Opening a Vegan Fine Dining Restaurant in Stockport Is as Hard as It Sounds
For anyone who doesn't know the Greater Manchester area, this is rather like opening a branch of Armani inside a Lidl on the outskirts of Luton. But, as meat-free chef Matthew Nutter has proved, it is possible.
He doesn't seem it at first, but Matthew Nutter is just about the most intense man you're ever likely to meet. Vegan chef, ultra runner, and now proud father to both a new restaurant and a baby boy, this is a guy who doesn't do things by halves—especially not when he can do them by doubles or quadruples instead. Nutter by name, nutter by nature. Having run several successful pop-up eateries and street food establishments across the North West, Nutter has just broken the seal on The Allotment, a new vegan fine dining restaurant in the centre of Stockport. For those of you who don't know Stockport, this is rather like opening a branch of Armani inside a Lidl on the outskirts of Luton.
But, Nutter being Nutter, he's already made it a success, with full houses and five-star reviews flowing as thick and fast as the shiitake parfait he is now serving up. So, how did a boy from Bolton become a vegan chef superstar? It all begins at a rather unlikely source: Jamie Oliver. "The Naked Chef came on the TV when I was 14 and that was the first influence I had," explains Nutter.
It's odd to imagine bland TV everyman Oliver having such a profound effect on Nutter, but it goes to show embittered cynics like myself that Oliver's work—while a touch corny—can have a meaningful impact.
Nutter got his first job in a restaurant at 19 after a detour through drama school, and dove head first into what he calls "the chef lifestyle," which sounds to me like a cross between an Ibiza nightclub at the height of summer season and the kind of kitchen drudgery described in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. "The whole chef life is working your balls off, then partying, then doing the whole thing all over again," Nutter explains. "Late nights, early mornings … until you burn out."
He jumped around from place to place, never staying anywhere much longer than a few months, travelling to France, India, and New Zealand along the way. "I've done it loads of times where I go travelling, learn shit loads about food while I am away, and then just relax a little bit," he says. "The chefs that generally stay at places a long time get stuck in their ways and don't learn as much as the ones move around." Then came Nutter's life-changing moment: he got dumped. "I was in New Zealand and a girl split up with me. At the time, I weighed 14 and a half stone—and I'm only five foot six so you can imagine how big I was," he remembers. "I looked in the mirror and thought, 'How am I ever going to get anyone looking like this?' So I decided to get healthy." For most people, that might mean cutting out a few carbs and perhaps taking the odd jog around the block. But Nutter doesn't do things by halves, remember?
"Four months after we broke up, I ran my first marathon," he says. "Eight months later, I'd lost four and a half stone."
That drive to be healthy, and a trip to India, quickly led him to veganism.
"I was travelling in India and I didn't want to eat meat and get ill, so I stopped," he explains. "It was cheaper too once I came home and I was skint. Then I was training for a 50-mile marathon and found out about ultra runners who were also vegan. These guys were eating vegan diets because it digests so fast, and they were just flying—I wanted that. So I learnt more about nutritious foods, then a whole world opened up to me. I've been exploring it ever since." Nutter was keen to put this passion for newfound food into his cooking, but soon realised that most chefs were resistant to his ideas.
"In a lot of kitchens, the chefs hate vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free food—they hate it because they are scared of it, and they don't know how to cook it properly," he says. "So generally, kitchens are full of French-style foods: cheese on this, cheese on that, red wine, and cream. It's boring." At this point, Nutter's tale takes another twist. Enter Siobhan.
"We met on Plenty of Fish," says Nutter of his work and life partner (I had to stifle a laugh at the thought of vegans meeting on a website with the word "fish" in the title). "We immediately were texting each other about how we both dreamed of opening a restaurant. Four months later she moved in, and we were off."
The pair began with pop-up shops in Salford, just outside Manchester, and then moved to Purple Carrot, a small kitchen in the back of a Liverpool health food shop. It wasn't ideal, but soon Nutter and his new take on food were getting noticed.
"It was packed out every night and we were smashing it, just me and Siobhan," he says. "But we wanted our own place, so we quit with only £1,000 saved between us to find a restaurant. Then the day after we quit, Siobhan found out she was pregnant."
It was "a bit stressful" he adds, with just a hint of understatement.
After several months of what Nutter describes as "shitting it," he and Siobhan managed to find a place and an investor. The result is The Allotment, which opened just four days after the birth of their son Patrick.
But Nutter was ready: he'd spent a month fasting and taking cold showers to sharpen his mind. Like I said, the guy is intense. But back to the restaurant: it serves a ten-course vegan taster menu, although that's not a word that Nutter is too keen on. "I hate the word 'vegan'—it doesn't need a label, it is just different types of food like buckwheat, avocado, or quinoa," he says. "When I first found out that avocados could be turned into tarts and cashew nuts into cheeses I was like, 'What the fuck?' Honestly, it was so exciting, and it still is everyday."
The Allotment's menu contains the results of Nutter's gastric explorations, from the aforementioned shiitake parfait to slow-roasted aubergine steak, tomato confit, and nut cheeses of every kind. It is all delicious, especially the buckwheat dark chocolate brownies, which cause me to let out a noise I'd be embarrassed to make at an orgy.
"It's good, isn't it?'" grins Nutter. I ask him about his clientele. Is it just vegan's coming in, or is he getting people from all over?
"I'd say about 40 percent are meat eaters," Nutter answers, surprisingly. "I really think vegan food is on the rise—more and more people are willing to try it, so long as it tastes good. It's had a bad name in the past for being a bit like a cult. Vegans can be so in your face about it—so righteous, as if they have never ate meat in their life. There is no need for it." The Allotment gets its produce from local suppliers, and although it is not yet 100-percent organic, Nutter intends to reach that goal within six months. He even has an ethos behind his opening hours, as he explains.
"In my kitchen, we work four days on and three days off. That way, people get real time off, so by the time you are back in the kitchen, you are refreshed," he says. "I want my staff to be healthy and happy, so I make sure they have a good meal too."
So what's next for Nutter? Having said he doesn't want to change the world, it turns out he sort of does—rather like his original inspiration. "Jamie Oliver has changed people's outlook so much over the last 15 years or so, getting healthy food on the agenda," he says. "Now it is time for the next wave, and I want to be part of that. I have a bigger job to do that be a chef—I will not be in this kitchen in two years time, I'll be spreading the message, educating the next generation of chefs." Could Nutter be the next Jamie Oliver? Maybe. He's certainly got a drive and intensity beyond anyone I've ever met before. Let me put it this way: if his proselytising turns out to be as irresistible as his brownies, I wouldn't bet against him.