We caught up with the lovely Sam Grainger from Belzan and most recently Madre to talk tacos, margaritas and everything in between.
Sam is one of the founders of Belzan and Madre; two bricks and mortar businesses based in Liverpool and Manchester and part of the team that are bringing good food and good times to their customers through their ‘mi casa, su casa’ approach.
Sam started in food when he was really young. His granddad, who had a Caribbean heritage, lived with them and essentially brought him and his siblings up when mum and dad were working. Sam remembers his grandad showing him how to cook a stock and got the bug for making flavours then and there.
He stated working in the local gold club washing dishes, prepping veg when he was probably way too young and fell in love with the industry, he “looked at chefs like they were rock stars” and went to college to learn more. After a brief career change working with people with Autism, Sam went to cook in Australia and then around Liverpool for years until he started his first business; Belzan.
Belzan is in a less affluent part of Liverpool and sits alongside around 15 kebab shops that serve the local students. The location was deliberate, they wanted to open up outside the city centre and become the local bistro and that’s what they did. The pandemic hit them like so many businesses and three weeks into lockdown, to make sure Belzan survived, they changed their restaurant into a shop – flipping from three services to selling their producers products in store and creating dine in for two at a price that worked for their customers. Admittedly Sam wouldn’t want to open a shop again, however, it was a lot of fun and a learning curve and adapting means that the business has something to fall back on again now and “it’s good knowing that they can flip and pivot.”
The local people really supported them as a local independent at that a time when they really needed it and they were the local connection to a restaurant type of experience and by support we think Sam really underplayed it…on day 1 there was a 2-hour queue outside Belzan which was “amazing and pretty frightening.” They sold out of everything in the shop in 2 – 3 hours and saw the same faces every single day. It was so popular that people started coming to their shop instead of the local supermarket and the team were able to teach people about food and cooking and explain why their veg was still okay a week after buying it. It’s this relationship with their customers that cemented the foundations of Belzan and which, naturally, now underpins everything at Madre.
When Belzan was operating as a Bistro, every month they had a chef come and cook with them. After working with Breddos Tacos and Nud, one of Breddo’s founders fell in love with Liverpool after a night out with Sam et al, the details of which Sam, unfortunately, couldn’t disclose but it’s sure to say that this is where the idea for Madre came along.
Belzan had always wanted to open a taqueria and love how simple the taco is – a whole meal in two bites! Sam spent six months cooking at Breddos Tacos where his French style training was turned on its head and his love for Mexican food grew and grew.
In Liverpool your “mum is the queen” so they wanted to celebrate mothers, home and being comfortable somewhere – they want people to feel at home. It’s really hard to find good Mexican food in the UK and it took a while to get people to understand what real Mexican food was.
Everyone loved tacos at the time, Nud had fallen in love with Liverpool, wanted to take Mexican food to the north and so they joined forces and opened Madre together.
Madre opened in December 2019, late in the Christmas period and because it was a grade one listed heritage
site, every detail had to be checked and checked again. By the time they were open, they only had two months trading before the pandemic hit so they were really disheartened. However, their landlords delayed everything and when they could reopen again, it gave them time to iron out even more details and make the new business exactly what they envisioned; it was the re-birth of Madre. Put it this way, they’ve gone from 4 tables to 40 outside and it’s a 300-cover site: not bad going at all!
“What’s special about Mexican food is that it’s a social way of eating – everything is on the table, you can’t get to know someone at a fancy fine dining restaurant – Madre is a lot more fun.” Sam went on to tell me that all the chefs love being on shift, “it’s a nicer service – not so regimented, you have to order but the way the service flows is different.”
After bricks and mortar Madre was up and running, in June last year they got the street food van and were asked by Escape to Freight Island to come to Manchester for what was meant to be a three month pop up but it grew exponentially and now it’s a solid structure, a fixed kitchen which was positive because cooking out of a van is really tough. The street food van is parked outside Madre now for brunch and take away margaritas.
When we asked Sam what the biggest challenge had been so far, it was pandemic shaped, but they even found the positive in that; “keeping going – no matter what, you have to go for it.” The three founders have the same mentality and don’t see any point in doing things by half. Even more positively, they’ve nearly signed a bricks and mortar site in Manchester!
And the best moment? “Opening night, an eight month build and a big slog and finally walking into a full restaurant that was finally complete. Following that, the re-opening after the 12th of April.” They opened the courtyard, Sam’s friend brass band played and “people were out again, having a lovely time”
No restaurant is an island of the people who started it all and very fortunately, considering the huge staffing challenges in hospitality at the moment, Madre have a great team. They knew they were going to do Madre, so they took a lot of people in to the Belzan kitchen, overstaffed it for a while and started training via that. Madre is a 300-cover space and they have kept hold of most of the staff “We’ve got a super solid team” and to prove that point, Sam’s just managed to go away for 10 days which shows the trust he has in them; “it’s taken two years but it’s a really good feeling to be able to leave the team with the business.”
When it comes to suppliers, there are only two big Mexican importers and Madre work with – Mextrade who are “fantastic people to work with”, import all the corn they use to make tortillas and everything else the business needs. They keep everything else as local as possible; their veg supplier is one man and his van and has the longest standing veg stall in Liverpool. Their Meat is from the Lake District from a farm that are friends of theirs and who produce meat in the right way.
So what makes people coming back to Madre? The big thing with Madre is that it’s not just the food, it’s not just the drinks, it’s the atmosphere – “customers even come back to see certain staff on days that they’re in, you see the same faces through the door on a Saturday, it’s a pretty amazing thing that it’s everyone’s go to spot to come for dinner with friends family or to celebrate something. With bigger bookings, we even know to rebook them in the courtyard.” From my conversation with Sam, it’s pretty clear that Madre is somewhere people don’t want to leave and with requests for them to go all over the country, watch this space…
When I asked what Sam loved most about the industry, it was all about people; “Putting smiles on people’s faces is the best feeling in the world and knowing that people are having a good time and that they’re making people happy – the kitchens are open, so chefs get job satisfaction – it’s all about people and it’s the perfect industry if you love people”
On to Sam’s best food experience outside Madre, it was Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s restaurant and “was unbelievable, it was a 28-course find dining experience” Gareth centres everything around as local as possible and has a Japanese influence. Even the cups made of the clay that was from the site of the restaurant and sheep skins from the local areas – everything is local.
Sam’s food hero is his Grandad “he taught me everything” They always made beef stew together, he taught Sam how to make flavours out of simple things and hated when his mum came home with jars. He taught him to love ingredients and making stock for the first time blew Sam’s mind. The first time he made Goat Curry was something that has stayed with Sam, his Grandad’s grandmother was Caribbean, and Sam still has memories of meeting her.
Chef wise, Sam said that Rene Redzepi, the “wizard of a man” was up there; pushing the boundaries that no one else is.
When it comes to the future, Sam and the team have their sights set on expanding Madre, opening more bricks & mortar sites over the next two years along with other little side projects along the way. They’re even opening the smallest pub in the UK in the courtyard in Madre – there is a little courtyard which can fit just six people. “There are lots of things on the cards at the moment” but Sam thinks there is going to be a big boom of restaurants that will replace the chains, “the more units with lovely independent in the better.”
I asked Sam what his advice would be to people who want to get in to the industry and his response was around getting experience – “work your way up, start washing the dishes and do not ever jump in and think you know everything before you know every aspect to run a good restaurant.” Along with that, “learning the roles of the people and their importance is crucial – your KP is key to each and every shift! Work hard, you’ll get there eventually, don’t rush and remember to take time off…With TV now, people think they can open a restaurant just like that may also be to do with the way people are trained now – Liverpool used to have 14 classes a year coming out and now there is only one.”
Sam and Madre are one to watch, they’re on a upwards trajectory so get to Liverpool or Manchester to sample their Mexican delights and best kind of hospitality there is.
To find out more about Sam, Belzan, Madre visit: