Tampopo founder David Fox on the Manchester food scene

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 April 2016

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He doesn't know it, but there's a good chance David Fox saved my education, writes Ben Hanson.

t sounds silly in 2016, with fusions of every conceivable cuisine clamouring for our attentions, but as a student in Manchester at the turn of the millennium, Tampopo’s unique blend of affordable staples was my salve when, strung out and stressed, I staggered the short distance from digs off Oxford Road to their Albert Square location.

Their pho fuelled friendships; their Vietnamese coffee got me through coursework. I even took dates to sample the other destinations on their pan-Asian menu: Japanese, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai, and Singaporean. For me, at least, it’s hard to imagine a Manchester without Tampopo. But not everyone was so sure the idea was going to take off.

‘Hospitality has really grown up,’ David tells me. ‘But when I first started, giving up a stable job and going into the restaurant trade was exotic but, for a lot of people, a pretty perplexing thing to do.’

In 1997, Tampopo co-founder Nick Jeffrey stepped away from Shell, and David left behind a safe career in City accountancy to pioneer their “fresh eastern cooking” concept in Manchester – a decision made because ‘people here are far more open to ideas and outside influences than elsewhere.’

Today, the brand is one of the cornerstones of the regenerated Corn Exchange (which David calls ‘a fascinating development, and a new dining district), and has forded its way to Fitzrovia, in London. This puts David in a unique position to commentate on how the restaurant business has changed nationally and in the North West.

‘In America, around 50% of what people are eating and drinking is outside the home,’ he says. ‘We’re only just reaching 20% in the UK, but that’s still a massive increase from twenty years ago. And as one of the country’s regional cities, I think Manchester is producing some great brands and great ideas.’

He isn’t wrong on that count. My monthly trips into the city are uniformly disorienting; new bars and new eateries abound. And Manchester is also embracing what David calls “the street food revolution”, with regular pop-ups and, most recently, the Asian Street Food Village.

‘Wherever you travel, the food people eat and the way they eat it play a massive part in their culture. Particularly in East Asia, there’s an exciting, inclusive, and healthy attitude to food: the businessman at the street corner cart is eating the same noodles as the guy who cleans the pavements. Street food is explosively popular here all of a sudden, but they’ve been doing it there for centuries.’

But while noodles, rice, and broths may be the great levellers, David believes Manchester and Cheshire are earning their place at the top end of the trade, too.

‘We have the Michelin aspirations of Manchester House and The French, and slightly under that radar I’ve always been really impressed by the quality of food and service at Mr. Cooper’s House & Garden. Volta in West Didsbury, too; I love what they’re doing with the moreish food concept.’

I ask him what else, in a world of multi-site, multinational brands, Manchester can do to distinguish itself.

‘This is a bit rich coming from me, running an East Asian restaurant, but I like the principle of terroir: that what you eat and drink reflects the place you’re in. Manchester certainly doesn’t hurt for character and identity elsewhere, but on the food front you have to seek it out.’

Laughing, the nineteen-year veteran adds that: ‘I think that kind of change takes time.’

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