12 December 2007
FOOD HERO OF THE YEAR
At the Whitworth’s Gallery Café, it used to chalk up the provenance of its ingredients on the blackboards; chicken from Goosnargh, cheese from Kirkham’s. Now, it doesn’t need to bother.
‘We used to mention where the products come from,’ says Peter Booth, aka The Modern Caterer and Gallery Cafe boss, ‘but now we’ve defined ourselves as a little business which has its heart in the quality of the food, so we’ve stopped mentioning it. People have come to expect that when they come in here, if they’re getting a piece of chicken it’ll be off the top end of the market. I’m very happy that we’ve come to that point where there’s trust.’
Booth opened the café in 2005, and has built a reputation for quality and a thoughtful, ethical stance. Customers are often seen scribbling down details of seasonal veg from the chart on the wall, and his second café on Upper Brook Street – Gabriel’s Kitchen – will continue his commitment to energy-saving and recycling when it opens early next year. It’s all eminently sensible, as is Booth’s quiet habit of making links with the community around the Whitworth; the schoolchildren who troop through the gallery, patients and staff from the hospital and local representatives from Fairtrade and Food Futures.
The changing artwork, too, plays a part. ‘We’ve been working with someone from the Fairtrade Foundation who is going to Ethiopia taking photographs of coffee growers. We’re going to be bringing some coffee back, and selling the same coffee as in the pictures on the wall.’
This year saw The Modern Caterer’s second Real Food Fair, in the grounds of the gallery, named best festival event of the Manchester Food And Drink Festival. ‘It was all developed on a bit of a whim,’ admits Booth, ‘and, last year, we invited a lot of the people we purchase from to come and create a bit of a market. It was an excellent day, so this year we did it again. We showed Black Gold, and a friend of mine is a Pilates instructor so we did a class. One of the best parts was a divine chocolate cake competition. A lady from the gallery won, and the second prize went to one of my waitresses.’
Gabriel’s Kitchen is named after Booth’s five-year-old son, and feeding children good food is a priority for Booth, whose £5 children’s menu looks pretty tempting even from an adult perspective. ‘We’ve got a big connection with the education department here; for the fair we did two sessions and made flapjacks with the children. My mother made them all little aprons and hats. It’s important, that’s what I do with my own son. He’s very enthusiastic in the kitchen – he’s always been sitting on the worktops.’
The Modern Caterer was named on an impulse when Booth was filling in forms to apply for the Gallery Café space, but it has come to represent something to customers of the café and the outside catering arm (which does weddings, university and Manchester Museum events). ‘The name has come to have a little meaning as we’ve grown. It’s developed itself a little bit, because we like to think that we’re cooking in modern ways. You could still go into many a kitchen and find an old-style chef thickening the soup with flour, but it’s not the done thing in this day and age.’
Sadly for those who like the idea of eating Booth’s food for dinner as well as for lunch, Gabriel’s Kitchen won’t open in the evening (with the exception of the odd themed event). There’ll be more equipment and extraction, allowing for him and chef Jason Kosh to ‘move the cooking on a bit’. ‘I think we can do what we want to do in the lunch times without getting greedy. A lot of people do come in here for a bowl of soup and a glass of tap water, and that’s the kind of business we want. We won’t ever look down our noses.’ And there you have it – spoken like a true food hero.
Emma Jean Sturgess