Chef profile - Simon Shaw of El Gato Negro

When Simon Shaw opened El Gato Negro in Ripponden in 2005 there were raised eyebrows.

Simon Shaw has made his mark with his brilliant tapas dishes. (JPIMedia).

Was opening a tapas restaurant in an out-of-the-way village in the Ryburn Valley a brave or foolish move?

Well, it didn’t just work; it was a triumph. He built it and they came – from all over the country.

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Food critics fetched up and heaped praise: “We received a great review in the early stages from The Yorkshire Post food critic Robert Cockcroft, which certainly helped,” says Shaw. “It’s a remarkably convincing tapas menu,” opined Jay Rayner. A visit by Gordon Ramsay’s team from The F Word followed, and El Gato won “best local Spanish restaurant in the country”.

Today, Shaw’s El Gato empire includes a stunning site on King Street in Manchester (which has won the city centre’s only Michelin Bib Gourmand), a branch in Liverpool and a huge converted bank on East Row in Leeds and Canto, a restaurant serving up Portuguese food in Ancoats.

Shaw was still in short trousers when he first went into restaurant kitchens to learn his trade. He found his way to catering college and eventually worked his way up to head chef at Harvey Nichols in Leeds via stints at Pool Court and Leodis.

A move to Harvey Nicks London followed and he became executive chef. It was while he was there he dreamed up the idea of tapas in Yorkshire; it’s a love affair that hasn’t waned and he still visits Barcelona a couple of times a year – he’s been 80 odd times.

When we’re allowed out again, I’d like to sign up for a Shaw Tour of Spain please.

What is the first thing you remember cooking? My mum had three jobs when we were kids so I was used to preparing food at an early age to help out with dinner, which gave me a real sense of achievement – it’s definitely what got me into cooking. I then progressed on to cooking pancakes for my mates. I would often have five or six pals round after school to show off my new skills. I don’t think mum was so pleased about that.

Who is your culinary inspiration? I started working in professional kitchens at the age of 14. I was very lucky to work with a really talented head chef, David Spencer, who took me under his wing and really showed me the proper way to do everything. I learnt so much in a relatively short time, I’ve never forgotten that. So he was a huge influence and really set me on my way. He was also a great bloke; I really enjoyed my time there.

After working for David I went to work at Willerby Manor for Derek Baugh. Willerby Manor was a very busy place with a great reputation so it was a real step up for me with a much bigger team.

Again, Derek was a huge influence in my early career. His knowledge of food and business and attention to detail were second to none. I was learning so much. It’s also thanks to Derek that I became a pastry chef. I really didn’t want to do it at the time because I wanted to be in the main kitchen where all the action was, but it really gave me an understanding of a section that most chefs shy away from.

I feel both those guys had a huge influence on the chef I am today.

Who would be your dream dinner party guests? Guy Ritchie, Marco Pierre White, Winston Churchill (it’s a known fact he drank great Champagne) Norman Wisdom for the laughs and Paul Lazenby, my dear old friend.

What piece of kit could you not live without? Definitely a great set of knives but also my Rational oven and Thermomix blender.

What’s your guilty pleasure? That’s easy, any good chocolate and Bettys Millionaire Shortbread.

How are you handling the Covid-19 restrictions? It’s been such a strange time for everyone, but for chefs and hospitality staff there’s been an unprecedented amount of time off. I think it will have given a lot of people time to reflect and hopefully enable them to really appreciate what matters most. On a professional level, it’s been tough, but at the same time it’s given us time to review the businesses, time we would never have had under normal circumstances. I feel once we come out of the current situation we’ll be a stronger and better business. We’ve added hampers and lots of Spanish goodies to our range this year, something we’ve been talking about for a few years. Also the support we’ve had from all our team and customers has been amazing.