“You have to really want to do it, to commit. Any spare time you have, you have to prepare. ”
Mark Birchall won in 2011, and staged at El Celler de Can Roca, Spain. He is now Chef-Patron Restaurant Moor Hall, Aughton, West Lancashire.
Before launching Moor Hall in 2017 in Aughton, West Lancashire, Mark Birchall spent more than two decades working at various established country hotels and restaurants in England, including L’Enclume in Cumbria and Northcote Manor in Lancashire.
In partnership with Andy and Tracey Bell, Mark acquired the Moor Hall site in 2015, and led the extensive renovation of the historic grade II* listed gentry house of mid-sixteenth century origin, along with the conversion of the barn adjacent and landscaping of the five-acre grounds.
Within six months of opening, the Restaurant at Moor Hall was awarded its first Michelin star, with a second star following in the 2019 Michelin Guide, an accolade it has retained. It also achieved five AA rosettes in the AA Restaurant Guide 2020, and a cooking score of 9/10 in the 2020 Waitrose Good Food Guide. Moor Hall was crowned ‘Restaurant of the Year’ at the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards 2019, ranking #1 of their UK Top 100 Restaurants.
Moor Hall offers seven guest bedrooms, and Mark Birchall’s neighbourhood restaurant, The Barn, is also located in the grounds of Moor Hall.
Mark was born in Chorley, Lancashire and trained at Runshaw College. He won the Roux Scholarship in 2011, his fourth attempt, on his last opportunity to enter within the age limit.
Mark’s menus showcase his own style of modern British cuisine, wherever possible using produce grown and made on the five-acre Moor Hall site or from local suppliers, and reflecting the broad culinary experience he has garnered over the last 20-plus years.
Where did you do your stage?
El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, a three Michelin Star Restaurant owned by Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca. I chose this as it was a relatively new three star and, between the three brothers, there was always a presence in the kitchen, which was important to me. Their ethos, culture and food interested me, and I was given lots of opportunities to dine at other great Spanish restaurants – travelling frequently to Barcelona or further afield.
What is it like to be a Roux Scholar?
For me, it’s the best cooking competition out there, so to win it is just amazing. It’s also been great to have what feels like a family of chefs – a good support network – along the way. I’ve been able to get in touch with the Roux family over the years for bits of advice.
What did you cook in the final?
Veal Orloff, a boned and stuffed rack of veal, served with kidney on skewers, stuffed vegetables and truffle jus. I’d heard of this dish before, Simon Hulstone had done a version in the past, and I felt it showcased a range of techniques and flavours. I remember feeling like I’d done well with the dish in the final, despite making a small mistake initially when butchering the veal. I recall Gary Rhodes, who was judging at the time, telling me to just carry on. Good advice!
How many times did you enter?
A total of four times – I made it to the regionals twice and the final twice. At 29, I knew the fourth was my final attempt and I worked tirelessly in the run up to it. I don’t think I had a day off in the six weeks prior, I just spend time honing my skills and preparing.
What do you remember most about the competition the year you won?
Of course I felt under pressure given this was my last chance to enter, but I also remember a feeling of confidence –it was in no way arrogance but I felt I’d learnt a lot along the way from previous attempts and, as I mentioned, I’d really persevered and practiced.
What advice would you give applicants?
You have to really want to do it, to commit. Any spare time you have, you have to prepare. You also want to make sure it’s an original dish for the online entry, and spend time perfecting the taste, seasoning, techniques – be it moussing, poaching, whatever. In the final, there’s no point in trying to cook lots of different dishes, it won’t give you the practice you need – stick to techniques.
Who are your culinary heroes?
Nigel Haworth has had a huge influence on me, I really learnt from him about regional cooking and sourcing local produce – what it does for the food you cook as well as the local community. I really enjoyed working for Nigel. He was the best sauce cook and taught me great butchery skills. I suppose I have been fortunate, everywhere I’ve worked I’ve taken something on board and have been lucky to spend time surrounded by exceptional chefs. I spent nine years at L’Enclume and it was a massive part of my life and career, almost a third of my life when I left. Winning the Roux Scholarship was a big turning point, having the support of the Roux family and giving me the opportunity to spend time at El Celler de Can Roca. Alain Roux tended to do the Northern part of the regionals, so was always a welcome and familiar face, and it was nice to see Albert and Michel in the finals each time too. I recall Albert giving me a pat on the back the first time I made it into the final, and now he’s eaten here at Moor Hall a few times which is brilliant, he’s always been really supportive of what we do here. The Roca brothers are also amazing people, extremely warm and welcoming and I’m still in touch with them today.
Tell us about your career highlights?
We’ve had such an incredible journey so far, and Moor Hall retaining two Michelin stars and five AA Rosettes; being crowned ‘National Restaurant of the Year’ at Restaurant Magazine’s Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards and receiving a #5 ranking and 9/10 cooking score in the Waitrose Good Food Guide are all notable highlights. Our goal remains the same as when we set out. Working to improve the guest experience at Moor Hall is our biggest priority, and I don’t believe you can ever stop making something better. Being at Moor Hall is not just about a plate of food, it’s about how we make you feel when you are here, how you feel when you leave, the feeling that you are getting something unique.