The former TV chef behind Manchester's most exciting new restaurant talks shop and why we should all be eating cockles on a Friday
Former TV chef Ed Baines is co-owner of Randall & Aubin, an Anglo-French brasserie and oyster bar which first launched in an old Edwardian butcher's shop in Soho in 1996 and quickly became an institution. Over twenty years later and Ed and co. have just launched a second restaurant on Manchester's Bridge Street.
Here Confidential food writer Deanna Thomas asks what took them so long...
So how come it has taken 20 years to open a second restaurant?
EB: "After eighteen years of trading, Jamie (co-owner Jamie Poulton) and I have had to turn so many people away in Soho, we realised we needed to do another restaurant. We wondered whether we should open another branch in London, but hey, that would be too easy. Also, you don't necessarily want to repeat the same product in the same city, as there’ll always be comparisons with one against the other. It’d be too difficult to emulate what we’ve done over over in Soho because there are so many unique things that make it what it is."
So why Manchester?
EB: "Randall & Aubin is a global brand, so we looked internationally; Stockholm, Istanbul, Lisbon, Mauritius, Ibiza – all in the name of research, of course. We realised it was going to be tricky going from a national to an international company. We travelled around the UK and on the list was Manchester."
'Manchester has the strongest identity of anywhere we’d been and I felt that very quickly"
Have you spent much time here before?
EB: "I used to come up here twice a week and do TV shows and have a bit of a knees up, but I hadn’t come up here for a while. So three of us headed up on the train and within about four or five minutes of leaving Piccadilly, I just got it straight away. We hadn’t even gone anywhere. We walked over the bridge, heading across town and I just knew.
"It was about how friendly the people are; they're more down to earth and I got that. I’m always accused of being blunt or to the point, so it made sense. Manchester has the strongest identity of anywhere we’d been and I felt that very quickly. Sometimes you go to places in the world and you feel at home. Then when we started looking more into the city, it was like, wow, we’ve got this right. There’s a great scene here. It’s a globally renowned city."
Were you encouraged by so many other London brands opening up here?
EB: "*sighs* I never follow trends, I’m one of those buffoons that likes to think he makes trends. At that point it was about emotion, about a feeling and that’s what restaurants are about anyway. For me it was the vibe. For Jamie it was probably backed up by actual research, he’s a bit more thorough than I am.
"Randall & Aubin has always been a company with a foundation of honesty and integrity. It’s never been a case of oh look what Manchester can do for us. It was more about how can we become involved with Manchester; with employment, with training; to understand what this brand gives to the people that work with us, as we’re learning from them."
Fish restaurants tend to struggle in Manchester. Are you concerned?
EB: "We specialise in fish, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we are a fish restaurant, we also have a bloody great big rotisserie in the kitchen which chucks out the heat and roasts everything on it. You taste a roast chicken from there and it’s like nothing else. It was always a great tradition to eat fish in Manchester. All the working men’s clubs served fish on Fridays; cockles, mussels and it got killed off. I don’t know why but it’s time it came back."
Aah, but seafood wasn’t a luxury product in those days.
EB: "You can have half a pint of pink prawns for £6.75 here, so that’s not exactly luxury. I was feeling very tired earlier and I just decked half a dozen oysters and it’s brought me back round."
"I’ve got this idea for a kind of rich-man-poor-man dish with a pie on one side and a fillet steak on the other"
How will Manchester differ from Soho branch?
EB: "I don’t know yet. The menus are different, but it has to be a work in progress – I’m not a believer in saying this is what I have written, like it or leave it. We listen to feedback as we always have done. It has taken us five days to create this menu. It’s a bit more meaty. R&A specialises in seafood, but it’s not a seafood restaurant, it’s a brasserie. This is classical Anglo-French cooking. The kitchen team had the shock of their lives when they realised that we make everything here.
"For winter we’re definitely going to have some pies in there. I’ve got this idea for a kind of rich-man-poor-man dish with a pie on one side and a fillet steak on the other. The essence of the menu and the soul of the company is 'everything for everyone' and we’ll always stand by that."
What? Wait. So it's not all about knocking back raw oysters, Champagne and caviar?
EB: "The sausages are great here, we do a roasted apple sauce and a nice onion gravy. On Sundays we’ll have a beautiful prime rib, but with lovely French sauces. The menu is not all high brow and fancy or overly expensive. For £10.95 you can come in and have a huge bowl of moules marinere with artisan bread. We also do a great fish pie for £11.50."
"We have a real party in here, you know. We really kick off..."
What's your speciality?
EB: "Randall & Aubin’s signature dish has to be the magnificent platter of fruits de mer (£42.50 per head, minimum 2 people) that’s the thing to have when you want to spoil yourself. But for me, spit roast chicken and chips (£10.50) and a glass of that 1936 Swiss beer will probably be my last supper."
Tell us about some of your produce
EB: "We get our fin de Claire oysters from North West France, English rock oysters come from Jersey and we get Irish oysters. The native oysters are coming from Holland at the moment, but we’re coming to the end of them. Lamb comes from the flat lands of Suffolk with very rich grass. Our pork also comes from Suffolk – they run around on the beach to get nice and lean and very clean. All our aged beef comes from one farmer in Scotland. Amazing beef - all four year old male cattle hung for 28 days.
"I know where everything comes from; whelks from Kent, Morcambe Bay shrimps. Crabs come from Dorset mostly but now and again from Cornwall because they’re really sweet down there. The specials that we do come from Fleetwood. Virually everything on the menu is British. We focus as much as we can on local ingredients, if they're good. But if something is better elsewhere then that’s where we’ll get it from."
It's a slightly unusual layout with the kitchen right at the front. Was that dictated by you or the building?
Eb: "The building would have dictated that we have the kitchen at the back. We have a seafood display in the window and here it's raised – that’s the engine of the restaurant, so why stick it at the back or underneath? It’s what we do.
"Although we have given the so-called Champagne and caviar bit at the front a name, we never say no. Champagne shmampagne – if you want to sit at the front and have bangers and mash and a beer then you can. We’re not uptight people. Hospitality is not something that happens to you, it’s something that happens for you. The only place I think we wouldn’t want to serve someone is in the loo.
What else can Manchester expect from Randall and Aubin?
EB: "I think there’s everything for everyone, but the thing about R&A is that it does things differently. It’s a lifestyle restaurant. We have a real party in here, you know. We really kick off – which is why we have a massive mirror ball in here.
"It’s about coming out to eat, but it’s also about being entertained, enjoying yourself and having fun. Every single thing we do, we try and have fun. It’s not about the atmosphere over the food; everything has got to be right. We don’t want people to leave when the music stops and we want to be able to do that every night of the week. Jamie and I have managed to do that for the past twenty years and we’re doing it better now than ever before. That’s what it’s all about - coming in feeling relaxed, eating, drinking and having a good time. It’s the whole lot.
"A good restaurant is 40% service, 30% ambience and 30% food, but each one of those has got to be 100%. My job is to make what I do memorable; when you eat something that I’ve cooked or created, I want you to remember it and then I’ve succeeded. Chuck in some music, chuck in some booze and then you know you’ve had a special night."