Eddie Shepherd on the art and science behind his incredible vegetarian tasting menu

From the view I had of Eddie over Zoom, I would have thought he was a mad scientist rather than a chef. He was wearing a chef white, but all I could see was the top of it and it could just as easily have been a white lab coat. Behind him was an extraordinary looking instrument, and he spoke with all the enthusiasm and passion I can imagine Einstein would have spoken with on the subject of quantum physics. In fact, by the end of the interview, I had drawn the conclusion that Eddie’s approach to cooking was so scientific and experimental that the line between chef and scientist was very blurred. No wonder Eddie’s dishes at The Walled Gardens in Manchester look so spectacular!

SD: Before we start, Eddie, I’ve got to know what on earth is that instrument behind you?

ES: It’s a rotavap. You quite often see them in distilleries, but they’re quite unusual in culinary world. There are only one or two companies that make them. For most restaurants they take up too much space, are overly complex to run and very specialised, so it’s not worth having them, but I use mine all the time to distill and concentrate flavours. It relies on the fact that water boils at around room temperature in a vacuum, which means you can extract flavours without losing any of the freshness through heating. You can use it both ways: the traditional way where you put a flavour like rosemary into water and boil and then condense the extracted flavour into a clear liquid, like an essence; and the opposite way where you take a liquid like rhubarb juice and reduce it down to a concentrate. I use this technique for a dish with rhubarb molasses.

“The boiling point of a substance is the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid equals the pressure surrounding the liquid, and the liquid changes into a vapor. The boiling point of a liquid varies depending upon the surrounding pressure. A liquid in a partial vacuum has a lower boiling point than when that liquid is at atmospheric pressure.”

Engineering Toolbox
Eddie Shepherd's rotavap at The Walled Garden underground restaurant
Eddie Shepherd’s rotavap at The Walled Garden underground restaurant

SD: I’m a little confused about the name of your restaurant. Why is it called The Walled Gardens when you refer to it as an underground restaurant?

ES: So the name The Walled Gardens comes from the fact that the restaurant space is in the converted bottom floor of our house and the house used to be within an old walled garden where nuns would grow food. I love the fact that food has been grown here for generations. We also benefit from the original walls, which have been left intact around this square. They create a kind of microclimate which means our garden is still really vibrant and the bees quite active right up until the end of September.

It’s not physically underground, but I wanted to distinguish what I was doing from a restaurant or a chef’s table. It’s somewhere in the middle and I wanted to help people know to expect something a little different. It has the intimacy of a chef’s table, but more of the informality of a casual restaurant, while still offering a fine dining experience. It’s also more permanent than a pop-up or a supper club, so I couldn’t call it that. I was drawing on the use of the word “underground” in the context of art and music to indicate to diners that this was something different to a traditional restaurant, slightly off the radar, but still hits the same level of professionalism and quality.

A table set up inside Eddie Shepherd's Walled Garden underground restaurant
A table set up inside Eddie Shepherd’s Walled Garden underground restaurant

SD: Do you think that underground restaurants will become more popular among chefs especially with a growing interest in food experiences?

ES: I do think they could become more popular. For me, I reached a point in my career where I wanted to do my own thing. I looked at setting up my own restaurant and terrifying amounts of money required to get started. I could see I would need investors, so in the end I set it up this way, while figuring out what to do and then I realised I didn’t need to do any more. It’s interesting to remember that in France the whole restaurant industry was born originally from displaced chefs who had been cooking for the aristocracy and now set themselves up in public spaces. With the current displacement of chefs as a result of social distancing, you will see a pool of talent looking for other ways of getting their food out there. Many street food traders now have semi-permanent sites.

People do really value the experience. At the beginning it felt like a hurdle that I was going to cook and serve, but once I’d got used to it, I realised that it was one of the things that makes it unique. If you go to restaurant, there’s a chance the owner or chef won’t be there. I meet everyone who comes here. That would be difficult to replicate in a normal restaurant. I don’t have the refined skills of good front-of-house staff, but people will forgive the lack of swish service because they can chat to me directly about the food and where it comes from. It’s all about authenticity.

SD: How much do you tell people about the sustainability of your food?

ES: People are now so much more aware about sustainable sourcing. Sometimes I get asked specific questions by guests. Normally I highlight certain things myself such as pointing out the beehives in my garden when there’s honey on the menu so they can see where it comes from. I don’t want to lecture people, but I like to talk a little about importance of the role bees play in a sustainable food system. I tend to let the guests lead on how much they want to know. I’ll tell them the key things and then if they ask individually I can explain further.

Eddie Shepherd's bees making honey at The Walled Garden
Eddie Shepherd’s bees making honey at The Walled Garden

SD: Your dishes look incredible. How do you make vegetables so interesting?

ES: Thank you. I’ve always wanted my dishes to be visually stunning. Part of winning people over to a vegetarian tasting menu is to make people think it’s not what they think it’s going to be. For example, I purposely don’t include beans and lentils. It’s a bit of a shame, because you can do some amazing things with them, but I didn’t want to be associated with that kind of vegetarian cooking, that can be a bit stodgy.

When cooking with vegetables you have to remember that you are dealing with raw ingredients much more than you are with fish or meat, which when you buy has often already had something done to it. Maybe it’s been cut, smoked, cured, aged, they all help shape the flavour. For vegetables you have to do all that yourself. I use a lot of smoke and cooking over fire as techniques, because mentally they are connected to meaty flavours, nostalgia and comfort. I put a lot of focus on developing the savoury flavours, achieving deep umami flavours. I use traditional Japanese techniques like using seaweed or fermented foods. Sometimes just concentrating the flavours by dehydrating them works wonders. Mushrooms are particularly good for this. Often I’ll layer the techniques on top of each other, so I’ll dehydrate the mushrooms, then rehydrate them in a dashi broth and finally smoke them.

SD: What about for all those home chefs? What tips would you give them for making vegetables more interesting without all the specialist equipment and techniques you use?

ES: Sometimes it’s as simple as reducing things down and cooking the water out of things. Many cooks, if they aren’t experienced, will put things like onions into a cold pan rather than hot pan. This means the water comes out more gradually.

Roasting mushrooms in tamari soy sauce take out is a really simple way of extracting the water and adding umami flavours. You can also blend things for or marinade vegetables and let them rest. Potatoes take particularly well to marinading. I use it in a lot in different ways to get flavours into things. We now know more about ingredients like koji used in Japanese fermentation. You can use that as a marinade for vegetables, tofu or dairy, like halloumi. It affects the texture because it breaks down the proteins. You can tenderise halloumi by marinating it with koji. The result is a beautiful, mashmallowy texture.

Cooking things in their own juice, such as cooking carrots in carrot juice or potatoes in dashi, helps to intensify flavours. It all comes down to how important it is to you how that ingredient turns out.

SD: I know you have published your own cook book. Realistically how replicable are those recipes for the average cook at home?

ES: If I’m honest, 90% are not replicable for people cooking it at home. There are already many vegetarian and vegan cook books out there, but I wanted to be true to my food. It’s more of a coffee table book for people, but for chefs it contains all of the geeky techniques. I do sometimes offer alternative options for home cooks, though, like straining instead of centrifuging for clarifying ingredients.

SD: How do you develop your dishes? Do you draw them out visually?

ES: I don’t tend to draw stuff. The main thing is everything has to taste right. Usually I start by working on the flavours for a dish. Once I’ve got the main couple of flavours then I think about the presentation. I really want things to look distinctive. I want people to know it’s from my menu, but also has to be practical for me in the kitchen. I can’t do things some restaurants can do, like laying individual petals in row because don’t have time.

That means I look a lot at the service items. One of my favourite pieces is the ceramic ring I serve one of my chocolate dishes in with fruit juice shards. It was a collaboration with the ceramicist. She made a few prototypes and then I had 6-8 weeks once they were finished to work with them, but I’d already been thinking about it. I wish it was like that all the time, because you feel you’re not compromising on flavour to serve the dish in an interesting way. If you go out and eat 12/14 courses on the same white plates, it’s easy to lose track of how each was different. I want to make sure that each course is visually distinct and easy to remember.

Eddie Shepherd's ceramic ring with chocolate and fruit juice shards
Eddie Shepherd’s ceramic ring with chocolate and fruit juice shards

SD: I think tasting menus are growing in popularity. What would you say are the advantages of a tasting menu for a chef and sustainability?

ES: The way I serve things it’s the only way I can do it. I need to give guests everything at the same time. As the only chef and server, I couldn’t manage dishes with different timings. I also think tasting menus particularly suit plant-based food. The way you construct dishes with vegetables lends itself better to having more of a meze style meal. It doesn’t work so well to have one central protein and a few accompaniments. It’s much better to have smaller punchier dishes. I have done an a la carte vegetarian menu for a hotel. I really enjoyed doing it, but it was much more challenging to achieve the intensity of flavours that I look for. I prefer dishes to have mainly two or three clear elements and strip everything else away.

SD: I know you’re very keen to make dining at The Walled Gardens fun. How do you achieve this?

ES: Part of the fun is the informality of it. I’m going to cook and serve all the food and I also greet all the guests so that cuts out all the nervousness around seeing waiters with buttons done right up and carefully pressed jackets. It’s a bit of a balancing act because people need to see it’s professional, but there are different ways to signal that for example with the specialist equipment like the rotavap. I also encourage experimental eating with service items like glass straws that people have to suck the food out of. It’s unusual moments like that that break the rhythm of the meal and people will have fun filming themselves doing it. The dish comes between savoury and dessert. It’s a mix of chamomile, mint and raspberry and is intended to be both palate cleansing as well as a mentally cleansing break before dessert. I also do fun things like ice-cream made with liquid nitrogen.

Eddie Shepherd's tasting menu palate cleanser in glass straws
Eddie Shepherd’s tasting menu palate cleanser in glass straws

SD: What do you enjoy the most about what you do?

ES: I really love when I‘ve been working on a dish and it gets to the point where it can be put on the menu. It can take a couple of months. This year has been so chaotic, though. I’ve had so much else to deal with admin-wise that I haven’t had much time to do this. I also enjoy being in the space with the guests. I don’t think I could go back to a restaurant with that separation now. It’s amazing being able to show them what you love doing and to see their reactions. Running The Walled Gardens is the longest hours I’ve worked in this industry, but it’s also the least tired I’ve been, because I don’t have staffing and other stresses, and it’s so rewarding that I can live off that energy.

Stunning knives made by Eddie Shepherd himself
Stunning knives made by Eddie Shepherd himself

SD: Given you are already booked up six months in advance, would you ever consider opening more days or making the space larger?

ES: There is really no more time I could put in. It is a bit gutting. Especially when the demand is there, it would be lovely to cook for more people. It’s frustrating I can’t get to cook for everyone I’d like to, but the flipside of that is that I’m not running a normal business model. There’s something quite romantic about doing what I really enjoy, working with bees, doing my own distillation…that’s the trade-off. For it to continue being something I really love doing, it has to be small. Maybe, as a result of that, it will be more lasting than the restaurants that come and go.

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