Talking sustainability and Manchester with Lowry Chef Dave Ashton

Dave Ashton is the Executive Head Chef at The Lowry Hotel, including the newly redesigned River Restaurant & Bar. Jo Littlefair spoke to him about sustainability, the aspects of the role he loves the most and the Manchester food scene.

Did you always want to be a chef?

I had no interest in becoming a chef when I was younger. My mum was a pastry chef and two of my grandparents were also really good chefs. I played semi-professional football and studied sports science at college, but after I got injured and couldn’t play anymore I started working in a kitchen and I loved it.

Being a chef is a really involved lifestyle, how do you find the demands of the job?

It’s unsociable and long hours but being in the kitchen with people who have similar beliefs and are willing to push hard to create new and exciting dishes makes it not feel like work; it’s like being in the pub with your mates. Time flies and a long day can feel like 10 minutes.

What qualities are needed in a successful chef?

Passion, creativity and work ethic – you’ve got to be able to work between 95-100 hours a week. You’re absolutely knackered but the adrenaline and love for the job keeps you going.

Do you pay attention to the latest food trends?

It’s very important to watch what’s going on out there. If you’re not watching for the latest trends, you’ll end up being miles behind. There was a big emphasis on Nordic cuisine recently and that was based on what people could forage and preserve. That inspired different techniques for preserving ingredients and we see a lot of fermentation of products as a result. That’s also tied into the gut health trend so it’s interesting when trends collide like that. 

What do you enjoy about your role as Executive Head Chef at The Lowry Hotel and the River Restaurant & Bar?

I’ve never been one to work somewhere that’s very head office driven, where I can’t create and input processes and ideas. I can source the ingredients I want and I’m not tied into any suppliers. I’ve been given the tools and go out there and deliver absolute quality and that’s what I love about this role.

How does your philosophy fit with the restaurant’s?

It’s bang on with what we’re trying to achieve here. The owners and Adrian, the General Manager, had a vision of what they wanted and I fit quite naturally with that. I focus on seasonal ingredients, British food and modern techniques. It’s all those aspects in conjunction – the menu is classed as British, modern, vibrant, colourful and always with a focus on flavours.

Are the clientele at the River Restaurant mainly locals or hotel guests?

It’s roughly a 50/50 split of hotel guests and local people coming in to eat. There’s been so much good feedback and good reviews online, it’s been amazing.

Tell us about one of the River Restaurant’s signature dishes

The Lowry Gin is a dessert made with lemon mousse, tonic gel and cucumber ice. We cook lemon peel for 24 hours at a low temperature and then mix it with mint to make a confit of lemon, before setting it in a lemon-shaped mould. We turn tonic into a gel and that forms the centre of the dish, which oozes out when you slice into it. We spray the mousse with a lemon cocoa butter and textured gold powder that creates the dimples that make it look like a real lemon. And the cucumber ice is made in liquid nitrogen.

What’s the food scene in Manchester like?

The food scene is getting bigger and bigger. It’s very price driven and it’s growing quickly so it can be a difficult place to be. Manchester got its first Michelin star in 2019. It’s great for the city and not having one has long been a bugbear. Hopefully this will keep driving everyone towards getting more.

We’re increasingly hearing about sustainability. Is it important to you?

Sustainability has been important for a long time and it’s something I really believe in. It used to be an added benefit and now it’s expected in the industry. Everyone has been tasked to be more sustainable and cautious with waste.

At the River Restaurant, we’ve kept and refurbished elements in the new design. The old oak doors have been turned into steak knife holders and the original bar, which was built 20 years ago, has been used to create serving boards for the bar.

We choose our suppliers carefully. A few of our local producers are working to promote the wellness of bees. One example is the Brindle Distillery, who make Cuckoo Gin. It’s a longstanding farm with a new generation of people coming through. They’re really ethical, make their own gin from scratch and have their own hives. Another is the producer of Wignoll’s Yellow rapeseed oil. They’ve built their own hives and are working to protect the bee population. Local farms are noting better growth and yields because of the increase in the bee population as a result of what they do.

Are there any ingredients you dislike?

New potatoes and celery bore the life out of me but I do use celery in sauces and braises because it works well. At Christmas I have to taste the sprouts to make sure they’re perfectly cooked but I’m not a fan. 

Any favourite restaurants?

I’ve been to Moor Hall in Lancashire a few times. It’s a two-Michelin-starred restaurant and the food is unbelievably good. There was also the 16-seat Ume Zushi in the railway arches close to Victoria Station in Manchester but that has now closed. The quality of ingredients was incredible, the raw scallops and Wagyu beef in particular. Hopefully they’ll be reopening somewhere else.