‘Everyone wants roast pig’s head’ ... UK chefs put offal centre stage with ‘confrontational’ dishes

<span>Manteca in east London serves half a pig’s head, slow cooked for 14 hours, on its menu.</span><span>Photograph: Gilles Draps</span>
Manteca in east London serves half a pig’s head, slow cooked for 14 hours, on its menu.Photograph: Gilles Draps

Offal has become a staple on restaurant menus across the UK, with cheaper cuts attracting chefs with sustainability goals and tight budgets, boosted by the influence of nose-to-tail pioneers such as Fergus Henderson at St John in London. Now many are going further, creating dishes with animal heads staring at diners from their plates.

At Fowl in central London, which describes itself as a “beak-to-feet chicken restaurant”, the Sunday roast comes complete with chicken claws. At Manteca in Shoreditch, east London, you might find half a pig’s head, clearly identifiable, on your table. Newly opened Camille in Borough Market, south London serves a chicken-neck sausage, including the bird’s head.

Last year, Fowl launched its Le Grand Coq pie in collaboration with the French chef Pierre Koffmann, who is often credited with popularising the pig’s trotter. The pie contains chicken hearts, livers, cockscombs – and a whole head sticking out of the pastry, much like a traditional Cornish stargazy pie, which features pilchards’ heads.

“The chicken-head pie created a lot of buzz online,” said Will Murray, Fowl’s chef-owner. “It even featured on Snoop Dogg’s Instagram story.” He admits it’s a “confrontational dish”, but believes it helps guests come “face to face” with provenance.

Using the whole animal is crucial for Murray, whose other restaurant, Fallow, sells 400 cod’s heads in sriracha butter a week which, he says, prevents them from being thrown back into the sea. “Creative cooking with sustainable thinking has always been our philosophy,” he said.

It allows people to confront the fact they are eating something that was once alive

Manteca takes a similar approach– there’s even a model pig’s head made from reclaimed oak hanging above the entrance. Chef and co-founder Chris Leach receives two or three pig carcasses a week, and uses everything. When the heads are turned into fritters they are “very easy to sell”, said Leach, but a more visually challenging intact pig’s head dish is also popular.

“It’s important not to shy away from the fact we use whole animals,” Leach said. “It also allows people to confront the fact they are eating something that was once alive.” There are a maximum of six portions a week, which tend to sell out in one evening. But customers find chickens with the claws attached more arresting, Leach said. “A lot of French and old-school Italian cuisine has done that. We want to continue that tradition.”

It is a similar scene at Camille, where a former St John chef, Elliot Hashtroudi, serves pig and chicken heads and “99%” of guests love it. “I know it’s challenging for some, but it’s to break boundaries, and to show that offal and challenging cuts are some of the tastiest bits,” he said.

When the roast pig’s head is on the specials board it “just flies out. As soon as people see it, everyone wants to order it.”

Leach believes it is part of a restaurant’s duty to teach people more about what they eat: “Whether that be regenerative farming or helping people understand the importance of higher welfare, pasture-raised meat, restaurants and chefs have a big role in educating people.”

When the north London restaurant West­erns Laundry added a stuffed duck’s neck, including the head, to its menu in 2022, it went viral, making headlines worldwide. It received a mixed response. “This dish reminds me of all the suffering inflicted on animals by me and all humans in the name of ‘fashion’,” wrote one user on X.

At Twenty Eight in Chester, offal dishes, such as barbecued ox heart, are firm favourites, according to the head chef, Jay Tanner. “However, we have found that anything too visually polarising hasn’t been popular,” he said. “A gentler approach seems to be better received.”

Related: ‘Nowt wrong with it’: offal is back on high-end menus and in home cooking

But shocking your customers can be good for business, too. Fowl received plenty of criticism for its chicken-head pie, but going viral is “another form of marketing”, said Murray. “We don’t make food for social media, but we’re aware of the power and impact it can have. Everything on the menu is there because it is delicious, and we consider it a good dish people will want to spend their money on and enjoy.”

Trevor Gulliver, co-founder of St John, is pleased to see more restaurants using the whole animal. While much of St John’s fare is based on liver, heart and bone marrow, it has served fried pig’s tails or whole pig’s heads.

“It’s never a gimmick. It’s only if it’s the proper way to present something,” Gulliver said. “It was never to shock. For us, it’s just natural.”