Skof: the star-chasing restaurant for a city that likes to party

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Tom Barnes on his new Manchester restaurant Skof

Related tags Tom Barnes Skof L'Enclume Simon Rogan Manchester

Former Simon Rogan chef Tom Barnes is striking out on his own (well, sort of) with an ambitious Manchester venture that’s looking to do fine dining differently.

Tom Barnes jokes that there is nowhere to hide at his new Manchester venture.​ Taking up the entire ground floor of a handsome former textiles warehouse in the city’s Noma district, Skof takes the concept of the open plan restaurant to an extreme with only a tiny proportion of the high-ceilinged 2,700sq ft site out of view from guests.

There’s no getting away from it: 3 Federation Street is not an obvious space for a 36-cover fine dining restaurant. But Barnes and his mentor and former boss Simon Rogan are looking to do high-end dining differently in a city that is largely unmoved by fancy restaurants. 

Manchester’s eating out scene might be booming but the focus is on vibe-y premium casual places and cool indies rather than tasting menus and tablecloths (famously the city has just one Michelin-starred restaurant, Simon Martin’s Mana). Skof might offer a £165 15-course tasting menu, but it’s being pitched as something that is informal and energetic: a star-chasing restaurant for a city that likes to party.

That’s not an easy brief to hit. But while Skof might not be the North West’s answer to Ynyshir – the singular Welsh two-star that recently moved its DJ decks into the dining room​ – it does emit a youthful energy. This is in no small part down to Barnes – who is only 35 himself – having raided (with Rogan’s Umbel Restaurant Group’s blessing) the kitchens of the Lake District-based L’Enclume and Rogan & Co to assemble a team that largely still need to carry ID on a night out.

SkofTeam

Starting them young

It’s about 5pm and said team are sitting down to staff meal - a lentil ragu topped with generous amounts of Microplane-d hard cheese with a green salad on the side – ahead of Skof’s fourth-ever service. “He started at Rogan & Co when he was 15," says Barnes, gesturing to one of the more senior looking people on the table. “They might not be very old, but I have worked with some of them for a long time already. We have a strong team here. A lot of them are very young but they are also very good.”

Clean-shaven and wearing a Skof-branded T-shirt, Barnes cuts a relaxed figure for a chef who is about to cook for a full dining room of journalists and influencers. “This restaurant has been a long time coming,” he says with an air of quiet confidence. “I first started talking to Simon about doing my own thing three years ago and we found the site in 2022. It feels amazing to finally be doing it.”

Nominally owned and operated by Barnes but ‘supported’ by Rogan, Skof is the first of what might well be a series of restaurants from Umbel Restaurant Group alumni. On top of this, Skof is a return to Manchester of sorts for the group. In 2013, Rogan launched an ambitious restaurant at The Midland Grand hotel before following up with the more informal Mr Cooper’s House & Garden.

By Rogan’s own admission,​ neither were particularly well-received with the group ultimately parting ways with the hotel three years into a five-year contract. But not before featuring in BBC2’s Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester, which memorably pitted Rogan against Aiden Byrne in a race to bag the city a Michelin star (both came up short).  

Given this history and the fact that Barnes has played a key role in helping to amass Rogan’s constellation of stars – he won one for Rogan & Co and was also executive chef at L’Enclume when it ascended to three-star status in 2023 – all eyes will be on Skof when Michelin announces its new stars early next year. So, with the possible exception of the walk-in fridge, there really is nowhere to hide for Barnes, who ahead of the launch told Restaurant​ that he wanted his new restaurant to be 'world class'. ​ 

SkofInt

Avoiding stuffiness at all costs

Upon entering Skof, guests walk down a long, gently sloping ramp – it’s difficult to think of a better setup for wheelchair users – towards Barnes’ fully open kitchen before being ushered into a spacious dining area. Designed by London-based studio Blacksheep, the space is stripped back and contemporary with exposed brick walls, parquet flooring, striking circular wall lights and a mixture of freestanding and banquette seating in green and burnt orange leather.

“It feels like my place, they’ve captured what I wanted exactly. It’s cosy, friendly and there’s nothing stuffy about it. When it was a shell, I felt a bit concerned about the space because it seemed quite small. But oddly, as things started to go in it got bigger and bigger,” says Barnes, who has been encouraged to put his mark on the place.

Central to this is a large black and white illustration near the loos that tells the story of a young cook who swapped Barrow-in-Furness for the bright lights of Manchester. Barnes decided he wanted to be a chef at 14 when he started cooking with his grandmother. After learning the ropes in Cumbria under the Roux brothers-trained Duncan Collinge he headed south to work for John Campbell at the then two-Michelin starred The Vineyard at Stockcross and later at The Square under Phil Howard.

He then returned to The Lakes to spend the best part of a decade working for Rogan, first at his flagship L’Enclume and then at the more casual Rogan & Co where he attracted his first Michelin star. During this period Barnes also found time to win the Roux Scholarship and appear on Great British Menu​, where his dish of Herdwick lamb – which was inspired by The Tale of Peter Rabbit – was chosen to be served at the banquet. Towards the end of his 12 years or so working directly for Rogan Barnes briefly oversaw Danish three-star Geranium before returning to L’Enclume.

SkofCod

In the picture, the building that houses Skof has been placed against a Lake District background and is full of vignettes that reference the chef’s personal and professional journey. Rogan is immortalised wearing a flat cap and holding a lamb – a nod to him being a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement – his original mentor Collinge sips a beer and Barnes’ girlfriend cooks in a domestic kitchen assisted by their cat Miso surrounded by blackbirds.

The birds are a nod to Barnes’ favourite Beatles song and the area’s links with the band (the fab four used to play just down the road). Playing throughout the day on big, expensive-looking ceiling-mounted speakers, Skof’s playlists also feature the song and have been devised by Barnes himself, taking in genres including indie, Northern Soul and Motown.

“We have it on even while we’re prepping and through service. It’s nice for the staff. Some of Simon’s restaurants play music but I wouldn’t say it’s that noticeable. We have it on quite loud here, but the sound system has been designed so that the volume and the quality of the sound is the same throughout the restaurant.”

While a meal at Skof is not akin to eating in a nightclub, the volume is much louder than one would usually expect in a top-end restaurant to the extent that some of the team struggle to make themselves heard over it.

SkofDuck

“I just want everything to be tasty”

While the look and feel of Skof may be different to Rogan’s other places, the launch menu is made up of dishes that would not look out of place within Umbel Restaurant Group’s core operation. Indeed, the very first thing that hits the table is a beef tartare with pickled artichoke and grilled sprouting broccoli that’s flavoured with coal oil, a proprietary ingredient of Rogan’s.

Barnes is relaxed about this, pointing out that while all the dishes are new creations a degree of crossover is inevitable. “I’ve spent most of my career working for Simon and he has taught me a lot and at the end of my time at the group we were writing menus together. I don’t think ‘I’m going to do x differently’ just because that’s the way Simon does it. I just want everything to be tasty.”

Skof is also using many of the same suppliers as the group to which it is semi attached and is getting much of his fruit and veg from Rogan’s Our Farm in The Lakes.

The restaurant is offering a range of price points with an abridged version of the tasting menu also available for £120 and a £50 four-course lunch menu. Dishes on the former include a lightly set miso custard with hen of the woods mushrooms, black truffle and mushroom dashi; steamed cod with whey, Cippolini onions, smoked eel and buttermilk; roasted duck with fig leaf, celeriac and wholemeal bread; and strawberries with jasmine cream, rose geranium and caramelised white chocolate.

The last dessert for everyone that has the tasting menu is tiramisu served at table from a bowl. It’s an odd way to conclude a fine dining meal but the dish carries great personal significance for Barnes.

“The dish reminds me of my dad. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease when I was just starting out in kitchens. He was only given six months, but he was still with us 12 years later. He fought it brilliantly.”

As his father's illness progressed, he started to find eating difficult. “He had a sweet tooth and tiramisu was one of the few dishes he didn’t have a problem eating so I used to make it for him all time,” Barnes continues. “There’s nothing chef-y or fancy about it, although it does have a lot of booze in it.”

SkofDessertTom

A collaborative approach in the kitchen

The design of the kitchen at Skof is largely based on that of Rogan’s Malta restaurant which recently attracted a second star bringing the group’s total number of stars to eight. “I’ve never actually designed a kitchen before,” Barnes admits. “It was hard to design because we were effectively presented with a blank canvas. Usually, you adapt to what is already there – it’s not often you get to dictate the size and shape.”

Barnes has opted for a square with a big island suite in the middle that houses most of the cooking kit but also has space for chefs to plate up. “The visibility is great, and it also lends itself to how I run service,” Barnes continues. “Everyone has a designated section and responsibilities but are also required to help when needed. It’s very collaborative in that sense.” 

On a fully-booked service Skof has eight in the kitchen and six front of house. “That might sound like overkill for 36-covers, but if everyone takes the 15-course menu it’s a lot of plates of food,” Barnes says.

The restaurant’s business plan is based on just seven services per week – dinner Wednesday through Saturday and lunch Thursday through Saturday. Barnes says these hours are unlikely to extended because he wants to give his team three days off per week. “It also enables us to have the same team on every day. This simplifies things in some ways, but it does bring with it its own complications. If someone is sick it causes headaches because there’s nobody that can fill in because everyone is already in. All you can do is shuffle people around.”

As an overall experience, Skof feels distinct from the wider entity of which it is simultaneously part of and not part of. Some head office functions including marketing and payroll are shared but the apron strings have – theoretically, at least – been cut.

“But why wouldn’t I ask Simon and Sam (Ward, the group’s managing director) for advice,” Barnes says following an at times strained but ultimately successful service. Perhaps one reason that the chef is taking Skof’s media launch in his stride is that the one person that really matters has already given his verdict. “Simon liked it,” he smiles. “There was one dish he felt could have had a touch more acidity, but that was about it. For me, he’ll always be the boss.”

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