“We’re looking at thousands of years of history,” says Sam Buckley, chef and owner of the Green Michelin-starred restaurant Where The Light Gets In. It’s an unexpected revelation: we’re on top of the Merseyway Shopping Centre in Stockport. The view takes in the Peak District, the imposing red-bricked viaduct and Primark. The latter sit like bookends of a hyper-industrial age, while the Peaks echo something altogether more ancient and reassuring.
We’re not here for the view though, we’re here to harvest fresh produce. Given the surrounding vista it feels apt that this rooftop car park is home to a thriving community kitchen garden. Created in part to supply Where The Light Gets In, The Landing lacks the exclusivity of other kitchen gardens – in part thanks to its location, but namely because it is a community-driven venture.
Seasonality and locality are well-worn words within a food culture that increasingly seeks to be sustainable, yet with recent world and climate events they haven’t felt, well, enough. Sam explains his approach to food as “responsive, somewhere beyond seasonal.” In practice, this means adjusting to the contours and immediate needs of what the land can provide, rather than making demands on it to fit a specific agenda.
From the car park, Where The Light Gets In is a five-minute walk away. Opened in Sam’s native Stockport six years ago in a Victorian coffee warehouse, it’s a simple, light-filled space: all windows and bare brick. Light bounces between the shadows of Ercol chairs.
Sam runs this restaurant on his responsive philosophy. There is no set menu, but rather an approach to making food with what is available. This could be a catch of mackerel from Cornwall – (as supposed to Morecambe where the boats can be fishing and dredging beds can be as far out as Iceland) – challenging what locality means, combined with ingredients either grown or foraged from an extensive pantry. A library of produce found in the British Isles, whose flavours are harnessed through ancient and innovative techniques. Nothing goes to waste, from squash leaves to corn husks, everything has a place.
Still, for all these good intentions, Sam isn’t naive to the fact that what he and his team do at the restaurant isn’t yet accessible to everyone, something that's addressed through using the spaces as focus points for the wider community. Residencies exploring the intersections of art and ecology are an important part of the space. Earlier this year Sam teamed up with potter Joe Hartley and baker Rosie Wilkes to open Yellowhammer, a pottery and bakery that provides both the restaurant and wider community with their wares.
Art college, a degree in journalism, and a break in his culinary career to tour Europe as a musician have all played their part in Sam’s background. Describing him as a chef feels frugal. The spaces he’s responded to have become a beacon for other artisans. Whether this is an Ikebana master imparting their knowledge, or a mushroom grower taking up residency in the restaurant’s basement. As Rosie says: “Sam’s an amazing chef, but he has this real talent in bringing together the right people.” Community and people very much lie at the heart of what he does.
Being awarded a Green Michelin star is a recognition of the restaurant's efforts, however Sam acknowledges the “misgivings of being elite – so if there has to be this elitist class thing at least there is warmth.” This warmth is reflected in some of Sam’s influences, such as food writers Patience Gray and Jane Grigson. “There’s enormous luxury and incredible warmth and generosity in the way they approach and prepare food that is hard to capture in a commercial kitchen,” he says.
Gray’s holistic and ahead-of-its-time treatise Honey From A Weed proffers the definition of hospitality as discerning “precisely what your guests need.” Sam evolves this notion by using the restaurant as an example of how to remodel the hospitality industry as one that inherently values mental and physical health. “The people cooking the meal, the team, are more important than the guests – their happiness rubs off,” he explains. This appreciation of the alchemical nurturing aspect of cooking, outside of a home environment, feels novel. As he says, he’s happiest when “looking at the team doing their thing.”
The height of summer’s end has passed and we are tentatively in the earliest days of autumn, rain only threatens but there’s no meaningful chill in the air yet. The restaurant is taking its end of season break, so Sam has offered to cook for us at home.
In his garden, plants are less gardened than they are left to develop at will. Wild rocket has colonised one corner of the garden, happily hosting various sorrels, while mustard leaves, yarrow, chards and a plethora of herbs nestle among the gentle rabble.
Tomatoes are left whole and given their own bowl, as are cucamelons, figs, pickled cherries. Cheeses are put on a board. But elements of the restaurant’s dedication to unfussy and their well-treated food are present too. Cured and grated egg yolk resembling soft dried apricots lends a creamy saltiness to thick rounds of cucumbers, dressed in an intensely verdant oregano oil. Garlic fermented in the compost, the colour and sweetness of molasses, is paired with purple beans and dressed in an XO sauce made from mushrooms (“umami for vegans”) grown in the basement of the restaurant. Herbs feature everywhere.
The last thing to come together is a salad. After several minutes spent foraging in his edible woodland, Sam has emerged with a large ceramic bowl laden with leaves and herbs of every kind. I ask how big the salad is going to be; we’re only three people. “I dunno,” he replies. “As big as the garden allows.” It feels like the only reasonable response.
Interview by Maya Thomas.
Photographs by Camilla Greenwell.
Sam wears our Organic Cord Point Collar Jacket from our Menswear collection.
Where the Light Gets In is at 7 Rostron Brow, Stockport.