Chef Mark Ellis on his new venture in Tattenhall, Allium
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 June 2017
Mark Ellis, a star of BBC's Great British Menu and head chef at Peckforton Castle for nine years, is now going it alone with a new restaurant in Tattenhall, writes Paul Taylor.
It’s fair to say that after 20 years in his trade, Mark Ellis knows his onions. That most ubiquitous of vegetables even inspires the name of his new venture, Allium in Tattenhall.
Allium, you see, is the genus of plant to which the onion belongs – ‘an explanation of which is emblazoned across the wall of Mark’s new restaurant. Why Allium? To reflect the ‘many layers of the business: trendy bar, really good restaurant, bedrooms upstairs and outside catering,’ says Mark.
The new restaurant – in what was originally the village shop and latterly the 1836 bar restaurant – ‘is an inviting mixture of funkiness and opulence, what with its chandeliers, lime green banquette seating, ornate mirrors and silver animal heads resembling hunting trophies on the wall.
As for the food philosophy, Mark speaks with the fervour of man who, at the age of 36, finally has total freedom to magic up whatever takes his fancy.
‘The whole idea is that we can be as fresh and vibrant as each day will let us be,’ he says. ‘We can literally change the menu at the drop of a hat, change any dish.
‘We have got really precise food, accurate flavour combinations, interesting dishes that may originate anywhere from the back of my imagination to a variation on a dish I may have had as a child growing up on the Wirral.’
That childhood was spent in Parkgate, just 100 yards from the promenade.
‘We didn’t have a lot of money, so food was always very simple and practical, things like egg and chips,’ says Mark. ‘We used to go to my nan’s for a decent meal, and she did a cracking pan of scouse, which is a dish I elaborated on for the Great British Menu.
‘Living on the coast gave me a great appreciation for seafood. One of my first food memories was shelling shrimps with my nan by an open coal fire.’
At 14, Mark got a job washing up at the local pub The Boat House, and when the chef couldn’t make it in one Saturday, he stepped up to prepare food.
After learning more of the trade at the Hinderton Arms, Neston, Mark got a job, aged 18, in the kitchens of the five-star Chester Grosvenor, where Simon Radley has retained a Michelin star for 27 years.
‘Simon was an absolute inspiration,’ says Mark. ‘To this day, he is the most imaginative, technically superb cook I’ve ever worked for or with. He’s incredible to watch; poetry in motion.’
Leaving the Grosvenor as senior sous chef after five years, Mark spent time in various kitchens, including that of Gordon Ramsay (not quite as shouty as you’d imagine, apparently) before heading back to Cheshire for a six-month stint as head chef at Rowton Hall Hotel followed by nine years at Peckforton Castle.
During his time at Peckforton, Mark was headhunted to take part in two series of BBC Two’s Great British Menu, which was ‘a fantastic experience’.
For ten years now, home has been Bunbury, where Mark lives with partner Selina and six-year-old daughter Scarlett.
‘Cheshire is such a beautiful place,’ he says. ‘Delamere Forest is a big favourite with my family; we take our dog walking there.’
Mark is also a big fan of such Cheshire eateries as the Lord Binning and the Royal Oak at Kelsall and the Lord Clyde at Kerridge.
But, for now, the only food establishment he has time for is Allium, which has been made possible with the help of a partner who chooses to remain nameless.
‘What I’m finding is that having your own business, you live and breathe it,’ says Mark. ‘I’ve never worked so hard, so long and for so little money, and I’ve never been so happy.’
Peeling back the layers
The menu at Allium does not mince any words. ‘Cow’ is the title of one dish (sticky treacle plate rib, carrot and horseradish) and another, of slow-cooked pork cheek, is bluntly titled ‘Old Spot Pig Face’.
There are some dextrous technical flashes like the ‘minestrone’ dessert, where ‘pasta’ made from lemon gel swims in a raspberry sauce, or the ‘spice of angels’ conjured from such ingredients as bee pollen and fennel flowers to accompany a sea trout dish.
And then there are cheeky evocations of staples such as mac and cheese, which is elevated with 30-month old parmesan soaked for two days in cream, and the accompaniment of a blow-torched egg yolk. Or how about ‘TFC’: Tattenhall Fried Chicken, a more sophisticated version of a dish you may normally associate with a cardboard bucket. And then there’s ‘Pastilla’, an elegant variation on what Mark confesses is ‘cheese and onion pastie with brown sauce’.
Allium is supporting local farms and suppliers, but Mark adds: ‘We will use international produce if I feel it’s the best thing for the dish.’
One intriguing touch is veg which arrives at your plate fresh from a fire pit.
‘We’ve dug a hole in the garden, lined it with stone, and the root vegetables – beetroot, carrots, celeriac – we will cook underground in charcoal for a couple of hours,’ says Mark. ‘It’s an ancient technique. I’m not aware of anyone else doing that.’ w
Allium by Mark Ellis is at Lynedale House, High Street, Tattenhall, CH3 9PX. 01829 771 477, www.theallium.co.uk