The chef patron of Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In speaks to Port about foraging, fermenting, and the importance of community gardens
Sam Buckley caught my eye. Or more to the point, Stockport did. As a Northerner I say this kindly but honestly: who goes to Stockport? Well soon me, now that I know Where The Light Gets In is there. I find out during our Zoom call that Buckley is as surprised as anyone that he opened a restaurant in his hometown, but happy that he did. Stockport is keeping him busy. In addition to overseeing Where The Light Gets In, which has had enormous success since it opened four years ago, he’s also set up The Landing, a community garden which will supply the restaurant as well as host workshops and residencies to open up conversations around food and the environment. During the lockdowns, the restaurant transformed itself into a production house named the Pickle Factory to provide the local community with organic food and supported Eat Well MCR, a Manchester programme set up in response to COVID to deliver food to frontline NHS workers as well as the most vulnerable in society. Now England is opening up again so is WTLGI, and with even stronger plans to stay creative, support the community, and share good food with others.
I caught up with Buckley to speak about his next plans for the restaurant and how he thinks the global pandemic could have a positive effect on hospitality.
When did you first know that you wanted to follow a career in food?
I guess when I left school. I went to art school and I was studying Art and English Literature and I had a part time job in the local tapas restaurant, as everybody does. I slowly started to find that more stimulating than the course and the art I was creating at college. But it was like, if I’m gonna do this then I’m probably going to want my own restaurant and then you just imagine yourself being there.
So you knew quite early on that having your own place would be the goal?
Yeah. I think I probably had an ambitious nature so anything that I wanted to do, and I’m the same now, it’s just like I just wanna do the hell out of it. That’s probably what also got me out, because I got out of cooking too, this idea that if I was going to be a cook then I wanted to have my own restaurant and do my own thing. But I thought, actually you know what, that’s just too involved. I looked at my first boss and he’d not been on holiday for like 20 years and I looked at the hours I was doing and I was getting towards my 20s and I just wanted to be out with my friends. And the drudgery of it all, the sort of over exaggerated work ethic and demand for a plate of food and what was going on in those kitchens at that time, you know, the racism and the misogyny and the sort of tribal aspect. It was just like I can’t, I can’t sustain this. I was attracted back into cooking because I thought it was getting more intelligent and I thought was getting more conscious of its environment. And it is and it continues to do so. I don’t think it’s coming from the big restaurants and places like that though because they’re very heavily charged by PR. But these little neighborhood restaurants that are just like, firing out great food, changing the menu all time, and the teams seem to be really tight together, hopefully I put us in that bracket as well.
And why did you open in Stockport? Are you from Stockport?
Yeah I am, and I escaped Stockport and Manchester as quickly as I could and I never really intended to go back. Certainly not to Stockport. I moved to Manchester when I was like 17 or 18 and then from there I lived in Greece and in Italy and I lived over in Asia for a bit. And I never meant to open a restaurant here. But I got back to Manchester and I started to look around at areas and I just thought, I didn’t wanna get trapped by hype and I didn’t wanna get trapped by, I don’t know how to explain it, I just feel like Manchester’s very gilded. It’s gilded, it’s glossed and it picks up bad habits from London.
Yeah everything’s usually in London isn’t it but the northern cities have a lot to offer too I think.
Yeah, we need to make things happen up here, don’t we? But Stockport for me, well in fact it was actually the building I was drawn to. The building is this old, broken warehouse and you have to go down this shitty alley and up these dark stairs to get there. But I quickly realised this space, I would never be able to get that anywhere, not in Paris, New York, London. And in Manchester I would’ve needed somebody to come in on this with me and when you get an investor they start talking about PVC windows or heating systems or a kids’ menu. And for me it has to be driven purely creatively, first by myself and now I’ve also got this team that gets it, and gets it more than me a lot of time and it’s theirs and they drive it. So Stockport was cheap but I also love this journey. I love this juxtaposition between going down a dark alley and then you arrive in this, to borrow from Hemingway, like this brilliant, clean and well-lit space. At first I was like, what am I doing ? But now after four years, I’m like yeah, we’re in Stockport. People are starting to come. We’ve got cool record shop, the market thrives and it’s real and I’m proud to be part of it now.
So now you’ve got to that stage what are you next plans?
We’re opening a bakery soon, which will be separate to the restaurant, just a 30-second walk away. We’ll get our bread for the restaurant from there off our baker RosieWilkes, this amazing baker. She did some stuff at Ten Belles in Paris and she was at Coombeshead in Cornwall with Ben Glazer. She’s just a perfect match. She’s so great to talk to. She’s like, “it’s about wheat, it’s about how wheat is grown, where it’s grown”. So it’s me and her, me sort of playing the supporting role, but she’s just gonna take it away. And as we’re also talking about the food system all the time there’s also this community garden that we’re setting up at the moment on a rooftop above Ann Summers that’s just gonna be a garden for anyone, regardless if you wanna go and eat your Greggs lunch in there or you wanna come and do a workshop. We grow our veg there but we also wanna try and make it accessible to anybody, just to sit in the garden.
This is the The Landing, right? Is it up and running yet?
Yeah that’s it, and yeah we had our first harvest last year. We’d started talking about this along time ago, about rooftop gardening, and I pointed out to the council that there’s a lot of car parks in and they’re not in use, so can we have one? So they gave us a little space and we started building beds on there. We work in collaboration with an urban gardening organisation called MUD (Manchester Urban Diggers) and they’ve been giving me advice on it and they’ve been running volunteer groups up there so we’ve got the manpower. Things grow so fast because it’s a rooftop and now we’ve got what, ten to 20 beds up there, a greenhouse, something that we call the Fig Lounge, where these figs are gonna grow out of this bed. And we’re looking at ideas like, can it be at the end of prescription pad of local NHS doctors for horticultural therapy ? Can kids come and see how to grow stuff? Can we run workshops with artists and ceramists to build bat boxes to harness the wildlife up there and get it going? Can it be everything to all men at all times? It doesn’t belong to the restaurant although we’ll get lots of great produce from it. But it’ll be stuff that we can’t buy, stuff that doesn’t travel well. We want to support farmers and the growers too.
And I read that you’re really into fermenting and foraging. Do you still go out and do that and then use it in the restaurant ?
I don’t get to do anything, I sit and talk to people like you now! A few of the guys from the kitchen have just been out tapping birch trees. They just got like, 60 liters of birch sap this week and they’ve reduced it down to only a bloody tiny kilner jar. It is pretty good, but it’s a lot of work! But it’s fun, for them to go out and do that. I might take my daughter out, I’ve got a two year old. So I’ll go out for walks and I might do a bit of it, I’m good and I’m fast at foraging but I don’t just don’t get out. And fermentation, I started to learn about that by myself because I was reading about it as a historical practice in England and as a sort of revitalised practice in Scandinavian countries. And I think as a cook, as a young cook at that point of my career I was like, how else can we derive flavour? It’s a really good way to inject flavour plus when you can preserve food then you don’t have to waste food and you save money. So yeah, I’m into all of that, but I don’t do anything anymore unless it’s like an experiment at home. I’m trying to keep my hand in.
How would you describe your style of cooking? Does not having a menu increase your creativity or does it put more pressure on the kitchen?
People think that the menu changes every day, which I obviously can’t do. It’s more that we’re responsive, we use the words closed loop a lot. So for example, now with The Landing we can take all of our food waste and all of our cardboard waste for compost. That closes the loop. And with our food everything is involved and intertwined. I’ve got a girl from Korea in the kitchen, one of the guys has got Malaysian roots, Sam our head chef has got German, our pastry chef is Portuguese. I’ll take ideas from anywhere. So the food is always from the Isles and it’s completely traceable but we use different food techniques from around the world to display these things. Like we’ve got this other girl from Beijing that’s trialling at the moment and so she cooked for us and she seasoned it with MSG. And so I posed the question to the table, “How can we make MSG ’cause it’s fucking brilliant so how can we get it?”. And she’s just like “yeah, I’ve got this experiment that I wanna do with mushrooms, deriving MSG from mushrooms” and I’m like, great! And then someone else is like “Sam can I ferment some radishes for 10 years?” and it’s just like yes, yes to everything! That’s really beautiful, you know, everyone having crazy ideas.
During the last year or so during the lockdowns you’ve developed The Landing and now you’ve got the plans for the bakery. Do you think that the pandemic is going to affect restaurants in a positive way at all?
The strong are surviving at the moment, which is nice. And the one thing that I thought was so wonderful was the seeing the true spirit of hospitality that was expressed by the restaurants, like this cooking for the NHS, and cooking for charities, and just being really resourceful like doing takeaways for the community. I just thought that was amazing and it starts to shine a light on the true spirit of hospitality and not, Top 50 restaurants. It’s just like, here’s some food ’cause that’s what matters right now and that’s what brings us together and that’s what makes us strong. It’s that spirit of hospitality that I hope prevails and actually comes through more than it than than it did. We just all get so competitive, don’t we have? And people should just be there to have a good time.