There’s a food revolution taking place in the UK and, surprising as it might sound, its HQ can be found in a disused factory in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent.
Meet Cris Cohen – a man who’s passionate about anything, and everything, connected with the topic of food culture. Someone with a genuine hunger to connect the “deliciousness of food” with a wider range of “special experiences”.
Having worked in hospitality in both Staffordshire and London since the age of 14, his journey up the food chain, to the top of his very own Chef’s Table, has been long and arduous at times. But with beliefs about food as complex as some of his own dishes, he’s now at that point where a seat at the table of the best kept secret in Stoke-on-Trent could soon become one of the hottest tickets in town.
It was while working for a private client in 2019, that Cohen experienced a seminal moment. “I had been teaching from 2010 to 2016, when I had to leave that job due to long-term illness,” he begins. “Then, in October 2017 I put out a super-simple and super-humble message on Facebook saying ‘Hey – who wants some soup and bread’.”
The four people who responded not only enjoyed a fine lunch, they also played a small part in restoring Cohen’s self-belief to the point where he started cooking dinner parties for private clients, and thinking about ways in which he could combine the food he was creating with a strong sense of place.
The key moment when everything finally fell into place – “an affirmation”, to use Cohen’s own words – was when, in April 2019, he heard Claus Meyer the co-founder of the revolutionary NOMA restaurant in Copenhagen being interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme on the subject of ‘How To Start A Food Revolution’.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Well, almost… FEASTED – “home” to The Chef’s Table, Blue Room and FEASTED Academy – had first to be put on hold for the small matter of a global pandemic, and a national lockdown.
But that radio programme is still his main reference point; and during the period when time seemed to stand still for most people, Cohen worked hard on fine-tuning his vision of opening a restaurant which was going to be closely linked to its city of birth, to seasonality, to the chemistry of food, and to giving its guests a whole new outlook on dining-out in the dystopian, post-industrial setting of the former Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent.
“Making people feel marginally uncomfortable can be so beneficial,” he explains. “Michelin stars are all mostly about great food in a lovely setting. But here, we add our own human touch. And that’s also defined by the fact that guests are often sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with people they’ve never met before. So it’s all about making sure they arrive as strangers and leave as friends through a shared dining experience.”
Add to that another couple of key ingredients, along with a liberal sprinkling of “where the magic happens”, and – voilà – this is FEASTED…
Its themed menus change regularly. At the time of writing, one of the most prominent ceramics events in the world, the British Ceramics Biennial, was being staged throughout The Potteries; so Cohen had taken the decision to go with the theme of ‘From The Ground Up’.
He says: “This is the sort of thing we can do at FEASTED. We had one table, nine courses, and 10 people – and a menu that ran for the duration of the BCB. Courses started from the ground up, in much the same way that clay is the key ingredient taken from the ground in order to create some incredible pieces of ceramic art for the exhibitions”.
As a result, charred broccoli and potato were matched with flatbread for the start of the meal; followed by smoked mushroom broth and coxinha mushroom dumpling – a dish which reflected the landscape of The Potteries with the steam of the broth swirling around the potbank-shaped dumpling; and then onwards and upwards from there, through seven more courses, to Rovers in Mars (a petit four of plum, brandy, white chocolate and hibiscus) which highlighted the way in which the ceramics from Stoke-on-Trent have actually ended-up in outer space.
“Stoke-on-Trent is a working city with working class people,” explains Cohen. “Yet we know no bounds – our plates are used in the finest restaurants around the globe, and our key industry still remains at the cutting edge of innovation. It’s great getting that message across to our guests, but at the same time it helps our kids realise there are no limits”.
This is just one of the messages he wants to take to a wider public…as well as to the kids themselves. And one of his latest projects has been to help create a garden at nearby Thistley Hough School, where some of the vegetables that are grown here will even find their way into his kitchen, and onto the plates of diners from around the globe.
The FEASTED Academy also gives opportunities to youngsters from the local area: “The heat of the kitchen is capable of breaking people. I just want our chefs to understand the chemistry of food; to be intelligent in the kitchen; to understand the myriad of contexts that are connected to cooking. It is not enough to be able to create a good sauce, or cook the perfect steak. What we do here is sustainable. It’s what got us here in the first place, and it’s what enables us to do what we do now.”
Further evidence of the food revolution taking root in Stoke-on-Trent is mirrored by the fact that the current 13 members of staff will soon be joined by a further six. But that’s not preventing Cohen from spending time on other complex issues: “Chefs should not just exist within the four walls of a kitchen. We can engage in so much more – food poverty, nutrition, education.”
Comparisons with some famous names in the world of food are inevitable. But there’s a feeling that Cohen is only just getting started. And he’s also due to appear on a new food programme hosted by Andi Oliver on BBC TV next year.
Just how long The Chef’s Table remains a best kept secret remains to be seen. It has grown organically up to now, but there are some very tasty plans in the pipeline – including an entirely new deli, chef’s larder and store that’s about to pop-up in the nearby market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme. And while the city of Stoke-on-Trent has become the blueprint for other operations, it’s all beginning to feel like “the revolution’s here”.
In the meantime, he and his Operational Head Nicola Renny and Head Chef Alex Norcop, will continue to welcome guests from the local area, the rest of the UK and around the world to the Chef’s Table every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night for a meal (“an experience”) costing £90 a head, and on a Thursday lunchtime when it costs £50.
And when he says “the world”, he really does mean it. There’s a growing band of very loyal local diners. But word is spreading fast, with bookings now reaching FEASTED from Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, London and Cornwall, as well as America, Canada and Shanghai. These are visitors who have eaten in some of the finest establishments around the globe, and have done their research in looking for the “next experience”.
And even Cohen, who insists throughout that he is very cautious, and overly keen to manage expectations – both about what they can expect from the city, and from his restaurant – finishes with a smile: “Many of them say ‘You’re as good as any of those’!”
Photo, above: Cris’s smoked mushroom broth and coxinha mushroom dumpling – a dish reflecting the landscape of The Potteries with the steam of the broth swirling around the potbank-shaped dumpling
Photo, below: Cris Cohen