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Bistro 1847: interview with the chef

We talk to Wendy Swetnam about making exciting vegetarian food

Published on June 8th 2011.

Bistro 1847: interview with the chef

If vegetarian cooking conjures up images of lentils, nut roast and mushroom risotto, you've probably not eaten at Bistro 1847. This vegetarian restaurant in Manchester city centre, formerly known as Detoxretox, doesn't settle for your standard meat-free fare. With dishes including 'fish' made from beer battered halloumi, a cake version of gin and tonic, and a red rice salad so packed with superfoods it should be available on the NHS, it's creating a stir amongst vegetarians and their meat-eating friends.

IMG_7929.JPGThe brains behind the menu is a young chef with a passion for experimentation called Wendy Swetnam. A vegetarian since she was eight, Wendy got her first experience of cooking for a crowd when preparing vegetarian Christmas dinners for her family as a teenager. She went on to work at the Eighth Day, then at Vanilla Black in London (one of only two vegetarian restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide) before arriving at Bistro 1847 late last year.

In between she did a placement at NOMA in Copenhagen – officially the best restaurant in the world, according to the panel of critics at The Restaurant magazine. We caught up with her to find out what gets her excited in the kitchen, and what you can expect from Bistro 1847's menu this summer.

Tell us about working at NOMA

“I went to eat there in February last year – they did me a seven-course vegetarian menu and it was just the best thing I've ever eaten. I wrote to them and said is there any chance I could work for you for a little while?

“It was like nothing you've ever seen before. To work in a kitchen of that standard is mind-blowing. I saw ingredients I'd never heard of and we did a bit of foraging – going out on to the beaches and into the forests and gathering herbs and all sorts of stuff.”

Have you been able to put any of that experience to use at 1847?

“It's very difficult to do anything like what they're doing because it's just me in the kitchen here and they have about 25 chefs. It's more flavour combinations and attention to detail that I've brought back. As 1847 grows and I get more staff to help, I can do more labour intensive stuff but at the moment it's not really possible.”

How would you describe your cooking?

“I'm trying to do things that are not stereotypically vegetarian and that would appeal to meat eaters as well as vegetarians. I don't think that our food is pretentious in any way. It's approachable. I like to cook with the seasons and use interesting vegetables and herbs.”

Is there a particular ingredient you're really into at the moment?

“I'd love to use this mushroom they use at NOMA called Hen of the Woods but I don't think it's possible to get hold of here, or if it is, it's certainly not very common. People have told me it tastes like roast chicken – I can't really remember what that tastes like. It has a very complex flavour and I'd love to cook with it.

“Something I will be using is elderflower because that's coming into season now. I'd really like to be making things like home-made elderflower champagne and elderflower fritters and cordial.“

Where will you get the elderflower from?

IMG_7927.JPG“They grow in Chorlton Meadows but I need to find out whether I'm actually allowed to use them. There's a forager guy who gets things from there but I don't know whether you need a special permit. I'm looking into it at the moment.”

Favourite dish on the menu?

“The gin and tonic cake on the dessert menu. My boyfriend's mum has a recipe for a lemon cake that has gin in it and she always refers to it as her 'gin and tonic cake'. But it doesn't taste of gin and it doesn't have tonic in it.

“I took that idea and made it into something which does taste like gin and tonic. It's a lime cake with gin in it, with a juniper and gin syrup poured over it. Then I make an icing with tonic water, and then add lime zest – so it does taste quite similar to gin and tonic.

“It's evolving. I'm developing a granita out of cucumber and black pepper to put with it. And I also want to do something with rose and put that on as well.”

It sounds like there's a lot of experimenting going on in the kitchen

“There is as much as I have time to do. I'm rushed off my feet at the moment but it's brilliant to be creating things myself rather than cooking other people's dishes. I'd never really done that before so it's quite a challenge. I'm hoping that the more I do it, the better I'll get and the more interesting the dishes will become.”

Try Wendy's cooking at Bistro 1847, just off Mosley Street, Manchester city centre.

For info on special offers at Bistro 1847 and contact details, please click here.

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