First look: Higher Ground, a new restaurant from the team behind Ancoats success story Flawd

‘Bring your worst manners’ says chef Joe Otway of his new venture on Faulkner street

By Kelly Bishop | Last updated 11 February 2023

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The first time I encountered Joe Otway’s cooking, he presented me with a pig’s blood taco filled with crab and fermented hot sauce. This was back in 2019 when he was Head Chef at Where The Light Gets In and he immediately became one of my chefs to watch in Manchester.

Not long after that, Joe launched his own project, a pop up in a security bungalow on stilts at Kampus. Called Higher Ground, it featured pared back dishes such as wilted baby leeks with cod’s roe, and steamed carrots with sea buckthorn sauce. Sea buckthorn has become a hallmark of Joe’s food. Indeed, he tells me as we sit at the new Higher Ground restaurant, set to open on 18 Feb, that his freezer is full of the little orange berries that he has been foraging from unlikely urban spots around Manchester for the past two years. 

The interior has been designed by the team behind hip London venues Kiln, The Smoking Goat and Brat. Image: Manchester’s Finest

Higher Ground the pop up closed a few weeks after opening due to lockdown. It became a cook at home box, then another pop up at various places before metamorphosing into natural and low intervention wine bar Flawd at New Islington marina. Flawd, though tiny, is one of Manchester’s biggest recent culinary success stories. Its cooking space no bigger than a Bluebird Toys A La Carte Kitchen, it still managed to win over many critics including The Times’ Marina O Loughlin.

But as beloved as Flawd is to the team, it was always a compromise. Otway and his business partners Richard Cossins and Daniel Craig Martin have been playing the long game with their ambitious restaurant plans, and now, finally, Higher Ground version 2.0 is about to open to the public.

A far cry from the wine-shop-with-nibbles vibes of Flawd, the former Department of Coffee and Social Affairs has been transformed into a long, sleek restaurant space more reminiscent of new critics’ favourite Climat than its sister venue. Every detail, including the exact shade of yellow to paint the walk in wine room and shop, has been pored over by Joe and the team. The interior has been designed to their vision by Pembrook Design who also designed fashionable London bars Kiln, Smoking Goat and Brat. 

The long bar area is designed for the ultimate customer experience. Image: Manchester’s Finest

The open kitchen space is so big, it’s almost like Higher Ground has burst, Hulk-like out of the tiny space at Flawd. It has been meticulously designed to suit the choreography of a well-oiled restaurant team. Sections laid out for the smoothest possible collaborative working environment. But this isn’t just for ease, Joe tells us, “The idea is to create a system where we can keep our running costs at a level that we are able to deliver the meal at an approachable price.”

Higher Ground’s sustainable model involves opening just four days a week Wednesday-Saturday evenings with lunch service on Friday and Saturday only. This means that staff get a proper break and running costs are kept as low as possible.

It could have been a tiny high end restaurant with long tasting menus at the top of the price scale but in light of things like climate change and the cost of living crisis, they rethought their approach. Dinner will cost, at most, £45 per person for an impeccably sourced tasting menu or around £4-£11 per small plate. Approachable prices for top-notch food in these financially pinched times.

Diners can pull up a high backed burnt orange leather stool around the tactile broad-topped ‘island’ surrounding the kitchen and sip a glass of wine or nibble on a few snacks. It’s been designed to enable an easy rapport between diner and chef as food is served directly to them in Higher Ground’s personable fashion. 

Local maker Easy Peel has designed this table. Image: Manchester’s Finest

The restaurant also has conventional dining tables for those less interested in being eyeball to eyeball with a chef. Low hanging light fixtures match the tangerine-coloured bar stools, everything else is jet black, concrete coloured or hand made and wooden. It seats 50 in total, so if you have missed out on Friday night at Flawd because the tiny space was packed to the rafters, you might be in with more of a chance at Higher Ground. 

The locally sourced nucleus of the project is present in details like the use of small makers for their crockery and furnishings. Easy Peel have made a bespoke high top table. A small maker in Pollard Yard called Misshandled has created the light fixtures. The bar was made in Hyde. Joe Hartley and Frida Cooper have made some of the crockery. 

“You can reserve a table and come in for a full sharing menu between two, but you can also just have a dish and a glass of wine,” says Joe, “The idea is that we never turn anyone away. We want people to be able to be spontaneous.”

Image: Manchester’s Finest

Despite the more casual dining approach to Higher Ground, Joe and Richard’s history is steeped in fine dining. With stints at the aforementioned WTLGI as well as Relae Copenhagen and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York where Joe and Richard met for the first time. But running through these high end restaurants like a biodynamic vine is the theme of sustainability. 

This is the beating heart of Higher Ground, not just from an environmental perspective (though more on that later) but for the quality of life of their staff. “[Cooking is] very exhausting. It’s taxing physically. But hopefully on the mental side of things. It’s a joy. If you feel valued and you’re part of a supportive network people that look after each other then there’s going to be no stopping you,” says Joe of his approach to looking after his staff. The three owners will be on site “every minute the restaurant is open” in order to look after the people they are working with.  

Cinderwood Market Garden

This sustainable approach is of course present in the food, which centres around produce from Cinderwood Market Garden. Three years ago, Joe, Daniel and Richard set up their small organic farm on an acre of land adjacent to Jane’s Farm in Cheshire. It is from Jane, also known as The Ethical Butcher, that Higher Ground’s whole animals will be sourced. 

Wine is natural and low intervention. Image: Manchester’s Finest

Cinderwood is a bit of an unsung hero of Manchester’s restaurant industry. You might have spotted its name cropping up on Manchester menus. The farm’s organic produce is used by chefs at The Alan, Climat, Erst, and 10 Tib Lane, to name a few. The produce is startlingly good, the kind that need little adornment as its flavours sing a dawn chorus from the plate. 

“The proof is in the pudding,” says Joe, “It’s the way it’s worked for centuries. If you get locally sourced, well grown produce that hasn’t been shipped for days and days and is picked in its peak ripeness, by hand, it tastes better and it makes it easier to translate that into dishes.” 

It should be noted that partners Joe, Richard or Daniel, have never taken a “single penny” from Cinderwood, preferring to literally plough it back into the ground. They don’t even give themselves a discount on the produce. The aim is for it to support itself and to be able to pay the fourth partner, Michael Fitzsimmons who is head grower, a fair salary.

There is a focus on British producers like Hodmedods. Image: Manchester’s Finest

Having an organic farm in the UK isn’t easy. Joe explains that with poor growing conditions from  November to March, the bulk of the money has to be made in the summer. 

“It’s fucking hard and you want to keep progressing, he says, “You want to buy compost for next year. You want to put another tunnel up so you can grow more veg. This year we have finally asserted ourselves in the marketplace. Manchester has got to a place where there are thankfully lots of exciting restaurants. Stock Market [Grill]’s opening. They’re good friends of mine. Climat. They’re all really excited about it. We’re going into our third growing season and truly [Cinderwood] was set up to provide the restaurant community of Manchester with better quality veg to help them push forward.”

Now, if that isn’t weaving yourself into the tapestry of a community I don’t know what is. 

What’s on the menu?

The team will be utilising a charcoal oven to slow cook dishes overnight and grill cuts of meat directly on it during the day. Of course, Cinderwood veg will feature heavily in dishes like coal-baked celeriac with Spanish blood orange and bay leaf. A new pastry chef will be making refined dishes like a sea buckthorn meringue tart with rye pastry. Joe tell us about a relationship he has with Raybel Charters who source sugar directly from farmers in places like Colombia, paying them a fair price. Sugar being one of the least ethically sourced foodstuffs on the planet, it’s been important to Joe to support these kinds of suppliers.

“Sugar is the real thorn in my side to figure out,” he says, “I paid an unbelievable amount of money from this sugar. It’s been on a sailing boat for three months. We’ve got these three massive sacks from Columbia. And we’re going to make ice cream with it. It’s going to be sailboat cane sugar ice cream.”

Joe has been busy pickling and fermenting. Image: Manchester’s Finest

Also on the menu are thrilling sounding dishes like fried sprats, with nasturtium tartare, Jane’s acorn reared pig belly with grain and mushroom porridge, and Cornish brown crab pappardelle but it’s a simple quiche that Joe’s most excited about when we talk to him. The cheddar quiche is made with high welfare eggs form Nantwich, raw milk British organic cheese and a pastry case made with Lancashire butter and wholewheat flour. There’s also a pig head terrine. 

“We’re opening with pork.” Says Joe, “I’ve got three pigs that have been out in the woods all winter just feasting on acorns by themselves. It’s been a lot of work trying to figure out how to break the current food system. To take these pigs directly from Jane, pay Jane, who takes them to the abattoir, who also has to be paid. Then we collect them from the abattoir and take them to Marcus the butcher who we will pay to hold the pigs. He will bring a pig a week to me and I will hang it here, work my way through it and then onto the next one. It sounds far more simple than it is.”

“We can keep the price where we want it to be by buying animals whole,” he continues, “If you just take the ribeye, you’re paying X amount per kilo for that premium cut. If you take a whole animal, you’re buying the bones, the head – You’re paying the farmer directly. They don’t have any waste. So they benefit from it but also that price gets distributed across the whole carcass. You have to get creative. You have to have a ragu on, you might have a broth, you might cook the loins one night on the grill, the next day the bellies, the next, the leg. It’s difficult to work like that but it’s the right way to work.”

“I value the ears and the head of the animal the same as I do the ribeye. I could call a butcher and they just give me all the sirloin, all the ribeye of an animal and I could just put it on menu for X amount of money and make a margin on it. It’d be very simple. But we’re trying to go beyond that and think deeper about the food system.”

Whole pigs from Jane’s Farm will be the basis of many dishes. Image: Manchester’s Finest

This meat and veg is then used in careful balance with produce from other small scale English producers. Pulses from Hodmedods. British grain from a Foster’s Mill down in Cambridge. Organic semolina from Gilchester’s. Cheeses and butter are locally sourced by Jonathan, the Crafty Cheese Man. For those who don’t wish to eat animals, Joe is keen to point out their vegan menu is one of the most extensive in the city. He shows me a draft on a notes app with around 14 dishes featuring Stockport fungi, cured golden beetroot, and dressed mustard grains.

It’s poetic in a way that Joe’s new restaurant has ended up on the edge of Chinatown, a place full of restaurants that have been cooking the whole animal for decades. It’s also Joe’s favourite part of town to eat out. It was after a lunch of noodles at Jade City that they confirmed with Bruntwood that they wanted the Faulkner House spot. A landlord they say has been ‘unbelievable’ and delivered on everything they said they would.

There is a walk in wine room. Image: Manchester’s Finest

Joe also wants to note that every step of their journey they have been supported by other members of Manchester’s hospitality community. From offering advice, to loaning them furniture, to people like Paul from Cloudwater letting them store things in their fridge, to the general enthusiasm from a long list of other operators that have championed what they are doing. That support got them off the ground, he says.

“We’re as excited about other people as we are ourselves,” says Joe, “If you open something, great. It might not even be my cup of tea. There are concepts that aren’t my thing but I’m still excited when they open. I wish them well because the city needs it. We need to keep moving. You need diversity.

“Manchester is clearly becoming more of an attractive place to live, which is only a good thing for anyone that has a business in the city. If you’re selling shoes, toothbrushes, wine, beer, food, socks and there are more people around that are willing to help you survive, then that’s great. I am excited about more creatives coming up here and realising it’s a fucking cool place to live. The late licences are sick, the nightlife’s amazing. The culture’s fucking sick. There’s an amazing art scene. It’s an amazing place to live.”

This coming from somebody who has lived in London, Copenhagen and New York, is high praise indeed for our city. A talented chef like Joe and his highly skilled globetrotting team at Higher Ground could have set up anywhere in the world. It speaks volumes that Manchester is attracting such talent and enthusiasm and they are quite literally putting down roots here.

“It feels like the right step for us. We didn’t want to just roll [Flawd] out, use the brand and lose that personal identity. This is the next progression for us. We’re trying to add to the growing scene of Manchester. We got in way deeper than we every imagined on this project but we are here, the foundations are built properly and we are determined to make it a mainstay. It’s not going anywhere, it’s not a pop up. We are quite literally going to be calling this our home for the next however many years. It’s going to add something valuable to the Manchester food scene. 

The Higher Ground team from L-R Joe Otway, Daniel Craig Martin and Richard Cossins. Image: Manchester’s Finest

“[Higher Ground] is all or nothing,” says Joe, ” We’ve invested every single thing that we have into this. Everything. Personally, financially, from an energy perspective. We’ve put all the cards on the table.

“I fucking love this industry. I’ve devoted my entire life to it. Hospitality is moving into a new area and there can be new standards set. It’s a great opportunity to do this a career. We lost a lot of great people during COVID that are just not going to return to hospitality because the conditions were shit before. It wasn’t financially attractive. It wasn’t necessarily creatively attractive. The work life balance was shit. Everything was off. The whole record’s been reset now. It’s not necessarily the most financially attractive trade. But it’s a skill and it’s about being creative and loving what you do.”

A sustainable restaurant for the people that work there, the people that eat there, and the food system itself that also supports and champions others in Manchester’s spectacularly good restaurant scene. It’s almost like Joe and the team at Higher Ground can do no wrong. But the chef wants to make it clear that this is not some holier than thou project, it’s going to be a lot of fun too.

“I don’t want to come across like I’m preaching to people or like we’re better than anyone,” he says, “Ultimately it always comes back down to fun. I just want people to come here and have loads of fucking fun. Bring your worst manners! Come in and spill your wine on the table. I don’t care. Eat with your hands. Whatever. Just come in and have a great time. We’re going to look after you.”

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