It’s telling, isn’t it, that a month after Manchester’s Michelin Meltdown (‘what? No stars? We deserve it. We were on telly and everything…’) Oxton’s Fraiche quietly keeps its star, and goes on to win Best Restaurant in the UK in the Sunday Times’ list.
Now, we’re not ones for lists compiled by national newspapers who, on their dining pages devote 100% of the coverage to London restaurants. But still, the paper’s yearly review of the country’s entire dining landscape is well-regarded – a decent enough bellwether for Britain’s faddy food scene.
In crowning Marc Wilkinson’s trim Oxton restaurant, the Times gushed the chef-patron “has done for Merseyside cuisine what the Beatles did for its music.”
“This is big for us,” Wilkinson tells SevenStreets in his tiny kitchen. As we talk, he slices and dices dough into delicate rolls, dips them in poppy seeds and some diaphanous other substance. Pixies’ hair, possibly. And he’s doing this while not looking. Not really. And they look amazing.
He’s here, alone, Wednesday to Saturday, every week. Creating perfect expressions of one man’s deep, almost forensic passion for food.
“It’s funny,” he reflects, “I only got into this business for a job. We never had cookbooks in our home when I was growing up. Just shows you. You never know what path your life’s gonna take…”
It was the 80s TV show, ‘Take Six Cooks’ – featuring rising cheffy superstars Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc that first made a young Wilkinson realise there might be more to his Saturday job than he thought.
But what about Manchester, we mull?
“The TV show did for them,” Wilkinson suggests. “They’d hate things like that, Michelin. They’re getting far pickier. They hate it when they see restaurants openly court them.”
Not so for Wilkinson, who quietly goes about his breathless one-man-band business. No PR. No cookbooks (“well, that’s not quite true. I do have one e-book,” he says, modestly). No pop-up sideshows. Nothing but the food.
But that’s all you need to beat Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons into second place, and Cumbria’s divine L’Enclume in Cumbria into third.
“It’s good when you do it all yourself,” he says. “You know that, when success finally comes, you can really take the credit.”
With his ten-diners-a-night operation booked-up until next Spring, Wilkinson can be assured: those stupid-hour shifts and that ruthless attention to every little detail has paid off, and some.
“Am I a control freak? Probably,” laughs Candice Fonseca. “Take these chairs, this place, I sort of did it all. And, yes, probably I should have got someone in…”
We’re sitting on reconditioned cinema seats, in the basement cocktail bar of her original – Stanley Street HQ. There’s a slinky new cocktail menu we’re eyeing up, but for now, it’s all eyes on Candice’s Dockside venue. This week’s Independent Retailer of the Year award recognises what we’ve all known since Delifonseca 2 opened up a few years back: this is a serious shrine to the best local (and regional) produce. And the natural next step for the woman that brought Liverpool’s deli scene kicking and screaming into the modern world.
“I have a fantastic team that spend every day working hard to spread the word of great food and equally good service. I’m really proud of them all,” says Fonseca, “but yes, I do tend to get involved with everything…”
And why wouldn’t she? It was Candice’s dogged determination that made Delifonseca such as surefooted success.
“Food has always meant everything to me. My family are Portuguese, and we travelled a lot,” she says, “and that continued with my job (Candice worked in TV production before Deli duties came calling). So when I came to Liverpool I always thought Liverpool and Glasgow were soul partners, with a similar social history and economy, but that Glasgow’s Great Western Road had more interesting delis and restaurants in its single stretch than Liverpool had in the entire city.”
This massive, gaping chasm where the city’s serious gastro-bistro-deli offer should have been was immediately obvious. But, Candice admits, it wasn’t to everyone:
“In Liverpool, back then, people thought that ‘delis’ were just butty bars – places to grab a sandwich and a mug of tea. But I stuck to my guns…” she says, recalling that, when Delifonseca opened, there was only one supermarket in the city centre.
“Yes, there was definitely a period of readjustment! People didn’t really know what to make of us…”
We do now. And it’s great to see the rest of the country does too.
With the Everyman clinching the Stirling Prize, it’s been quite a week for Merseyside: and proof that a singular vision, steely determination and tens of thousands of hours’ hard graft can bring its own rewards.
That, maybe, is the message here. You can play to the crowd all you want, hustle and beg for twitter likes and Facebook approval, and post ‘isn’t Liverpool beautiful’ pictures of Albert Dock sunsets to your hearts’ content.
But there’s no shortcut to greatness. No substitute for sweat. In the end, it’s about talent. It’s always been about talent. That, too, makes us happy.
Massive congratulations to all. Next week?