Moor Hall, Aughton's new, long-awaited restaurant
PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 May 2017
Moor Hall has opened its doors with great aplomb. It has been a long time coming for chef patron Mark Birchall, as Emma Mayoh discovered.
It is a hive of activity at Moor Hall, Aughton’s new, long-awaited restaurant with rooms. Chefs busy around the open kitchen, front of house staff discuss menus for that day and meetings take place in several of the rooms in this exquisite, historic building. Anticipation is in the air.
It’s an excitement that has been building for the past two years. Not just for director and chef patron, Mark Birchall, who has painstakingly lived and breathed the renovation of this stunning listed property. But also for diners – and other chefs – who have been eagerly waiting for Moor Hall to open its doors.
‘There have been so many rescheduled opening dates,’ said Mark, who lives in Aughton with wife, Jennifer and son James, four. ‘But I guess it’s the way with buildings like this.
‘I looked for a long time for the right place. This building was full of antiques and it was hard to visualise. I looked again; it was easy to see its potential.’
It has been a long and sometimes frustrating journey which he has shared with investors, Andy and Tracey Bell, who live in nearby Lathom. The couple, who Mark met while working at L’Enclume in Cartmel, longed for a decent fine dining restaurant in this corner of Lancashire and having discovered the chef’s dream to run his own place, an ideal opportunity arose.
Moor Hall has been worth the wait. Despite only being open a matter of weeks, people have visited in their droves. If you’re lucky, you might catch a table on a weekday night but weekends are full to the brim. The opening was attended by many locals as well as some of those people who have helped shape Mark’s career.
‘Nigel Haworth came along, I was pretty nervous about it,’ admitted the 36-year-old. ‘What Nigel did for me helped me become the chef I am. He was a hard taskmaster but that wasn’t a bad thing.
‘He said he was impressed. And he was proud of me. That felt pretty good. But what pleased me was that lots of locals came. And they have continued to come. To be a part of the area we’re in is important to me. It’s really encouraging.’
Mark, who grew up in Chorley and Adlington, has had a career many chefs could only dream of. He started at The Pines in Clayton-le-Woods, near Chorley in his mid teens. It was this experience, along with the guidance of the venue’s sous chef Dave Dugdale, and the appearance of chefs like Brian Turner and Nick Nairn on programmes like Ready Steady Cook, that forged his love of food.
‘Dave was inspiring,’ said Mark. ‘He spoke about local food and opened my eyes to it. He was a really good sous and if it hadn’t been for him, I’m not sure I’d be doing what I am now.’
After that he went on to work at The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny before coming home and finding his way in the kitchens at Northcote, working with Nigel Haworth.
‘Nigel went to the extreme in sourcing regional,’ said Mark. ‘He taught me how important local, seasonal produce is.
Moor Hall, Aughton
The Restaurant at Moor Hall
Gingerbread roots, pine
Adding the final touches to a dish in the kitchen
Monfish Roasted on the Bone garlic and mussel cream, salsify, sea vegetables
Raw Mackerel radish, purslane, nasturtium
Aged Beef in Charcoal barbecued celeriac, mustard and shallot
‘He has always been incredible when it comes to meat and his sauces were amazing. It was there I really learned how to cook. I did a lot of growing up there.’
Mark, who also won the Roux Scholarship in 2011 as well as being named Cumbria Chef of the Year in 2014, has most recently worked as executive chef of the two Michelin starred L’Enclume in Cartmel, established by Simon Rogan. He was creating food at such a high level, people were travelling from all over the world to eat it. It was during this time he had a three month stint at the three Michelin star El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, which has twice been voted the world’s best restaurant.
‘That was incredible,’ he said. ‘Going from being in charge of L’Enclume to going in at a lower level, I was really able to enjoy it. And take it all in.’
But as Mark was asked to take a more senior role for Simon Rogan, overseeing many of Rogan’s restaurants, it made him realise he wanted his own place.
‘Being executive chef was never really something I wanted to do,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to become one of those chefs who travels around from kitchen to kitchen just checking up on people and overseeing things.
‘It was interesting and they were great guys, but it’s just not me. If I’m going to be doing that sort of job I want it to be for my own businesses.’
Mark has ploughed all of his experience into Moor Hall. Originally a private residence – one gentleman was living in the property when Andy, Tracey and Mark took it on – they have gradually restored and renovated the building. Records of the structure date back to the 12th century but its origins are believed to be much older.
Master suites and other bedrooms have been turned into stunning accommodation with elegantly furnished bathrooms; a former reception room, complete with traditional cast iron stove and cooker, has become part of the new restaurant and all of the interiors have been put together by an expert designer. Staff have come from some of the country’s best restaurants including L’Enclume, Northcote and Les Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
Mark’s menus showcase his own style of modern British cuisine. Local produce plays a strong and ever increasing role on the Moor Hall menus. But he is also keen that some produce will come from the five acre restaurant site.
A large kitchen garden has already been established to the rear of the main building. An old barn, currently being renovated to create a casual dining space, complete with development kitchen, will also have a dairy for cheese making, charcuterie and a butchers. He also hopes to establish a bakery and microbrewery.
Even the plates the dishes are served on are local. They are made by talented ceramic artist Sarah Jerath, based in Parbold, who uses geological materials gathered from quarry hills in northern England to make her stunning pieces. Meat blades rest on old wooden pegs found during the barn renovation.
‘I want the best for the restaurant,’ said Mark. ‘I am very lucky that some of the best is available here. We want to start on our doorstep and work our way out, finding the top producers and suppliers.
‘Getting Moor Hall up and running has been a long time coming. I’ve always had aspirations about opening my own place. No matter how hard you work, you don’t get the recognition if it’s not your name above the door.
‘It feels very exciting to be open now. Now, I’m in my comfort zone and I’m ready to get going and turn Moor Hall into a place where people, both locals and visitors to the area, really want to come to.’
Business partner Andy Bell said: ‘Tracey and I have a passion for restoring historic buildings to their former glory and fell for Moor Hall the moment we saw it. We have known Mark for some years now and the opportunity to buy Moor Hall and create a joint venture, allowing Mark to showcase his unique talent, was an opportunity we couldn’t miss.
‘The restoration and renovation has been a labour of love and the early feedback following the opening of Moor Hall supports what we have long believed – that West Lancashire is ready for a truly world class restaurant with rooms.’