We love it when a chef goes rogue. In the name of creative freedom and putting people before profit, Iain Thomas has launched a new itinerant supper club called Our Place. It requires your attention for a number of reasons.
You might recognise the chef’s name from his time at The Alan. Hattersley-born Thomas’s food won high praise from restaurant critic Jay Rayner. When he visited to review The Alan in 2022, he enjoyed “a truly delightful and admirably tight menu of diverting dishes.”
Thomas’s introduction to fine dining kitchens was at Establishment (in the building now occupied by Rosso) where he met fellow chef Davey Aspin who had trained with Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. The pair worked together around Scotland’s high-end restaurants like Rocpool Reserve Inverness and the Pieraccini family’s Seafood Ristorante in St Andrews. Thomas has also worked at Michelin Star venues like The Devonshire Arms and Paul Kitching’s 21212 in Edinburgh.
So why did a highly experienced chef at the top of his game decide to leave the safety net of restaurants and go do his own thing?
Thomas tells a familiar story of restaurant owners taking on fantastic chefs, all gung ho about them using the best produce for their creative, skilful menus before a few months later looking to cut corners and focus on profit margins. Money men taking the artistry and joy out of a job that is at its essence, a creative one.
“I just want to focus on doing what I do well,” says Thomas, “I’ve worked in kitchens where you feel like a robot. I just want to feel natural and create rather than recreate. As soon as you start chasing the money, you sell your soul.”
Thomas’s partner in Our Place is David O’Connor. They met when O’Connor was head of marketing at The Alan hotel.
“We've worked in lots of places where doing our jobs requires years of training and skill, but to own a business you just need money,” says O’Connor, “We’ve seen what people do [with profits] when they own businesses. They spend it on things that are pointless. We want profit for purpose. We’re two guys with no money but we've got a passion for what we do.”
What exactly does ‘profit for purpose’ mean? O’Connor says it’s very simple, invest whatever profits you make wisely and for the greater good. “I’m not going to go buy myself a Ferrari or a fancy MacBook,” he says, “I’m going to invest it into the business.”
O’Connor is not sold on things like Perkbox that many employers use to reward high-performing employees with “perks” like a free sausage roll or a coffee. He wants to explore more meaningful ways of rewarding employees like helping them to save a deposit for a house.
“We want the business to be 50% owned by the employees so they’ve all got a stake in it and they all believe in it,” he says, “They get voting rights on what we can and can’t do. We just want to do something good with it.”
Our Place has connected with Only A Pavement Away, donating £5 from every supper club ticket sold to the homelessness charity. The longer term plan is to be able to provide jobs for people experiencing homelessness but they want to help out in other ways too.
“My mum always taught me to look out for the least, the last and the lost,” he continues, “That goes beyond looking at the homeless on the street corner. You don't know what mental health challenges your neighbour's got right now that they're struggling with. I want to encourage people to look out for each other. Talk to each other.”
The supper clubs also shine a light on Manchester-based creatives from various disciplines, such as art, music, and spoken word with a different performer appearing at each event to entertain guests.
But back to the food. The team are passionate about championing local suppliers. As we talk to Thomas about his approach to cooking, the conversation is littered with names like Littlewoods, Cinderwood, Field 28, and Polyspore Mushrooms and he’s excited to tell us about a new micro herb grower near Chadderton called The Sparrows Urban Market Garden.
Sustainability is at the heart of what they do. When we visited for a Burns Night supper club, the butter that came with our home-made bread rolls was made by the Crafty Cheeseman from the whey leftover in the cheesemaking process that might otherwise have gone to waste. Not one to cut corners, Thomas even made his own flavourful haggis for the event. The food was stylish, beautifully cooked and fun. You can tell the chef is enjoying himself while holding onto his core values.
The sustainability angle ties in well with the ethos of Open Kitchen, the location for several Our Place supper clubs. The People’s History Museum’s cafe started life as Real Junk Food on Oxford Road, a community project that provided meals on a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ basis made from perfectly good food that would have otherwise have gone in the bin.
As well as working with Open Kitchen , Our Place has collaborated with Manchester Urban Diggers and held events at Bernie’s in Altrincham. On 5 March it will be popping up with small plates at Ancoats natural wine bar, Kerb and is going to be hosting events at other restaurants like Isca in Levenshulme, Yellowhammer in Stockport, and Elnecot in Ancoats as well as some Manchester breweries and tap rooms.
Thomas is buzzing to tell us about the recent pop up at Bernie’s, "It was such a cool night,” he says, “I just turned up and cooked. [Owner of Bernie’s] Will, and David put some cool vinyl on and we just let the food naturally flow.”
He tells us they would love to have a long term residency at “one of these cool coffee shops” and that they are also in talks with Stockport Council about doing something together. So the calendar is pretty busy, but do the pair one day want a bricks and mortar restaurant to call their own? Unequivocally yes. The dream is one day for Our Place to have a permanent home, where people can come as they are, dress how they like for dinner and feel that it is also their place to call home.
Both O’Connor and Thomas are consummate professionals at the top of their game. They’re passionate and ambitious with a social conscience that makes their supper clubs even more appealing. But O’Connor tells us they have both come across stumbling blocks in the world of work due to their neurodivergences.
“We’re both ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder),” says O’Connor, “I think sometimes people get trampled down by the system. It's only now I'm 42, I'm confident enough on applying for a job to say to someone: you need to know that I've got Asperger's and I might be a bit weird for you. Growing up I could never tell anyone.”
Thomas explains he has a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis which can cause learning difficulties that he likens to dyslexia. He says it’s probably the reason he became a chef. “Most chefs are in the kitchen because they’re not that good at reading and writing,” he tells us. Thomas goes into schools to teach kids about careers in hospitality and encourages them that even if they’re not good at reading and writing, they can have a fulfilling career in a kitchen.
“I know it's spinach in the tub, even if it's not spelled right,” he says, “As long you can write a label and you're following the EHO guidelines, using the three day labelling system, that's the most writing, in theory, you should have to do in a kitchen. A lot of kids panic thinking they can't read and write [well] or their English ain't good, but most of us chefs are like that.”
While hospitality has served Thomas well as a career, his name respected by many of his culinary peers, he’s truly at home at Our Place. He and O’Connor want their staff and customers to feel at home too.
“It's Our Place because it's us working for ourselves,” says O'Connor, “It's Our Place because we're hoping to give people a job and a home - so it's their place too. Places like Soho House and 20 Stories are great but we’re not going to have sexy furniture. It's not going to be the most Instagrammable restaurant in the world but when you come you're going to feel like you're at home.”
Our Place is popping up at the following venues in March and April:
- Sunday 5 March - Kerb, M4 5DD BOOK TICKETS
- Sunday 12 March - Track Taproom, M1 2NP
- Saturday,18 March - Yellowhammer, SK1 1JQ
- Tuesday 21 March - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER (in collaboration with GM Mayors Charity)
- Thursday, 23 March - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER
- Friday 24 March - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER
- Saturday, 25 March - Bernie’s Grocery, WA14 1SB
- Tuesday, 28 March - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER
- Thursday, 30 March - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER
- Tuesday 11 April - ISCA, M19 3PN
- Tuesday, 18 April - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER
- Thursday, 20 April - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER
- Tuesday, 25 April - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER
- Thursday, 27 April - Open Kitchen, M3 3ER
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