David Mooney is one half of the New Moon company, which operates bars, restaurants and pubs from Liverpool through to Manchester. We met up in the Mockingbird Taproom on lower Watergate st to talk about the company and his views on Chester’s dining scene.
“We started barely 4 and a half years ago. We opened a very run down, unloved pub in Kelsall, 8 miles from Chester. the old Morris Dancer. We renamed it The Lord Binning, the aim was to due simple food done well. Real ale, decent wine, good food, served in a nice environment. Paul (Newman) and I have never signed any contracts, it was done on a handshake and remains so to this day, 8 places later…”
David says that New Moon aim to empower their managers. “With 8 places we can’t be there day in , day out. We try and recruit the right people. Take cask beer for example, if you’re looking for a good cask beer and you have a great brewery just down the road, use their stuff. If the one you like best is 15 miles away, at the right price, then so be it. Same applies with fillet steak, with cheese, with milk. We go through 1000s of lines and we try and source every one responsibly, which takes an awful lot of doing. I was laughing to myself this morning. I started at 6 o clock, and I was making a pie filling.. its lamb, fried potato and coriander. And I thought to myself “I’m chopping up, and boning out pieces of lamb, wouldn’t it be great to go and pull it out of a freezer like 98% of our rivals!” No actually, the joy of creating it from raw ingredients , it does me good..”
Mooney has 35 years experience in the trade. “I started front of house.. I’m 53 now.. I did a couple of years front of house and the rest I’ve been a chef. I’ve lived and worked in France, the Thames Valley, London. I think France was where the love of ingredients and the simplicity came from. I worked in a market garden, we picked tomatoes in the morning and eat them that evening. They do silly little things like leave them out of the fridge, the flavour is so lovely, a little bit of olive oil, a little bit of rock salt. I can taste that now !”
The Mockingbird has been open for nearly 2 years. Before this it was The Fat Cat, which David likens to “the really gorgeous girl at school who was really popular…and then you saw her ten years later, and you see life hasn’t been too kind too her, she probably partied a bit too hard! It was depressing and dingy…We knew it wasn’t a gastropub site.. we didn’t want to do the dirty, smoke house thing which has done very well in Chester elsewhere. We went away, had a little think about it, and we came up with a pan Gulf theme, everything from Mexico to Cuba. We’ve got the burgers, the ribs.. we can have some really good Mexican stuff, then down into New Orleans, we’ve got the gumbos… Its great, it gives the menu a broad target to aim at.”
In recent years, restaurants have sprung up in Chester , and many have won national acclaim. “I think Chester is at a very interesting point now. For many many years, I live just 10 miles outside of Chester, and theres a couple of nationally superb restaurants in Chester. And that was sort of it, there was no middle ground. If you wanted to come in and have a casual meal on a Sunday afternoon.. and its gone from that to “we want chains”. But I don’t think Chester is a chain place. They have gone all out , and slavishly laid the mat out for these places, which in my opinion are bland and ordinary.”
“It’s not the restaurant quarter! They can call it what they want, they can call it the “Egon Ronay memorial food court! They’re not restaurants they are food factories. I think one chain is too many personally. It’s difficult, I understand why people go to them, I understand why people want them, but for me its like eating airline food.!”
However he champions independents such as Porta and the Chef’s Table. “I love Joey B’s (Joseph Benjamin) I think Sticky holds it head anywhere… I went to a little French place last week that was good. I have been going to Sticky , since 6 months after it opened. I’ve become really pissed off with him, because now he’s popular, he’s Mr Nice! He’s actually nice to people on twitter. To get a table, you have to worship Gary, you have to send him gold nuggets, you have to send him a sacrificial lamb!” he jokes.
“If I lived nearer I would eat at Porta’s six days a week. The two brothers at Joey B’s are passionate about what they do… People look at Sticky Walnut and say “its only a small menu , its only got 5 starters. I can go to chimichimi-wangas and theres 500 starters..” Yeah, because its all pinged and zinged!”
“Chester is one of the most stunning cities. Unique, in this country… We’ve got a river, the walls, the oldest racecourse, beautiful little streets, and what do we do , we go and plonk crappy everyday chain restaurants in there. They should be going out and finding people like me, like Gary, like the two brothers at Joey B’s. Theres a really brilliant restaurant opened just outside Chester called Cornichon.. why are they opening in Tarvin and not being encouraged to open in Chester?” says David angrily. New Moon lost out to Miller and Carter steakhouse when negotiating for the unit beneath council HQ:
“We negotiated for months, and at the point of signing the contract they say “we’ve got a better offer from a chain”. We wanted to open a Beef and Pudding. What’s disappointing is the lack of support for local business, they would rather do business with a massive corporate entity…”
He asks how the “success” of Chester is to be judged: “Is your success the number of people sat in there, spending money, or is it going to local guys, who are going to support local suppliers and employ local people. I employ 200 people, I want them to spend money in one of our places, it keeps us all going .” Mooney is also philosophical about the loss of the Linenhall car park , which also serviced shoppers to Watergate st and beyond.
“I think we need much more student accommodation. When’s it gonna stop, when they hit Wrexham! Students spend money, it adds vibrancy. I don’t blame anyone who accepts an offer, or thinks they can make a piece of land work better for them. Next door we had an old DVLA office, and now its a fantastic hotel. You can’t stand still, you can’t remain “Chester the Roman city”… but you have to be careful where you go with it. Its a very cherished city. People like the council have to remember, its not their land, they’re custodians. When you and I are archaeological relics, this city still has to be a place to visit for our children’s children. That’s what concerns me, we’re building for the now and not the future…”
David is a regular at the Chester food festival. “I’ve done the Chester food festival since the second or third year in. I think it was in the Town Hall with 2 or 3 gazebos, 4 people and a dog. I know Stephen (Wundke) gets a lot of flack, but he has grown it into one of the top food festivals in the country. I think Chester at Easter is quiet a fix on the food festival calendar…. I see a lot of very well known chefs demoing there, its great. I do them all over the country…I do BBC good food shows, those sort of things, I’ve cut back because they are quite time consuming.” His day to day schedule varies : “Sometimes you’ll follow your nose, I can see on my phone , how many we have booked. We’ve got a really strong head office team, and there’s usually one of us in the sites every day supporting and helping.”
He says that this year New Moon are consolidating. “Realistically, we have no outside investment, we’ve got to start looking at that, for the next 3-5 years and its just going to be wide open. If I could open 2 more sites in Chester, I would tomorrow, with the right premises…”
David celebrates his image as the “gobby chef”.
“There’s a lot of great chefs out there, a lot better than me. The problem with chefs, without naming names, they are great at being “The Chef“. But to me, a chef is a broader role, you have to go out and engage with the public and I have never been frightened of doing that…What you’ll get from me is a belief, you might not agree with it, and I’ve been proved wrong on many times, but I’m firm in my commitment. I like food to be food, I don’t like it to be arsed around with. I like gas, pans, humans… I don’t need it to go through a dehydrator. I admire what those kind of guys are doing . but its not for me.
” Last week we went to Duck and Waffle, and it was stunning. Its imaginative food, duck and waffle a great idea for a signature dish. But its basis is in confit of duck, a French classic. That’s what I like, not making a duck bubble, and putting orange air through it, and all this, with a peashoot foam!!”
Follow David on Twitter @GobbyChef