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.

 

Three things you should know

As well as Where The Light Gets In and The Landing, Sam is opening a bakery and deli called Yellowhammer round the corner from the restaurant.

Sam appeared on the 2021 series of Great British Menu, representing the North West.

Where The Light Gets In is a restaurant primarily, but it also runs workshops and events encompassing everything from music and flower arranging to making bowls out of wool felt.