lindley Catering (now Lindley Group). Heathcote became an executive director at Lindley as part of the deal.
It's no longer part of Heathcote's group, but as it carries his name and up to 100,000 people can be served at any given event, Heathcote is protective about standards.
LONDON ROAD, ALDERLEY EDGE, CHESHIRE
Stylish restaurant and wine bar serving classic European cuisine
Average spend: £45
Covers per week: 500
Best-selling dish: Lobster and crab cocktail with spiced tomato dressing (£12.50) and crispy duck salad, sesame, watercress and spinach (£6.95)
LONGRIDGE RESTAURANT, NEAR PRESTON
Heathcote's flagship fine-dining restaurant, which holds three AA rosettes
Average spend: £65 per head
Covers per week: 250-260, but closed on Mondays and Tuesdays
Best-selling dish: Heathcote's bread and butter pudding, apricot compote and clotted cream (£8)
SIMPLY HEATHCOTES LIVERPOOL
Casual dining restaurant serving British food sourced from local producers
Average spend: £35-£40 per head
Covers per week: 450-500
Best-selling dish: Seared king scallops and Heathcote's black pudding with apple purée and mustard butter (£10.90)
THE OLIVE PRESS PIZZERIA BAR & GRILL
Chain of rustic Italian family-friendly restaurants in Bolton, Preston, Manchester, Clitheroe, Cheadle Hulme, Leeds and Liverpool
Average spend: Lunch £13 per head; dinner £24 per head
Covers per week: 1,000-1,400 depending on the site
Best-selling dish: Penne with chargrilled chicken, mushrooms, cream & basil pesto (£9.20)