Sam Buckley

Sam Buckley

Sam Buckley

With an arsenal of innovative experimental preserves, his own rooftop kitchen garden and relationships with the best producers in the UK, Sam Buckley works with his team in the airy open kitchen to create multi-course tasting menus of pure magic at his Stockport restaurant Where The Light Gets In.

Stockport is perhaps not the most obvious place to head to for a good meal. It’s one of the large towns orbiting Manchester, often overshadowed by (or even lumped in with) the city’s own food scene. But while Manchester’s Northern Quarter and centre offer a plethora of bars and restaurants to visit, Stockport’s Old Town is home to perhaps one of the most exciting culinary treasures in the whole of the UK.

Where The Light Gets In is chef Sam Buckley’s super-sustainable, forward-thinking and ethically conscious restaurant, serving hyper-seasonal tasting menus of the best ingredients in Britain with plenty of worldly influences. It’s a restaurant that could be described as both modern British and ‘New Nordic’, but neither of those vague terms really do it justice. Where The Light Gets In (often abbreviated to WTLGI) is the encapsulation of Sam’s approach to food, supply chains, art and storytelling as much as it is a restaurant. It’s not a ‘concept’ or somewhere that’s been carefully curated by a marketing team looking to tick off buzzwords – it’s a space where kitchen and dining room meet; where the chefs talk to diners as they plate up; where food is delicious and beautiful but also has a real, tangible history and tale behind it. It’s reason alone to go to Stockport.

Sam fell into cooking whilst studying art at college, starting off as a waiter before moving into the kitchen. ‘All I can remember doing at college was either drawing or making shoes,’ he laughs. ‘The kitchen was so much more dynamic and engaging. It was something I wanted to pursue, so I left college and went to work in one of Gary Rhodes’ bistros. It was the early 2000s and a lot of kitchens were still really gritty and unpleasant, but I worked really hard and Gary eventually pushed me towards the more Michelin-side of cooking, which was just a completely different way of looking at food.’

Over the next fifteen years, Sam divided his time between cooking, touring with various bands and, after completing a journalism degree, writing. Three very different vocations to pursue, but all with creativity at their core. When he was focusing on cooking, he worked under the likes of Paul Kitching and Simon Rogan – two trailblazing chefs who (along with Gary Rhodes) quenched Sam’s thirst for creativity. ‘Gary Rhodes was incredible – he showed me that you could actually go places with food and say something with what’s on the plate,’ he says. ‘Paul was fearlessly creative – he didn’t give a shit about rules or boundaries. We had dishes on like sea bass with sticky toffee pudding or lamb saddle with curried Weetabix. They sounded mad – and they were – but they really worked.

L’Enclume was where I really learned to appreciate simplicity and to give the ingredient space on the plate,’ continues Sam. ‘If it’s good enough then the recipe can be super, super simple. That’s still what I try to do today – let the produce speak for itself. I just have to try and not ruin it with my ego or stupid human hands!’

By the time he was thirty Sam had settled on the idea of opening his own restaurant – but opening one in his hometown of Stockport certainly wasn’t on the agenda. That was until a friend pointed out an abandoned coffee warehouse in the Old Town after a night out. ‘At first I wasn’t really interested – I wanted to open somewhere in London or something,’ he says. ‘But the next morning I woke up with this idea of a big, cavernous restaurant over three floors, perhaps with a wine bar and a bakery. That coffee warehouse fit the bill perfectly.’

Sam got the keys to the site in April 2017 and spent the next six months gutting the building and turning it into a functioning restaurant. ‘I so wasn’t ready – I had no investors or real financial support and was getting my mates to help fill up my old Peugeot 207 with rubbish to take to the tip so I didn’t have to pay for a skip,’ he explains. ‘I was trying to do things like the electrics myself whilst doing agency chef work on the side, getting angrier and angrier that it was taking so long to get ready. Looking back now, getting it all done in six months was insane.’

With a stripped back dining room, basic kitchen and some tables and chairs, Sam opened Where The Light Gets In in October 2017. He thought of it as a pop-up, cooking what he felt like each day and seeing what worked. Things were off to a good start – Sam’s time at L’Enclume meant local press got behind the opening and ensured weekends were busy – but it was Marina O’Loughlin’s stellar review five months later that changed everything.

‘We got around 1,500 bookings in three days – everything just exploded. There were only two of us in the kitchen but then we were able to grow; we got a pot wash, a fridge, more infrastructure, more systems in place. The real evolution was with the team though – we have a really strong, intelligent group of people working here now who all share the same ethos, which makes the world of difference.’

That ethos is what makes Where The Light Gets In such a hit. Fresh British ingredients are only used when they’re at the peak of their season, sourced from farmers who go beyond the free-range, organic certifications and are actually contributing to the sustainability of food production. What they can’t buy in they grow themselves on The Landing, a kitchen garden Sam and his team set up on top of a car park in Stockport’s town centre. Preserving is a huge part of the menu too, with a vast array of pickles, dried ingredients, ferments and country wines lining the shelves. The result is a constantly changing menu of small but perfectly formed dishes brimming with the flavours of the UK in often quite avant-garde guises.

This way of working means the menu is rarely the same on a return visit and the seasons dictate what an average day in the kitchen is like. ‘Summer is hectic – things come in and out of season so fast,’ says Sam. ‘We’ve got dishes that are on for just one day and then that’s it. It’s fun but it can get a bit insane – I’ll go up to The Landing with the chefs and just look at what’s ready, then work backwards from that. In winter, you have to be much more imaginative, but things move at a slower pace because there’s a lot less variety in what you have to work with. We might put on a salted chicken liver porridge using British grains seasoned with a garlic vinegar we’ve made, but that can stay on the menu for a little longer as it’s using our preserved ingredients.’

Sam is a poster child for the new wave of chefs pushing British cooking forward. He sees cooking as so much more than just taking ingredients, turning them into a plate of food and serving it to paying customers. He’s interested in where the ingredients come from, the sustainability of how it gets to his kitchen, how it reflects its surroundings and how it can be manipulated into different flavours and textures. He often leaves the ingredients to do the work for him – a regular dish in summer simply called ‘The Landing’ features a plate of interesting leaves, herbs and flowers from his rooftop kitchen, served raw and untouched with a simple emulsion or dressing to dip them in. At the other end of the scale are the ferments used to add depth and complexity to the fresh ingredients; the likes of celeriac kefir, sourdough bread soy sauce, pear wine and seaweed doubanjiang are often months (if not years) in the making and transform dishes with a single splash or spoonful. This is exciting, modern, ethical food – and it’s a must-try.