Regarded as something of a bible in the culinary world, the Michelin Guide has long been hailed as the benchmark for great restaurants. But in recent years, against a difficult backdrop of Covid-enforced closures, the famous tyre company has expanded its scope to include a wider breadth of gastronomic experiences.
Today, the very best food in Britain and Ireland is not necessarily going to be found in stuffy dining rooms with ultra-formal silver service. Instead, hospitality’s evolution has given rise to a plethora of award-worthy restaurants where the main focus is a commitment to the local area and the people they work alongside.
If you were to venture just 15 miles east of Manchester, to the market town of Glossop in the foothills of the Peak District, you would find such a place. Hyssop, the brainchild of chef Paul Sykes and his partner Jess Hine, began life as a pop-up restaurant concept in early 2018, before taking on a six-month residency at the Bull’s Head and eventually landing a permanent home on Glossop high street in 2019.
Sandwiched between Bargain Booze and a carpet centre, the rather inconspicuously placed restaurant was recently included in the Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland 2022, and highlighted by inspectors as one of their favourite new additions for the month of March. The friendly neighbourhood restaurant offering a small plates menu was commended by Michelin for its “well-judged dishes”, showcasing “a classic base and subtle international overtones”.
The Hyssop team was also praised for their skilled cooking, “both in preparation, as well as in the clever marriage of flavours and textures”. But crucially, the hospitality and attention-to-detail, something that both Paul and Jess pride themselves on, was commended, with the guide stating: “the super friendly team knows the menu inside out and will guide you in the right direction”.
While it hasn’t been plain sailing for the pair, being recognised by the guide has given them a major boost, especially after many years of hard work and graft. For Paul, who has worked in some of Britain’s top kitchens including Claridge’s in London and The French in Manchester, moments like this make it all worth it.
“It’s a roll of the dice when you open a new restaurant,” says Paul as we sit down in the upstairs dining room shortly before evening service. “It was really emotional.
“If someone says you’re doing your job well then that feels amazing. You just feel warm inside because someone has complimented you.
“And if someone says they’re not bothered about being in the guide then I think they’re lying. It’s like saying you’ve never had a McDonald’s cheeseburger.”
The pair, who live in Denton met while working at a restaurant, Jess as pastry chef and Paul as a sous chef. Very early on it became clear to them both that a joint venture was on the cards.
“I remember right at the beginning we said that one day we would own a restaurant together,” smiles Jess. “Paul is the hardest worker I’ve ever met in my life and pretty much from that day forward, we put things in place for that to happen.”
Disheartened by the state of the industry, a few years ago, the couple started to put their plans into action. Paul would work for an agency in the day, and by night he would be busy developing his tasting menus.
“To begin with, we looked everywhere for investors and we didn’t know what road to go down,” he says. “We literally just did pop-ups, prepped in our ridiculously small kitchen at home with a blender, a water bath and an ice-cream machine and off we cracked.”
“My mum would also bring a hostess trolley,” chimes Jess. “We would say ‘oh we’ll joke about this one day, driving a hostess trolley from Warrington to Glossop so that we’ve got warm plates for service’”.
As it happens, the pop-ups in Glossop, which often sold out in less than 24 hours, provided them with a platform to show the community what they could do, paving the way for bigger and better things. So, when Paul’s old college tutor – the former owner of the restaurant space where Hyssop now proudly stands – decided to retire, the opportunity was there for the taking.
“We literally said it in passing one day, ‘oh if you ever want to sell’ and he said he had been thinking about it, and it just all came together from there,” explains Jess. “It all slotted into place for us, so we’re super grateful for that.”
So what exactly does a visit to Hyssop entail? Well according to Paul, the man behind the pass, modern British cuisine in its truest form is what you can expect. “People sometimes get confused by what modern Britain is today,” he says. “The modern Britain we live in is one of the biggest multicultural societies in Europe.
“So you’ve got people like Simon Rogan, who do classic, modern British and other people who follow the same lines, but you can’t overlook the influence of different cultures such as Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Thai on the food. People like the taste and the flavour and we incorporate that true British, modern cuisine.”
The small plates menu constantly evolves depending on availability and seasonality of produce. Divided into three section – Sea, Land and Earth – dishes range from stone bass with mussels and Thai green curry, and Derbyshire lamb with garlic and chilli hasselback potato, to Tandoori cauliflower with onion bhaji and butter curry sauce, and salt baked celeriac with onion orzo and mushroom.
Fortunately for myself and the photographer, Paul is more than happy to whip us up a dish, even with just ten minutes left until service. And just like that the Tandoori halibut with onion bhaji and butter curry sauce appears in front of us.
Comforting, confident and cooked to perfection, the dish packs a welcome punch of spice, and is well worth the parking ticket I incurred by hanging back to try it. When Paul realises our photographer is vegetarian he quickly returns to the kitchen – despite our assurances that it won’t be necessary – to make a veggie friendly alternative.
For Paul and Jess, who have poured their hearts into this business, great service – something I was able to experience even in the short space of time I visited Hyssop – is fundamental.
As Paul explains: “For us eating and drinking is a really enjoyable experience. Nothing is too much trouble, if you have a dietary requirement, we’ll work around it because we want you to experience our cooking.
“We want people to come and have the best time they can. It’s very rewarding for me, it sounds a bit cheesy but it feeds by soul.”
“He doesn’t like to talk about this much because it was quite a big thing in his life, but his dad was a chef, but he passed away before Paul was born, when his mum was pregnant,” adds Jess.
“It was always his dad’s dream to open a restaurant. And I think that’s something that’s really driven you towards wanting to do this, because he says all the time that he does this for his dad, because he didn’t have the opportunity.”
Paul reflects: “He was a chef at Shrigley Hall, a long time ago when it did classic French training and he started his career at The Savoy. It was back in the day with the big tall hats – I’ve still got the hats on the wall and his chef’s jacket.
“Because I never knew him as a person, I got into cooking and it’s given me this feeling, a bond with someone you’ve never met but because you love the same thing you think that must be how they felt about it.”
Despite the difficulties that life has thrown them, the pair remain positive, and now with the boost of Michelin, optimistic about next chapter. While talk of a restaurant-with-rooms concept fills the air, Jess, who is just a few weeks away from giving birth, is focused on the imminent arrival.
“Hopefully we’ve finished service when you’re about to give birth though,” Paul jokes. “But, we’ve got the energy to go even further now that all these good things have happened for us.”
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