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Into The Fire: David Fox, Tampopo

“The only issue with Asian food is the lack of cheese”

Written by . Published on September 3rd 2014.


Into The Fire: David Fox, Tampopo
 

SEVENTEEN years.

That's not just a lifetime in the restaurant game, that's a ruddy miracle.

And it all started with a tax disc through the post.

"Customers have expectations of how cold their beer should be, how the plates should look, where the food should come from, how the wine should taste, we didn't have those standards fifteen years ago."

At 29, Tampopo's co-founder David Fox had a secure accountancy gig in London. He had his company car, he'd just received his company tax disc, he was probably wearing company grey socks.

He also had a fidgety bum.

Over a beer with Tampopo's co-founder, Nick Jeffrey, an idea turned into a business plan into upping sticks and into a move to Manchester in 1997.

Why Manchester? "Even back then, the city had a culinary open-mindedness," says Fox.

TampopoTampopo

And by jove, seventeen years later and the Pan-Asian restaurant group, masters in Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and Korean food, has six restaurants spread across the country with two more on the horizon.

I meet Fox in Tampopo's original Albert Square subterranean restaurant, he has a young mentoree in tow. "It's for her schooling," he says. "Showing her the business ropes."

Respectable stuff. But then, to last this long, you've got to have your head screwed on...

Where'd it begin?

"I'd been working in finance in London for nine years. I had the job, the company car, then the company tax disc came through internal mail. I just thought 'No, this is dangerous, If I don't jump I never will...'

So what did you do about it?

"I'd done a few cookery schools aound the world so over a beer with Nick (working for Shell at the time) we came together with a business plan, raised some money and moved to Manchester in 1997. Even then it had culinary open-mindedness and a large student population."

Bold step...

"There was this crazy stat that 80% of restaurants go bust in the first year. I thought we'd either go bust or we'd become rich. Neither happened (laughs). Still, we now have six restaurants: three in Manchester and one in London, Bristol and Reading."

So late-90s Manchester, was it ready for Pan-Asian?

Within a year we were on the front of City Life's eating and drinking guide. This side of the town and the square hadn't really developed by then, we were seen as quite unusual but developed a core of die-hard fans because of that. Some have stuck with us all the way through. The challenge is keeping the younger generations interested, there's so much choice now, if you're no good people aren't coming back.

Are diners more fickle now?

I'd say people's expectations are much higher. Customers have expectations of how cold their beer should be, how the plates should look, where the food should come from, how the wine should taste, we didn't have those standards fifteen years ago.

The city has grown so much and there's now so much choice, where people used to have a core of three restaurants they'd eat at, now they have ten or fifteen. People are eating out more but are also less forgiving.

Seventeen years in the industry... what's the secret?

Sounds hackneyed but look after your team, be focused on the customer and never stand still. Once you've been around this long the danger is to think you have it sussed and you'll always be here.

When the recession hit there were huge brands, much bigger than us, just disappearing. Some were unlucky, some got complacent and some had plain lost their way. We're more obsessive, we kept moving.

Tampopo's Thai green curryTampopo's Thai green curry

What's your favourite part of the job?

I really miss being on the floor, being on the front-line with the team. I didn't appreciate how much I'd miss that. It's that hospitality drug, seeing the customer satisfaction directly. That's why we're all in it.

For the young'uns, is hospitality a good career path?

I don't think people realise how bountiful this industry can be. As a General Manager you could be earning packages of around £40k at 25. Of course, entry-level is usually minimum wage, but it's an industry where aptitude far outweighs academic ability.

When I first moved here I hired a couple of lads who'd tell me how to 'TWOC' cars - how they could be pinching cars if they wanted. But they got their heads down and earnt a pay rise. It was the first time anyone had ever given them a pat on the back. These were lads on the very fringes of society that went on to become valued members of it. Goes to show, if given the chance...

Do you have a least favourite part of the job?

It's frightening how much you can spend on equipment, repairs, call-outs and maintenance. That's painful. Sometimes the responsibility can be daunting, we provide a living for 180 people. I didn't appreciate how many people it would take to deliver a bowl of noodles for £6.95.

TampopoTampopo

Ever wanted to pack it all in?

Not really, but sometimes it can be a slog. The summer for example, everyone says how much business is lost from pubs when England are knocked out of football tournaments, what you don't realise is that if everyone is in the pub or at home, they're not in restaurants. That and really hot weather. I must be one of very few in summer and at festivals hoping for rain.

If you weren't doing this, what else would you be doing?

I'm wedded to this, so I'd just be trying out different concepts. I've always fancied an East Asian beer house with a menu full of grazing food...

Where would you stick this new concept?

The Northern Quarter is always a fascinating part of town. It's morphing. Ever since I moved here in 1997 the Northern Quarter was always the next big thing, but it's only really found its feet in the last three or four years. It's no longer just a drinking spot, it's an all-day place, five years ago it wasn't. The interesting bit is the next five years, which way it will go.

What if you could own another concept in the city?

I like Cane & Grain's three bar concept on Thomas Street. I don't profess to be a ribs expert but I thought the place was great.

Do you have a favourite ever dish?

If I was confined to a desert island it'd have to be the Indonesian Nasi Goreng, you could have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Humble Indonesian fare.

Favourite places in MCR to eat and drink?

Electrik bar in Chorlton is my favourite bar in all the city, that’s my local. Great vibe, good beers, and the owners Justin and Luke (also Volta in West Disbury) are top guys. My favourite place to eat at the moment is The Angel at the top of Shudehill. It’s got a quirky restaurant up top, probably better in the winter, but the food quality is so good for the price. The Sunday Roast is fantastic.

Tampopop-upTampopop-up is now open on Exchange Square

The Corn Exchange Tampopo is closing for a refurb, tell us about this pop-up?

It's a Pan-Asian pop-up and grab & go diner opening in Exchange Square around the 9 September. We'll have dishes from £2.95 to £4.50, simple plates with good beer on offer. There'll also be take-away options in the grab and go.

Ideally, I'd like to have something like Padang food in Sumatra. You sit down and they put twenty small dishes in front of you, you eat what you can and what you don't somebody else gets. Not sure you'd get away with it here.

Why should our readers come and eat at Tampopo?

Mainly the quality and the variety at that price point. I nearly dropped £12 on a burger in the Northern Quarter the other day, for around that price you can have a roast duck red curry with lychees, pea aubergine, cherry tomato, Thai basil & lime leaf at Tampopo.

The only downside to all Asian food is the lack of cheese.

Tampopo, 16 Albert Square, Manchester. M2 5PF. 0161 819 1966. @tampopoeats

Tampopo also has restauranta in Exchange Square, Trafford Centre, London, Bristol and Reading.

Tampopo has just been nominated in the Manchester Food and Drink Festival 'Cheap Eats of the Year' category.

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30 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

If you have lived or travelled in South East Asia you cannot be satisfied by eating at Tampopo.There is absolutely no flavour to what they sell.The watered down,chilli light versions of dishes they peddle do not in anyway do justice to Malay,Vietnamese,Javanese,Sumatran,Laos or Thai food.

1 Response: Reply To This...
pollolocoSeptember 4th 2014.

Sadly, I have to agree with these comments. Instead of doing 1 cuisine well, they make a bit of a hash of it all.

Henry vSeptember 4th 2014.

Disagree with both of you. Less fire to suit the English tastes, but apart from that the build and ingredients are all handled well. Good fun, great value. Get of your high horses, they are busy.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

It's to South East Asian food,what the Chinese take way of the 1970s was to Chinese food.

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

Who cares anon? It's good enjoyable food for the people of the UK.

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

It's great at what it does, popular with families and students, affordable asian dishes that people want to eat. Look at how popular Wagamama is, Tampopo does this but usually better imo.

7 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

I could not agree more

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

Wasabi is much better and cheaper than either of them when it comes to Japanese food.Sadly unlike London and Leeds,Manchester does not have a branch yet.

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

Affordable?.There are plenty of genuine cheap and cheerful Thai and Vietnamese cafes who are far better and less costly.

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

But those cafés are usually dirty and lacking in atmosphere.

AnonymousSeptember 5th 2014.

No they are not dirty.I think you will the hygiene standards much higher,since they at least wash their hands,something a lot of people in this country don't do who serve food.

pollolocoSeptember 9th 2014.

I am pho, Siam smiles, Vnam and Wasabi all do it better.

AnonymousSeptember 10th 2014.

If they do it better why are they so quiet in comparison? Pho and bnam are so unwelcoming

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

I also disagree with the above comments from Anonymous and Polloloco. Tampopo is for me one of the only restaurant that actually deliver on full flavour and freshness. To suggest there is absolutely no flavour to what they sell suggests you haven't eaten there atall.

3 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

No it suggests you have eaten in any food court or hawker centre in the likes of Singapore,KL or Bangkok.I find Tampopo ver poor in comparison

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

They eat weird food in those places though.

AnonymousSeptember 5th 2014.

Name one example of something weird they eat?.

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

Wagamama existed in London before Tampopo and the owner clearly was influenced by the design.But he mostly sells South East food so I find the design of the restaurant to be out of key with food he sells.South East Asian food gets watered down for some reason in UK,despite the popularity of very spicy Indian currys with English taste.They some how feel the need to take the chilli out and so kill the flavour totally.

Ghostly TomSeptember 4th 2014.

I love eating in Tampopo and I like the look of the pop up one in Exchange Square. Looks great on balmy September days but how will it cope with January? Not a problem in Bangkok and the like I imagine. Or will they be back under cover in the Corn Exchange by then?

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

Great interview, reading it is making me hungry. Tampopo never fails to impress me, amazing flavours in all dishes. Definitley would recommend ;-)

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

For those seeking the extra chilli try the Nau Yang Manao, one of my favourite dishes and very healthy too. Can't wait to take a trip to the Pop-up.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

Cant agree more, Amazzzzzzzzing dish My eyes and mouth are watering just thinking about it....Yum!

SAZKSeptember 4th 2014.

Why do so many people think that chilli is the only thing that equals flavour? There ARE other flavours in the world you know... Hmmz. Anyway I like tampopo, I like wagamamas too but agree with the comment above, tampopo does it better!

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

Chilli is not a big part of Japanese food but its a massive part of South East Asian food.Without chilli Thai salads would be totally devoid of their true taste.

AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

If you go to Sumatra and eat Padang dishes,the chilli will literally burm your your tongue in some dishes.Thats how it should be.Not what Tampopo serves.It does not have to be that way.As in contrast the Sichuan Chinese restaurants in Manchester keep the high degree of peppers and chilli,of the dishes back in that province of China,and the food tastes much better as a result.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
AnonymousSeptember 4th 2014.

It should burn your tongue? Nonsense, we're talking about Manchester, nobody wants their food to burn their tongue, why should they?

AnonymousSeptember 5th 2014.

The British certainly like their curry spicy.So your comment is nonsense.

AnonymousSeptember 5th 2014.

All the best to him and so on, but to say that the only thing lacking in Asian food is cheese is a bit like saying that the only thing lacking in McDonalds is rice.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Craig AllanSeptember 5th 2014.

I love utterly humourless fools like Anon above they're comforting in their poker-faced 'real' opinions. They make appreciate the gift of humour all the more.

Manc eaterSeptember 6th 2014.

Jesus H , give these guys a break, they are indie troupers battling hard against the majors, mostly for the love of it. Love to see the gripers on this site have a go themselves, instead of sniping from the comfort of their laptops. Go Tampopo and all the other indies in the city.

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