Ones to watch: Mark Birchall

Ones to watch: Mark Birchall

by Tom Shingler 20 January 2016

Learn more about the chef who previously ran Simon Rogan's two-Michelin-starred L'enclume as he begins opening his own restaurant in Lancashire.

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Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

By his own admission, Mark Birchall’s entry into the world of professional cooking wasn’t particularly romantic. Born in Adlington, just outside Chorley, Lancashire, it wasn’t until he turned fourteen that he started to think about cooking as a career. ‘Around that time Ready, Steady, Cook was really popular on the TV and back then the chefs were a bit more genuine,’ he explains. ‘I also had a part-time job washing up at a local pub, and I ended up helping out on the sauce section and plating up starters.’

After completing catering college, Mark went straight to Michelin-starred The Walnut Tree in South Wales to gain some experience. ‘This was where I really learnt how to season food properly,’ he says. ‘Franco Taruschio [the head chef at the time] has so much passion – he was still stood at the stove cooking the pasta dishes in his 60s.’

Mark then moved back to his home county to go to Northcote and work with Nigel Haworth, which really had an affect on his whole approach to food. ‘Nigel went to the extreme in sourcing regional produce ­– he even bought an indigenous herd of cattle!’ he says. ‘He taught me how important local, seasonal produce is, not only in terms of quality but how it helps the local economy. Nigel has always been incredible when it comes to cooking meat, and his sauces were amazing. It was at Northcote that I really learnt how to cook.’

Cumbria calling

After this, Mark hopped about between jobs, even becoming head chef at a restaurant for a short while, but left because he didn’t feel he was ready at just twenty-three years old. Eventually, he emailed Simon Rogan asking for a trial. He was accepted, and nearly went to London to become Simon’s number two at a new restaurant, but after that fell through he was made sous chef at L’Enclume.

‘At that time L’Enclume had one Michelin star and four AA rosettes,’ explains Mark. ‘In the early days the style of food was incredibly eclectic, using produce from all over the world – ducks from Perigord, pineapples and coconuts in the desserts, hot and sour soup – it was fantastic. I was able to learn about molecular techniques and how to put together unusual flavour combinations, always to the highest standard possible.

‘Eventually, we started to make some changes at L’Enclume,’ continues Mark. ‘We began getting our ducks from Reg Johnson in Lancashire instead of France, for example, and before we knew it we were offering a single, 100% British menu. The restaurant gained a second star, and we went from a small enterprise to a gastronomic destination with its own farm.’

By the time he turned thirty-one, Mark was head chef of L’Enclume, had won the legendary Roux Scholarship in 2011 (which led to a three-month stage at El Celler de Can Roca, voted the best restaurant in the world) and was creating food at such a high level, people were travelling from all over the world to eat it. However, he always dreamed of owning his own restaurant. ‘I always had aspirations of opening my own place,’ he tells us. ‘No matter how hard you work, you don’t get the recognition if it’s not your name above the door. I was eventually made executive chef at L’Enclume, which was never something I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to become one of those chefs that just travels around from kitchen to kitchen just checking up on people and overseeing things – it was interesting and they were great guys, but if I’m going to be doing that sort of job I want it to be for my own businesses.’

Mark Birchall
Mark has had an illustrious career, but this is his first solo venture
Moor Hall's wine room will be accessible to diners to promote a more interactive experience

Pastures new

Nine years after he started at L’Enclume, Mark left to find a site for his own restaurant. After much searching, he came across a Grade II* listed country house in Aughton, Lancashire, and with his business partners Andy and Tracey Bell put the money down to turn it into a culinary destination. ‘We bought Moor Hall in January 2015 and instantly went about getting planning permission to start developing it,’ explains Mark. ‘It was recently the home of the CEO of Quiksave, but to turn it into what we wanted and because of the nature of the site we had to make the application almost 200 pages long – it was one the biggest the architects had ever done!’

The reason the application was so long – and why Moor Hall won’t be ready to open until September 2016 – is because there’s going to be so much more than just a restaurant. As well as the main dining room, kitchen, wine cellar and cheese room extension to the hall, the barn will be converted into a casual dining room upstairs (to open after the main restaurant), serving simple yet high quality food, drinks and charcuterie. Downstairs, guests will be able watch the cheesemaking suite in action, butchery with meat ageing room and a charcuterie room, which will be glass fronted. There’s a kitchen garden outside with raised beds and glass houses, and Mark even has plans to build a small brewery in the near future. That’s as well as the seven bedrooms, with plenty of room for expansion. All these different aspects result in much more than somewhere you’d just go for dinner ­– it’s a full culinary experience in beautiful surroundings.

‘I want to break down those barriers that can intimidate people about food and drink, especially when it comes to wine,’ says Mark. ‘I want people to go into these rooms to choose their wine, and see the cheese when it’s still in full wheels. If you’re expecting people to stay at your restaurant for three hours you need to keep them stimulated, and I think this interaction is the perfect way to do that.’

Moor Hall won’t be open until September 2016, so menus and dishes are still up in the air. But Mark has some ideas about what it’ll look like. ‘I want to have several menus,’ he says. ‘My dish of venison in coal oil will probably make an appearance, but other than that I can’t mention specific dishes. There won’t be anything crazy – the food will be simple and produce-led rather than focusing on the method, as we have some great suppliers in the North West; Banks tomatoes, for example, are grown just down the road, and I think they’re the best tomatoes in the UK outside the Isle of Wight.’

Mark says all he wants for Moor Hall is a busy, successful business where people can walk around the grounds, eat some fantastic food, drink good wine and make plans to come back again. Whatever happens, it’s set to be one of the most exciting restaurant openings of 2016, and we can’t wait to see how it looks in September.

Moor Hall is now open (March 2017). For more information click here.

I want people to go into these rooms to choose their wine, and see the cheese when it’s still in full wheels. If you’re expecting people to stay at your restaurant for three hours you need to keep them stimulated, and I think this interaction is the perfect way to do that.

Mark Birchall