The idea for Obsession came from a conversation I was having with Ian Harkness, who at the time was the chairman of Shire Inns. He mentioned that he’d just been to a food and wine festival at the Highlands Inn in Carmel, California and said what a wonderful event it was, with all the top American chefs there. At the end he said if I ever wanted to go to give him a call, because someone who used to work with him lived over there and I could probably stay with him. In the winter, if you offer somebody from Blackburn the opportunity to go to California they’re going to grab it. So I hopped on a plane, did the festival for a week and slept on this guy’s floor.
It was a great experience; I worked with Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Alice Waters and lots of other top chefs, and I just came back inspired. I’ll always remember that I missed my flight on the way back because I’d gone to the French Laundry and had too many desserts. When I finally got on the plane, there was a moment when you go through the clouds and the sunshine breaks through in a big, dazzling light, and I thought ‘why can’t we do something like that at home?’ We haven’t got the wine suppliers, but we do have great producers.
That bore the seed of it starting in 2001. I rang up a few friends that I worked with – Phil Howard, Nick Nairn and Terry Laybourne. I also did a Rioja night with wine critic Charles Metcalfe, because I couldn’t quite work out why anyone would want to come to my night when they could visit Northcote normally. We did four evenings in total, serving 50 to 60 people per night, and it was reasonably successful so we kept on building it. After year seven we went from five to seven nights, and I could see that it was gaining momentum, so we had a big celebration on the tenth anniversary and went to ten nights. Now we’re on year 18 – and 18 nights – and it just seems to keep growing. People have come to expect it, it’s almost like a culinary Christmas for our customers.
The camaraderie of Obsession is quite amazing. Here we have lots of different chefs coming through, and you’re bringing them into your kitchen, your home. Initially a lot of chefs said to me: ‘I don’t know how you do it, having lots of chefs in my kitchen would drive me mad’. However, I’ve always enjoyed cross pollinating ideas, and the longer the event has gone on the easier it is and the better it feels. It’s a learning process and you get used to people coming into your kitchen, taking it over and being the dominant personality. It’s very intellectually stimulating and educational when you’re watching other people work, and a lot of the chefs we invite are world leaders in their field, so it’s great to have them here. We also have involvement with colleges, who get a lot out of the process.
This year we have top British talent including Tom Kitchin and my good friend Jason Atherton, who will be opening the festival, as well as some great, young English chefs. We then have a plethora of chefs from across the globe. There’s a lot of exciting food coming out of South America at the moment, and this edition we’re particularly showcasing Mexico, and representing Argentina we have Martin Milesi, who is currently running Una in London, which is set to be very interesting. I’m always the last chef on, and I thought it would be nice to do things a little differently this year, so I’ve picked four of the most dynamic young chefs in the country to each cook a course with me. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to cook yet, but I need to make sure it all matches up and marries together well.
At Obsession, the atmosphere is electric and the sense of expectation is amazing. There’s a lot of excitement and rightly so, because you’ve got these top chefs coming to Langho to cook and give up their time. We forget that, just as how we experience other countries’ culture when we go abroad, it’s the same for these chefs coming to the UK. Most of them may have been to London, but it’s a different experience coming to Northcote, and we aim to give all our guests a real taste of northern hospitality.
NIGEL HAWORTH is the ambassador for Northcote and founder of Obsession, an annual culinary event that brings together the world’s top chefs at the Lancashire hotel and restaurant. The next edition takes place from 18 January to 4 February 2018, with bookings opening on 17 October 2017; northcote.com