Five minutes with... Chris Leach

After opening in January, restaurant Manteca has had a tough year. Emma Henderson speaks to the chef and co-founder about pig heads, his Italian small plates and lockdown

Friday 06 November 2020 16:21
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Italian manteca-chris-chef-indyeats.jpg

How would you describe your cooking style?

Hand-rolled pasta, nose-to-tail cooking and fire-cooked cuts.

You previously worked at Petersham Nurseries – how did that experience help you when it came to opening Manteca?

It was great to be part of a big opening and definitely taught me how to manage people and large teams.  

Manteca is Italian-inspired plates – where did the idea come from?

I’ve always loved Italy and Italian food and knew this was what I wanted to cook. 

I love that there is such a broad spectrum of regional styles across the country that you can draw from – the breads, the pastas, cooking with pork and other meat. 

Fresh pasta galore from Manteca

I’ve then incorporated other influences from what I’ve learnt in various kitchens over the years, like live-fire cooking from Pitt Cue.  

Who or where do you look to for inspiration?

I wouldn’t say that one person in particular inspired me but I try and eat out quite a lot, read a lot of cookbooks and follow the food scene in and outside of London. Looking at classic Italian recipes and then seeing how I can put a spin on them is the way a lot of my dishes are developed.  

The restaurant is very central, was the location very important to you?

Before Covid we were always open to different locations and when the Great Marlborough Street site came around, it felt like the natural next step after our 10 Heddon Street residency.  

How did closing during lockdown affect you, and how hard is it remaining opening with all the new rules?

Lockdown was tough and being in central London, I didn’t feel there was a way to pivot in quite the same way that other restaurants in the neighbourhood areas were able to. 

Since re-opening after lockdown, central London is definitely not as busy as it once was and we’ve suffered from not having an after-work crowd, particularly on a Thursday and Friday. 

The 10pm curfew was another blow that has affected us much more being in Soho as people aren’t so inclined to make the journey into town after working from home.  

Since Eat Out To Help Out in August, you extended deals into September – how did this go?

Eat Out To Help Out took us by surprise in terms of how popular it was and how much desire there was post-lockdown for people to dine out and enjoy the restaurant experience. 

It was a great initiative that gave us, and other restaurants, confidence and hope after a few low months where our doors were closed. 

The restaurant opened at the start of 2020

We didn’t replicate the scheme exactly but recognised that it seemed to be a model that worked and so adapted it by creating a £10 menu every Monday to Wednesday at Manteca throughout September. 

We are still continuing with that £10 menu, but now for early dinners and lunches.  

Who taught you to cook?

My mum loves cooking and we always had home-cooked food when we were growing up but nobody taught me to cook Italian food specifically. 

I’ve been lucky enough to work in lots of different kitchens with some brilliant chefs so have learnt a lot from those around me.  

What’s your best cooking tip for budding chefs?

Keep a notebook and write down everything, good and bad, all your recipes and ideas. 

Salumi and focaccia at Manteca

I have found that really helpful and you can use it to track your personal development. 

I still look back at notes I’ve written 10 years ago. 

Also, don’t be shy of asking questions, try to learn as much as possible from the people around you.  

Manteca follows a nose-to-tail philosophy and serves dishes like pig head – how have customers reacted to this?

Pretty well! We use a lot of offal and nose-to-tail cooking but we use it in a way that’s approachable – the pig tail ragu is always a sell-out when it’s on the menu.  

Is the ‘nduja mussels the most popular dish on your menu?

No it’s actually not, although people do love it! The most popular are the tonnarelli; brown crab cacio e pepe; and the pappardelle with ox cheek ragu.  

What’s your desert island cookbook?

Made in Italy by Giorgio Locatelli.

Aside from your own restaurant, where’s your favourite place to eat in London, and outside the city?

Kiln, Quality Chop House, St John, SMOKESTAK in London. Sosban and The Old Butchers in Wales. Further afield, Santo Palato in Rome.  

What’s your go-to comfort food?

Spaghetti pomodoro.

What’s next for you in 2020, or more likely 2021?

Covid has meant we can’t plan too far ahead at the moment as things are continually changing. We had an exciting collaboration with Supa Ya Ramen on 15 November, where all our proceeds were going to Magic Breakfast (which provides healthy breakfasts for school children), but that’s been cancelled because of the second lockdown. And hopefully, we will also be doing Manteca Christmas provisions boxes for December. 

Once restrictions are lifted and when we’re on the other side of the virus, we can start planning for some bigger things in the future.

Chris Leach is the head chef and co-founder of Manteca restaurant: 58-59 Great Marlborough St, Soho, London W1F 7JY

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