There was probably not a more cosmopolitan table anywhere.
Of the 22 gathered around us there were two sous chefs from the kitchen of Taiwanese chef Lansu Chen from Le Moût restaurant in Taichung. There was Diego Hernāndez, the talented chef from Corazón de Tierra restaurant in the Guadalupe Valley of Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico, plus his two culinary assistants. Opposite us were two Persian sisters (the adjective is theirs) who run LuxePrivé, the upmarket travel agency based, not surprisingly, in London's Kensington. And at the other end of the table sat Peter Templehoff, the renowned executive chef in Liz McGrath's exclusive hotel collection in South Africa and his sous chef.
If there such a cosmopolitan table were to be found anywhere, it was unlikely to have gathered anywhere more unlikely.
This was a Sunday evening in Northcote, the 26-bedroom hotel that is located half an hour's drive from Preston on the edge of the windswept North Lancashire moors. With 80 other guests, we were here for two reasons. The first was that this Sunday evening marked the halfway point in Northcote 2016 Obsession which, in the 16th year of its successful run, had brought 16 of the world's top chefs to this part of the world as each of them cooked a five-course dinner on 16 successive nights. And secondly because tonight's dinner was being cooked by chef Hideako Matsuo, the three-star Michelin chef from Kashiwya restaurant in Osaka, Japan, the first such chef to have accepted Northcote's invitation. (His business card describes him as a 'Proprietor/Grand Chef'.)
I was sitting next to Jancis on whose left was Templehoff and their conversation ranged widely from the state of South African wine (underappreciated) to the difference in game between the UK and that of his own country, as well as the challenges his pastry chef had encountered because of textural differences in the thickness of cream in Britain and South Africa. On my right was Kaye Mathew, Northcote's marketing director, who has been responsible for Obsession, alongside managing director Craig Bancroft and chef Nigel Haworth since it first saw the light of day. The payback is that she has to sit through every dinner, every year.
Obsession began 17 years ago when Haworth had been invited to Carmel, California, to take part in a then-uncommon gathering of top chefs that included Alice Waters, Thomas Keller and the late Charlie Trotter. He came back intrigued by the possibility of starting something similar in the UK.
The Northcote Manor Food and Wine Festival began quietly with Haworth alongside chefs Nick Nairn and Philip Howard, soon to be joined by Terry Laybourne. It then took on the name 'Bravura' for a little while before someone in the hotel's design agency decided that as Haworth is obsessed with food (and Blackburn Rovers), Obsession would be a more suitable name. It is a good name and one that has stuck.
There was a touch of wistfulness in Mathew's voice as she talked about the formative years when, like the start of so many ventures, much had been done on a wing and a prayer. Financially, the first few years had not proven too successful – the restaurant had even stayed open for its normal lunch service while the overseas chefs cooked in the evening – but that had changed for the better as Obsession had grown. But with this, and the increasing reliance on sponsors, has come added extra complexity. 'You've no idea how often top chefs change their travel plans', Mathew sighed before turning to listen to Bancroft's welcome speech.
This ended with reference to Obsession's many sponsors but there is no doubt that none of these dinners would happen without Bancroft and Haworth's distinctive hard work. I have seen Bancroft sit down only once, when I interviewed him last year in Manchester. Otherwise he is a man in perpetual motion. And as he is also responsible for the hotel's wine service, he chooses wine pairings for every single course, totalling 80 different wines during a very busy fortnight.
Haworth is a chef whom it is hard not to like and admire. Big and burly – he seemed to tower over the Japanese chefs as they came in for their fully justified round of applause after dinner – he has lost neither his local accent nor the connection to his roots. Bancroft and Howarth have been at the helm of Northcote Manor, and the five pubs they have subsequently taken over (see Nick's 2007 review of The Highwayman ), for 30 years and there is still an omelette stuffed with Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese, black pudding from R S Ireland and white bread fried in bacon dripping on their breakfast menu.
It was this element that proved so similar to the meal Matsuo delivered. It could never be as authentic as the food served in his own restaurant – here he was serving for 103 as opposed to the maximum 60 in Osaka where the offer of bread rolls is unlikely to take place – but it felt very Japanese nonetheless. A meal that was full of Japanese flavours.
We began with a dish that evoked this nation's obsession with the seasons. 'Looking Toward Spring' was a seemingly simple dish, served in a glass bowl, of a thin, creamy soup of clams, to denote the melting snow, out of which appeared sliced clams topped with green mizuna vegetables, to denote the first signs of spring. With this was served a glass of Grace Vineyard's Kayagatake Koshu 2014 from Yamanashi prefecture.
There then followed the most complex dish entitled 'Steps for Spring', comprising five different elements that from left to right showed the steps from winter to spring (pictured above). These incorporated the pink flesh of salmon wrapped in the white of cod; a sandwich of Camembert and Japanese mustard (surprisingly successful); crab meat wrapped in yuba, a derivative of soy beans; shrimp with karasumi, the dried eggs of mullet; and, finally, representing spring with the colours of yellow and green, there was murasame, a cake made from grated egg yolk and egg white, the whole given extra flavour via the addition of fermented soy bean. With this was served a glass of 2012 Woodcutter's Semillon from Torbreck, South Australia.
There then followed two very different courses. The first was a rendition of a lobster dish that is normally served in a dish with a lid. Here, for practical reasons, the crawfish was presented in transparent paper tied with a knot that, as it had been tightly sealed, slightly overcooked the main ingredient. But it was fun to unwrap and was served with a stunning glass of Saint-Péray 2010 from Domaine du Tunnel.
This was followed by a what can best be described as a 'three-star Michelin Japanese dish', slices of Challans duck, softened via a stay in a soup of soy, sake and sugar, alongside a square of 'steamed carrot', made from minced cod and carrot. The Japanese element came from a large smear of green sansho-pepper paste on the plate that gave everyone's palate a jolt. With this, Bancroft cleverly served a 2013 Pinot Noir from 'Wild Boy' Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat in California.
Finally, alongside a glass of sparkling sake Ninki Ichi, from J Ginjo came an appetising dessert, a milk paste topped with apple compote, fresh blood orange and a honey jelly made from Northcote honey. This was followed by plates of mini-Eccles cakes straight from the oven.
Obsession has been a great success, drawing in chefs and customers from far and wide. The final word should rest with Hideaki Matsuo who, speaking through an interpreter, explained that the warmth of all those he had encountered in the kitchen had more than made up for the cold weather outside.
Northcote Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn, Lancashire BB6 8BE; tel +44 (0)1254 240 555
Kashiwaya 2-5-18 Senriyama-nishi, Suita-shi, 565-0851, Osaka, Japan; tel +81 06 63 86 22 34