Chef Simon Shaw returns to Yorkshire roots with opening of El Gato Negro Leeds

Simon Shaw regards himself as the quiet man of cooking, and it is clear when meeting him in his recently opened El Gato Negro restaurant, in Leeds, that he is happy for his food to speak for itself.

He is not short of things to say, he just doesn’t feel the need to shout about it. His passion for cooking, in particular Spanish and Middle Eastern cuisine, is clear, but he has a calm if determined manner which many say is replicated in his kitchens.

It is interesting, then, that his reputation and that of his first El Gato Negro, in Ripponden, was raised to new heights by the attention of two men known for their outspoken outbursts – food critic Jay Rayner and fiery chef Gordon Ramsay.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Shaw opened the original El Gato Negro tapas restaurant in 2005 after learning his trade in restaurant kitchens in Leeds from the age of 14. He went to catering college and eventually worked his way up to head chef at Harvey Nichols in Leeds and was then seconded to their London operation as executive chef.

It was while at Harvey Nichols that Shaw fell in love with Spanish cuisine and it is a love affair that continues today (he has visited Barcelona more than 70 times). “Every year we’d take a different country and do ‘a taste of…’ and my favourite was definitely Spain. It was a different way of dining which really appealed to me.”

He started to travel to Spain to meet producers, some of which he still uses today. “It is the food I like to eat and the food I like to cook,” says Shaw. “I knew that it was the type of restaurant I wanted to open.”

Returning to Yorkshire, he started to look for a suitable site, eventually acquiring The Junction, in Ripponden, which was three minutes from where he was living at the time.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I always knew it was going to be in Yorkshire,” he says. “My initial feeling was that it was perfect.”

19 November  2019......19 November  2019......
19 November 2019......

He started by offering a more traditional menu with tapas served at the bar. But within three months realised he had to take the plunge. He closed the pub and when it reopened, he renamed it El Gato Negro, a name he had fallen in love with while in Madrid when he saw a wool shop of the same name. It served modern Spanish tapas.

“I thought it was a nice name for a restaurant. I wrote it down and then forgot about it until I was moving some packing boxes and a page fell out of a book and it had the name on it and I thought that’s it. Everybody said I was mad opening a tapas restaurant in the middle of a village, I put everything into it too. We were lucky, it really took off.

Read More
Read more: Five star review for El Gato Negro Leeds

“It was massive for us. We went from serving 20 to 30 covers on a Tuesday night to being full every single night of the week for about six months after it aired. The website jumped from around 400 hits a day to 11,000. We had to back up what the show said, of course, and we certainly delivered, but it was huge for us and we wouldn’t be where we are without it.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He says it was the success on The F Word that eventually proved the final nail in the restaurant’s coffin. As more people flocked to eat there and it grew in popularity, the owners of the premises increased the rent and for Shaw it reached the point where he felt it wasn’t viable for them to stay there any longer.

“In some ways it was difficult to leave Ripponden. We had built up some incredible relationships there, we had some very loyal customers but the time was right for us to go. We’d been there for ten years. Everything is all about timing.

“I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do but then Bill (Clynes) came along at the right time.” Shaw met Clynes through mutual friend Thom Hetherington. The pair immediately hit it off, although it was their love of music that they bonded over initially. In 2016, Shaw and Clynes opened El Gato Negro in an elegant converted town house on King Street, Manchester, and it proved an immediate hit. Clynes has big plans for El Gato Negro, but Shaw is happy to keep the brand small. “We now have three El Gato Negros, (Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds), Portuguese restaurant Canto, in Manchester, and next year we are opening our first Middle Eastern restaurant, again in Manchester. It is such a vibrant city with so much happening.”

19 November  2019......   Simon Shaw at El Gato Negro restaurant in Leeds. Picture Tony Johnson19 November  2019......   Simon Shaw at El Gato Negro restaurant in Leeds. Picture Tony Johnson
19 November 2019...... Simon Shaw at El Gato Negro restaurant in Leeds. Picture Tony Johnson

It is clear Shaw is not a man to rest on his laurels and he believes he and Clynes could cope with doubling the number of restaurants while maintaining the quality and consistency which he says is key. He doesn’t see El Gato Negro heading to London, and believes there are still places in the north to expand, possibly Edinburgh or even as far south as his home city Birmingham (he moved to Hull when he was 11).

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I don’t see an El Gato Negro in every city by any means,” he says. “But I do believe that by getting the right people in the right jobs you don’t have to be in the kitchen all the time.”

This consistency was rewarded when El Gato Negro, in Manchester, was awarded a much-coveted Bib Gourmand from Michelin (something he also achieved in the last three years at El Gato Negro, in Ripponden) “It was an incredible moment,” says Shaw. “Not just for me but for everyone involved and even more importantly we have maintained the Bib for three years running.”

Location is also extremely important to Shaw and he spent a long time finding the right location in Leeds. “We really wanted Leeds to be the second location for El Gato Negro, but then the site came up in Liverpool so we went with that first. Then Jamie’s Italian closed in Leeds and we thought it was the perfect place.”

The restaurant at 35 Park Row opened last month. For Shaw it is a welcome return to Yorkshire which to many is overdue, as he left Ripponden in 2015. “I got my first real footing as a chef in Leeds; it has always been my intention to return and open a restaurant in the city,” says Shaw.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I’ve spent the last four years looking for the right location and when the Jamie’s site became available it was too good an opportunity to miss. It’s a beautiful building steeped in history and has the most incredible features; whilst El Gato Negro restaurants will be consistent in great quality food and service, it’s essential to me that every restaurant has its own identity, its own story to tell.

“Finding the right heritage building in the right location is key to that, we’ll not compromise on either.”