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Getting The Measure Of Sam Buckley

Sam Buckley is Chef Owner of the amazing restaurant Where The Light Gets In which uses ingredients from the British isles to serve up super-seasonal and sustainable dishes in a late Victorian coffee warehouse located in Stockport's Old Town.
Neil has caught up with Sam for an insight into his past and more about the restaurant's day-to-day operations.

How did Where The Light Gets In happen?

''It happened as the result of realising that I was just gonna have to have a restaurant. I’d been out of the country for a bit and came back home when, weirdly, the council got in touch with me about a building. I had no intention of opening one in Stockport as at that time I was thinking ‘that’s where I’m from and I have to leave and never come back’. So I saw the building and it was a bit of a shambles, it was prefabbed with false ceilings and plastered and everything but there had been a fire in there. Because of which you could see the exposed brick and you could see the beams though I had a good look around and at the other three floors.

I went to bed thinking I don’t want to be involved in such a big project and I know it sounds a bit corny but I woke up the next morning and I had this ‘idea’. It was to turn the three floors into a restaurant, bakery and grocers with a wine/dive bar kind of thing. It was a really strong idea and I could see it, so I went for it.'' 

Is it true you have no formal training?

''I have no formal training as I didn’t go to catering college but I trained with Gary Rhodes and with Paul Kitchener from Juniper. I was at L’enclume too and Stucki in Basel for a little while.

So I’d say I’ve definitely learned from some great chefs, I’ve been fortunate to have jobs in really, really good kitchens. I had breaks in between all of those jobs, playing music and going to university so I was always in and out of the kitchen. I have been trained by those people, I just don’t have any qualifications.''

What advice would you give to other people looking to set up a restaurant?

''My advice is to first work in the industry so as to understand the processes of restaurants. It’s a bit like driving, in that once you’ve got a restaurant that’s when you really start to learn how to run one. It’s different from working in a restaurant, it’s different to being on a section or being in charge of Front of House but it gives you an idea of the environment you want to build.

There’s a lot of places where I’ve worked that were insanely good restaurants but there were a lot of things here that I didn’t want. So Where the Light Gets In has been influenced by the things I didn’t want to happen in my restaurant as much as the things that I did. I would also say that anyone cooking or anyone in the industry needs to take time out because it’s so involved and it takes hours and hours and hours so you can’t develop a character without time.''

How do you go about choosing the dishes for the menu and which have been your favourites? Unusual ingredients?

''For better or worse we’re very spontaneous in our creativity and we’re constantly changing dishes and we very rarely go back to the same ones. Often I’ll say to Sam (head chef Samuel Munstermann) that we should think about the dishes we’ve done and use them again.

Sam made an amazing carrot dish last year that was made with carrots cooked in their own juice and reduced down that was served as a cold juice. The whole thing was seasoned with this really sherbert-y reduced carrot juice, nasturtium oil and sheeps milk yoghurt where you’d swipe the carrots through the yoghurt that was so fresh, bright and indicative of Summer carrots. So we put that back on last night.

There’s another dish that we go back to which is a potato cracker with a potato mousse that you dip it into. We’re always reinventing things and that's what I like as a creative person, to be impulsive.

In terms of ingredients everything we try to use is from the British Isles. In terms of being unusual, there’s no dragon or star fruit or grade 5 wagyu beef, there’s none of that. I’d say the unusual tends to be stuff people haven’t seen a lot, there’s things made with fermentation and preservation that are unusual so we make a lot of vinegars. I really like ‘coffee vinegar’ which is made through a kombucha process, it gives a roasted depth to veg dishes. There’s a whole roster, Damson umeboshi is a big favourite of mine which is a preservation technique where the fruit is put into a salt solution for three weeks then slowly dehydrated over the course of three days.''

Ikejime Sea Bass caught of the coast of Cornwall.

Wild strawberries, gooseberries and currants from 'The Landing'.

What made you decide to open a place in Stockport?

''As I mentioned earlier it was the building (and really cheap rent), it’s a really sick place that would be really hard to find anyway let alone afford if it was in Manchester or London. I want to say it was because of Stockport but it was all about the space as I didn’t want to be here really initially. But now, after five years, I’m really proud to be here, I really like the area, I really love the people as they’re all really friendly and the area is coming up as well. It’s always nice to be part of a wheel that’s turning up as opposed to one that’s going down in the cycle of progress and evolution.''

Gammon, preserved celeriac and 100 days of apple paste at a tasting session.

Tell us a bit about the building.

''It’s an old coffee warehouse built in 1899, they stored coffee here until the 1920s. The owners then decided to give that up and turn it into a dance floor to make a dancehall for their friends where they’d put on parties. Then they bricked it together to an old merchant's house which is where our office, staff-room, fermentation room and wine-cellar is. So it’s this huge building that’s been bricked together over time, though interestingly the cellars were already linked together. It’s a big old Victorian warehouse that we pulled everything out of and didn’t put anything back in other than a little kitchen and some tables. It’s all red brick with big beams, it’s just really natural and celebrates the structure of the building.''

 Flowers from @studiobarb_ hung from the rafters.

Cosy settings.

Were you ever tempted to do something up the road in Manchester instead?

''I think we’ve had offers in Manchester and I would certainly never say no to doing anything in Manchester but I don’t think we’d ever move this restaurant there.

I worry about Manchester as far as independent creativity goes, in that it almost seems to be bankrolled by property developers. I really worry about that. Look at the old music industry, the punk and the dance music that came from Manchester, it didn’t have money behind it. I think it needs the support of the city and shouldn’t be owned by developers, I worry about that in Manchester. I’d never say never and I still love the city and think it’s vibrant and hopefully on the way back up.''

 You all do Yoga together?

''Yeah, we have a yoga class at 9.00am every Wednesday morning at the start of our week.  We have a group class with our teacher and we all do yoga for an hour. It’s a good exercise to stretch your muscles and empty your mind and good to do a group activity that’s not in the kitchen and takes us away from that for a little bit. We’ve been doing it for four years and I would not change it.''

You’ve also got a Farm?

''I wouldn’t call it a farm, we did have a small acre in Marple but it was just too difficult to run. We couldn’t afford to have a full team up there, it was a beautiful stretch of wildlife but it felt like we were competing and I never want to do that.''

Tell us about ‘The Landing’?

So we’ve now got this kitchen garden called ‘The Landing’ that’s on the Mersey way precinct car park roof, above Anne Summers and Clinton cards. It’s 80 metres long and 15 metres wide. We call it the Landing because planes fly over the top.

The Landing.

We’ve built loads of planters and beds, a greenhouse and a composter so all of our food waste and cardboard goes in there. It’s fully exposed and super hot up there which means we can grow all these weird and wonderful herbs that we never would like Vietnamese coriander and bon dong, one of our chefs is Korean and her mums sends seeds over. We grow red perillas, green perillas, bon dong lettuce, a superior Korean mint, lime balm, and loads of weird and wonderful herbs.

Herbs from The Landing.

Then we’ve got these Indian cucumbers called Poona Kheera, there’s so much produce, so much different stuff, loads of berries, we’ve got fig trees up there now, we’re putting up cherry plum trees. It’s just a really great opportunity to grow and we’ve got radishes and normal lettuces as well as the 15 other different varieties so we can grow stuff that no one else is growing and that becomes the unique DNA of the restaurant.''

Sam tending to corn on the farm 2019.

How important is Sustainability?

''It’s important, I think it’s a buzz word right now and it just gets bandied about, we get asked about it a lot. I think the word just means ‘to sustain something’ which of course is important to us otherwise if you weren’t a sustainable business then your business wouldn’t be sustained.

I understand what it means in a wider sense and for example the Yoga helps the team stay healthy, the briefings help us communicate and that kind of thing helps sustain happiness and wellbeing. Which means that the team stays with us hopefully, which means I don’t have to spend time trying to find people because recruitment takes a long time.

We’re big on zero waste and having a low impact on your environment too, it’s looking after yourself which is then looking after the business which seems obvious that if you’re not wasting food then you’re not wasting money either.

It’s living responsibly on a planet that already wastes loads of food, which is really hard to do when you’re running about, it’s just taking that moment in isn’t it? So sustainability is really important, it all factors in, all the definitions of sustainability.''

New life.

Head chef with the harvest. 

Have you had many famous customers?

''We’ve had Edwina Currie in, and Jack Straw. It’s great to have some of the cabinet in. Edwina Currie was vile, she was horrible and very rude to us.

Jack Straw was incredibly charming and erudite. The biggest story I tell people is when we were two years in and about to close for our Summer break when we got an email from Elton John’s people asking could we book a table for him, David and three of their friends?. We were all knackered and had all booked our holidays (I was off to Vietnam) so we remained closed and we had to turn Elton John down.

I sometimes regret it, they never got back to me. I think we should have put an old casio keyboard in the corner and told him it was always there and asked him to play a few songs in between courses.

Andy Votel is a frequent visitor and sometimes brings Badly Drawn Boy. Clint Boon has been in and that was an interesting experience as his wife offered me her placenta to put on the menu. We’ve had a fair few actors that I can’t remember then names of, oh and the Cold Feet cast, that was cool. We don’t get that many famous people in.''

We have recently supplied 'WTLGI' with M-21 sweatshirts for their staff...