'I struggle to imagine what would persuade me to open a more traditionally structured restaurant'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Eddie Shepherd's restaurant concept has always been ahead of its time. He learned what many gleaned in the past year and a half  - that the traditional bricks and mortar is not all guests seek in a restaurant experience - almost a decade ago.

"I call it an underground restaurant," explained the chef owner of The Walled Gardens in Manchester, our latest interviewee on The Grilled podcast, "because I think it's important for guests to know that it is slightly different to a restaurant," and certainly one of the few such experiences with a chef cooking such a high calibre of food in his own home.

"Equally, it's a long way from being a more casual concept like people do in supper clubs. It's formalised, it's set open days, hours, food hygiene inspected and insured and I've got my licence to distill here..." 

"It's just a little off kilter from a normal restaurant." 

His particular take on modern gastronomy, borne from a sense of creativity that was restricted in a classic restaurant setting, has allowed him to flourish in his individuality. 

No matter what you want to cook and whether that involves tending to your beehives and raised beds, vaccum distillation, or dissolving raw ingredients in alkaline solutions to increase their nutritional value, Eddie's story is proof that there are many routes to being a great chef, and none less conducive to success if you set your own parameters. 

Formalised private dining before its time

Eddie never aimed to go down this route, he explained: "It sounds more thought through and I can retroactively edit how I ended up here," but approaching the two decade mark of being a plant-based chef, he had to take a singular route in order to push boundaries.

In traditional restaurants, especially twenty years ago "you start to look around and think, 'where's the next restaurant I go to to learn to get to the next level.' With plant-based food, you reached that point relatively quickly, where there aren't a lot of options for someone else to go to." 

"Early on in my career I realised that if I wanted to learn new stuff, it was going to have to be self-generated to a large extent. I was going to have to put time into trying stuff myself," which led him to all manner of dish development, contributing to multiple cookbooks, and ultimately to open his own restaurant. 

"I got about six months into that and I was like, 'oh, this is exactly what I should be doing. It's all the stuff that I love about food and most of the stuff that I loved about restaurants." 

The pros and cons

Eddie wouldn't do anything differently given the opportunity. He has settled in so well to his life, experimenting in his back garden, cooking the food he loves for people who book months in advance to taste it, doing great takeovers at places like Where The Light Gets In with chef Sam Buckley and at Fraiche with Marc Wilkinson, travelling (when this was possible) the world, that it is hard for Eddie to imagine ever wanting to go back.

"I would never say never, but I struggle to imagine what would persuade me to open a more traditionally structured restaurant because at the moment I feel like I get everything that I need out of this.

"I get all of the creative freedom I could want, I'm fully booked until 2022 so I don't have to worry about bookings, I'm in my own space - there are upsides and downsides to this - but you can literally get up and start in the kitchen and work until you go to sleep," which, he hastened to add, "is not always what I do and it wouldn't be healthy to always work like that, but you can." 

"If you're creatively interested in something, anytime of the day I could be like, 'oh I'm going to try that, I'm going to get the rotovap running.'" 

His set up is as enviable as some of the country's most prestigious restaurants, with all the gadgets and paraphernalia he might want.

"I love cooking, it's why I wanted to get into it, and doing what I do this way, I really am immersed in it and living in it at all times which 99 percent of the time I really love." 

Listening to him talk about the downsides, it's hard to tell the difference between the grievances of most chefs, and certainly compared to anyone who owns a business. 

"Of course there's the stress and there's long hours and prep and all the stuff that you associate with professional cooking, but there's so much other stuff that I get so much enjoyment out of that  I can't imagine how I would now translate that into a bricks and mortar place and I don't know what advantages I would necessarily get." 

"When I've thought about it, I think it would largely come down to my ego if I wanted to do that - it would be easier to communicate what you are with a normal bricks and mortar restaurant and set out the stall, but I don't think I'd be any happier with it." 

Accolades and Guides  

Though recently listed as one of the Observer Food Monthly's '20 of The UK's Best Restaurants' Eddie has of course had to withold expectations of receiving awards and accolades, at least from the more traditional purveyors.

"It's not something that I focus on particularly," he said. "It's been an advantage in a way to be under the radar for a number of years. It is a bit less so now, but compared to restaurants doing similar food, it's a bit under the radar." 

"I don't know if it would get inspected by some of the restaurant awards or something like that, they might just be, 'well this is not what we think of as a restaurant so it would be nuts for me to focus too much on any of that stuff.'" 

"That said, it's still nice when you get any kind of positive feedback."

May it come in the form of media coverage or compliments from guests, "sometimes you need that boost if you're having a difficult day or a difficult month - but probably best not to rely on it." 

Going solo post-pandemic

But beyond the - let's face it, sometimes necessary - ego boost chefs and restaurateurs get from receiving awards, Eddie has many other measures of success, namely the recognition and support from other chefs. 

"We're starting to see a little change on this inside the industry," he said. "More now than when I started out, chefs and other restaurants are shouting out good stuff or trying to support each other and turn people onto other interesting stuff in a way that I'm not saying didn't exist before but it feels like that is growing a bit more." 

"Everyone has been united across the industry at having a horrible time and as you come out of that, how could you want anything other than for the other people that do work in and are passionate about the same thing that you are to be doing well." 

"It's a lovely position to be in," to have, he said gesturing air quotes, "job security."

Though it has been a long road to get to the point he is at, he said, hopefully it shows "that there isn't just one way of doing things. You can be out on a limb doing your own thing and be a bit outside the normal workings of things and still make it work. It can work really well." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 1st September 2021

'I struggle to imagine what would persuade me to open a more traditionally structured restaurant'