It feels like everyone loves Manchester’s trailblazing tapas restaurant El Gato Negro. Not just the Mancs and tourists that pack it out week after week, but Michelin too.
Awarded a prestigious Bib Gourmand in 2017 that it has held onto ever since, El Gato was the only Manchester restaurant with that accolade for years until the Sparrows won one in 2023. It’s something El Gato’s chef-proprietor Simon Shaw says he never takes for granted.
Shaw opened the original El Gato in Ripponden, Yorkshire in 2005 after having worked as a Head Chef for Harvey Nichols in Leeds and London for nigh on 10 years. He relocated his successful restaurant to King Street, Manchester in February 2016. If you count the Ripponden years, El Gato Negro has been a success for 17 years. In the restaurant industry, that really is no mean feat.
Like many chefs, Shaw started young. From peeling and chopping to help his mum with tea at 12 to working in kitchens at 14. He also enjoyed cooking for his mates, describing his younger self as “a bit of a pancake king”. Permission to order a T-bone steak with his dad at the local steakhouse, (“a colossal plate of food” to a pre-teen Shaw) and a visit to the silver service restaurant on the top floor of House of Fraser in Hull cemented his future career path.
“Every chef will say to you, ‘I was good at all the practical subjects’. I wasn’t particularly academic but I always say if there was a degree for common sense, I would have got a distinction. I think on my feet a lot and I’m very well organised. I find academic people generally aren’t very well organised. It’s a different skill set.”
He sings the praises of his business partner, “numbers man” Bill Clynes who he says tempers his perfectionism. “He couldn’t do what I do, and I can’t do what he does,” says Shaw, “It’s the brilliant balance between [us]. We have very different roles but we meet in the middle on pretty much everything.”
Simon insists he has never considered himself a businessman but five successful restaurants later, the evidence begs to differ. Still very much hands on, when we chat he’s been back in the kitchen at Habas for the past couple of months developing the new menu. The plan was to pare things back but they’ve ended up with 35 dishes because he “got a bit carried away”.
It’s this passion for food that drives everything he does. He reckons it’s “easy” because he is so creatively invested.
Shaw’s love of Spanish food started when he was working in London. Every couple of months, he would clock off on a Saturday night and jump on an early morning plane to Barcelona to zip around the tapas bars before flying back for Wednesday service. This exploration of the city’s dining scene had a huge influence on what El Gato would become. At that time, Catalonia was on the culinary map big time due to the seminal three Michelin star restaurant El Bulli. Shaw was lucky enough to eat there on a trip with his pals Gordon Ramsay, Sat Bains and Heston Blumenthal.
A Spanish themed event at Harvey Nicks further piqued his interest but it was a trip to the culinary Disneyland of San Sebastian that was “the real turning point”. Shortly after that, he snipped the umbilical cord of a secure London job to move to the hills and open his own tapas joint.
All of that inspiration formed the basis for a sprawling first menu at the fledgling El Gato. At the time, Spanish food in much of the UK was chains doing weak impersonations of basic tapas dishes. All very “mid”, as the kids say. When El Gato Negro appeared in Ripponden, serving octopus, morcilla and Monte Enebro it was as risky as any act of pioneering in a small town.
A very favourable review from Guardian critic Jay Rayner in 2009 followed by a winning appearance on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word in which Ramsay called Shaw “one hell of a talented chef” thrust El Gato Ripponden into the UK-wide spotlight.
Only three dishes from that first menu remain on the Manchester menu 17 years later: Padron peppers (Shaw’s culinary concubine), jamon croquetas, and pan Catalan. Simple but effective dishes that have stood the test of time.
His long time relationships with Spanish producers mean that while Shaw is not of Spanish origin himself you can be sure the produce he serves is. “The pan coca that we use [for the Pan Catalan] is made in Catalonia about 40 miles outside of Barcelona,” he explains, “He is a one man band. He only produces X amount. If you’re not on the list, you don’t get that bread. If somebody was opening a Spanish restaurant now, they would struggle to get it.”
But what’s his favourite dish on the menu? Without hesitation, he says it’s the Bikini, a toasted sandwich with Jamón Serrano, Manchego and truffle butter. It’s all about the nostalgic memories it evokes – and obviously it’s delicious too.
El Gato is now a litter of three, with sister sites in Leeds and Liverpool. On top of that, Shaw’s Portuguese-inspired restaurant Canto opened in 2018 with his Middle Eastern inspired small plates restaurant Habas following in 2021.
He says he’s “cautious” but always open to possibilities when I ask about opening more El Gatos in other cities. “Birmingham’s on the radar. Edinburgh’s on the radar. York’s on the radar. You don’t necessarily go looking for the site the site comes to you. It’s no divine intervention, it’s a commercial reality that if you’re growing a business, developers want you. But what I’ve learned about opening restaurants is the [location of the] site is absolutely fundamental.”
Shaw does seem to have a knack for finding less obvious locations that are worth it if you play the long game. A risky game as so many businesses close within the first two years. When he opened on King Street seven or so years ago, he says there were “tumbleweeds” with many places on what was once the poshest shopping street in Manchester boarded up. But things are looking up for King Street, with many places re-let now.
“Why wouldn’t you want to be on King Street? [It’s a] beautiful street, pedestrianised. What I’ve been led to believe is some of the rents are just unachievable,” he says, “The problem with a lot of these properties is they’re in big pension funds and actually, it’s of no consequence to them whether they’re let or they’re not let. I would like to think we’ve been part of bringing that street alive again. We became a destination place [when there was] nothing else really to bring you on to King Street. [Now, there are] more shops, people are passing through more. It’s nice to see the street a bit more vibrant.”
Shaw also opened Canto in Ancoats long before it had the prestige it has now.
“When I moved to London, I was living in Islington and Shoreditch was nothing like it is today. [Ancoats] reminded me of that a little bit,” he says, “It just had something that I really liked. I could see what was happening on the periphery and I thought, give it two or three years, this is gonna be a good area. Is that good judgement or a bit of luck? Maybe a bit of both. I wish I’d had the foresight to buy two or three properties. Hats off to Rudy’s, they were visionaries in many ways.”
Indeed, when Rudy’s first opened on Cutting Room Square, most people had no clue where it was. It was the kind of place you had to go on an adventure to find. But we Mancunians do love a hidden gem.
“Somebody told me about a sandwich shop the other day, and I was like, I’ve never even heard of it,” says Shaw, “It’s tricky to find. You couldn’t do that in Leeds, for example. In Manchester, people almost like the fact that they’ve got to hunt somewhere out. If you’re not in the most obvious place in Leeds, it just wouldn’t happen for you.
Did Shaw ever think that he’d have five hugely successful restaurants? “No. I’m a little bit of a perfectionist so [catering to] a lot of people is not necessarily at the forefront of my mind,” he says, “But we’ve created a lot of jobs which is something to be very proud of. We’ve got really good staff retention, and we’ve got a really good reputation.”
He takes a moment to namecheck Carlos Gomes, his group Exec Chef with whom he opened Canto, as well as Milan Sojka Head Chef at El Gato, and Larissa Galdini Head Chef at Canto, who are “running things on a daily basis”.
With a lot of conversation around the cost of living crisis and so many restaurants closing, what are Shaw’s thoughts on that?
“That’s a tragedy, isn’t it? Anybody that steps out of the realms of being on the PAYE and takes risks, I’ve got utmost respect for,” he says, “I had a lot riding on my first operation to the point where if I’d gone wrong, I would have lost a lot.
“You’re never bulletproof but we manage the business like a business and you have a little bit of comfort when you’ve got five restaurants. Equally said, if it goes wrong, it goes wrong big time.”