Montpellier’s Head Chef on French cooking from the Heart

Venture off the busy streets of the Northern Quarter and you’ll find a French style bistro that’s been kicking out some classic dishes to a few canny punters.

From the outside it looks like another NQ bar – red brick, clean lines and an industrial edge. But at the heart of Montpellier’s lies a love of French cooking and dining, which stems from chef Jon Rowbottom.

Jon grew up in Oldham until he was 24, when he left to work as an engineer in France. When it was time to return to England, Jon parted ways with his colleagues and stayed, picking up a job in a French kitchen. He worked in France on and off for around 13 years.

It’s a long way from the sunny French coast when I meet up with him on a drizzly Manchester afternoon. But as we chat about Jon’s love of French cooking and tuck into some spicy moules de tomate piment, the familiar grey cloud gathering overhead seem a little further away than usual. Jon’s passion for cooking is enough to brighten any dreary day.

So – What was the first dish that inspired you? 

Coq au vin was the first French dish I remember eating, which is very simple. I thought – wow  – this is a completely different way of eating chicken.

And the wild boar just blew me away – (Hunting wild boar is a central part of life in France. The cooking of the first wild boar of the hunting season, normally at the start of September, is celebrated in communities) And I’m hoping to try and source some.

I moved to France when I was 24 and I started again basically. I loved it, and I still do. Even when you were talking about La Rochelle – (I had mentioned to Jon that the mussels he cooked beforehand reminded me of my family holidays on the coast) it reminded me… I had some close ties with La Rochelle, and I was just thinking – I could get a trip in there, in the next couple of months. Just for a few days. Its close enough to jump across.

Very close to La Rochelle, there’s a restaurant and I’ve been known to fly there to get something to eat when airfares are cheap, and then come back again. La Maison Blanche. What a restaurant.  They cook outside and its just one long kitchen – its just fantastic. You can eat till about midnight and there’s fantastic music.

So you’ll fly out there just for this restaurant??

Yep – I fly out, into La Rochelle, hire a car, eat, drive back and fly back.

Are there any habits you’ve picked up from French kitchens and brought back with you?

Yes – because we do all communicate, and over there, each restaurant is like a family. All the staff will sit down together and eat and talk before service. It’s a chance to clear the air, catch up and get ready for the dinner rush. We do that here as well.

While other restaurants are heading up the fast food movement, Montpelliers, have instigated a slower pace of dining. What can diners expect when they come to Montpellier’s? 

I think you can expect one thing – when you read the menu, you will get it. You can tell its home made, it doesn’t come out of a packet.

Other restaurants in the Northern Quarter are providing what they think the public wants, its just that its almost fast food. Whereas, this is different. I wouldn’t call beef bourguignon a fast food.

A lot of people said, ‘that’s alright in winter, but no ones’ gonna eat that in summer.’ It’s been two years now. It’s the most popular dish on the menu. Even on the hottest day people order beef bourguignon. It’s just an all time classic.

And as for your love of cooking?

I think you do it because you just love doing it. And if you don’t, go and do something else.

I’m lucky, I get paid to do what I like to do. What could be better?