“Good food doesn’t need to be an elitist thing.” Northern Soul talks to chef Mary-Ellen McTague
Long ago, back before it was subsumed into a south Manchester suburb, Chorlton-cum-Hardy was a village dominated by farmlands and dotted with dairies. The locals pottered along to a nearby creamery to buy their milk and cheese.
Today, plenty of traces of Chorlton’s lost history have survived, and one is the curious tiled frontage of an early 1900s business called The Creameries, complete with the legend ‘Drink Milk for Health’. Just a stone’s throw from Chorlton tram station, the building has been rather neglected. In recent years, the space was used seasonally to sell Christmas trees, but it’s been a long time since it was a purveyor of fresh dairy products.
Now it’s due to become revitalised as a restaurant and bakery by an experienced team comprising designer Soo Wilkinson, baker Sophie Yeoman and cook Mary-Ellen McTague. Speaking to Northern Soul, McTague says: “I live in Prestwich so it’s not on my doorstep in the same way as it is for Sophie who lives in Chorlton. This was originally her project, and me and Soo have come to this in the last year as it’s got closer to getting on its feet. But Sophie’s been walking past the place for 15 years and it’s fallen into worse and worse disrepair. I think quite a lot of people who live in Chorlton have been looking at it wondering what’s going to happen to it and if it was ever going to be saved. What’s happened now is that the whole of the back of the building has been demolished and the only thing that’s been kept is the facade. The rest of the building is going to be completely new. A lot of people have been very concerned whether we’ll keep the tiling, and we are doing.”
Bury-born McTague is perhaps best known for the wildly acclaimed Prestwich restaurant Aumbry, which closed in 2014. Since then, the long-term plans for The Creameries have been gradually coming to fruition, and McTague has been working as head chef for The Real Junk Food Project, turning food waste sourced from supermarkets and wholesalers into top-quality cuisine. It’s an experience which might well impact on how The Creameries works. She explains: “Coming from a purely restaurant background, when I joined the Real Junk Food Project I had to completely change how I approach things. We’d get landed with all these ingredients to cook for an event or a restaurant pop-up and you wouldn’t know what you were getting until the day. You’d be working with the teams of volunteers rather than professional chefs, and we’d borrow kitchens and equipment.
“It completely turned on its head how I went about planning a menu. Normally in a restaurant you’d employ and train staff and get to know your space really well and how to use your ovens. You’d carefully plan a menu and you’d order ingredients in. Junk Food is like the total opposite of that, so it’s made me feel much more free to think on my feet more and make things up on the spot, while still obviously drawing on all the experience that I’ve got. The Creameries will be a little bit more organised than Junk Food, but still very much about seeing what’s available in the morning, speaking to the fishmonger, speaking to the veg supplier, then going from there with the menu.”
The team’s plans for The Creameries are grand and impressive, with bread, butter and cheese being freshly made on the premises, along with a full restaurant menu using locally-sourced sustainable ingredients. It will also host bread-making workings, food talks and wine and cheese-tasting events. The idea is to create a venue that’s very much part of the Chorlton community.
McTague says: “This is something I’ve kind of felt for a long time, that good food doesn’t need to be an elitist or an exclusive thing. It should be for everybody, so we want it to feel really low-key and really relaxed. We’ll be open 8am til 11pm and you should be able to drop in whenever. It’ll be very, very informal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be really good or that you can’t expect really good quality service and wine and food. It’s just more of an approach to the kind of atmosphere we want it to have. We particularly want it to be a real easy place to bring the kids. We want people to feel like it’s part of Chorlton and hopefully with the crowdfunding, people will feel like it’s theirs.”
Sure enough, an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign is now open with a range of rewards on offer for those who want to get involved, ranging from £5 for a coffee and a pastry once The Creameries is open to a private party with cocktails and canapés for £2,000. This DIY approach to raising funds seems to be gaining more and more traction within the industry.
“I don’t think it’s just with food and drink either. It’s the way that people are getting published or funding new technologies. What with people’s mistrust of financial services and banks in the last ten years, crowdfunding takes the power to make things happen and puts that back in the hands of the public. I mean, I’ve backed stuff that I’ve thought was interesting – not just food and drink things, all sorts of different stuff – and for me, when I’ve been part of the contributors to a crowdfund, it’s felt like a really positive and empowering thing to do. It’s certainly a much more satisfying way of raising funds than going to the banks.”
In fact, the initial response to the campaign has been so enthusiastic, with 50 per cent of the funding target raised on the first day, that the target has now been extended, which should cut out the need for a bank loan altogether.
“We’ve been totally overwhelmed, actually. When we announced that we were going to be opening, the response was mad. We didn’t expect to get the response we did and for it happen so quickly, so we’ve decided we’re going to try and crowdfund the rest.”
At this rate, The Creameries should be throwing open its doors early next Spring. “That’s bearing in mind that this is a big build and right now there’s no roof on the building. However, the current date that we’re planning to open is March 5 and it’s all going to plan so far.”
Main image: Mary-Ellen McTague at Aumbry, photo by Chris Payne
To find out more about The Creameries and contribute to the crowdfunding, click here.
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