Aiden Byrne talks Restaurant Wars, food critics and chasing the Michelin man
Manchester hasn’t had a Michelin-starred restaurant since the year I was born. I’m 40 next month.
There are, of course, some people who think that the absence of an official fine dining accolade in Manchester is perfectly reasonable. Take the critic A.A. Gill, otherwise known as Adrian. He once described Manchester as “a city that drinks first and eats after, with its mouth open”. Charming.
Following the success of the current BBC Two show Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester, Gill has been lobbing his usual cheap jibes and tired put-downs at the two chefs who star in the series, labelling their efforts as “a masterclass in everything that is naff, nasty, effortful and regurgitative in catering”. I imagine that Simon Rogan at The French is none too happy. As it happens, The French in Manchester’s Midland Hotel was the last restaurant in the city to hold a Michelin star in 1974. Rogan himself is best known for the two-starred L’Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria.
“What is it about Manchester that people get so het up about? I can’t get my head around it, it’s insane. London journalists just continue to drag us down. I just want to tell them to fuck off. Not one journalist that has come up North has had anything good to say about Manchester. It’s one of my frustrations.
“There are two restaurants in Manchester at the moment trying to make a difference. We’re not trying to change the world. We are trying to move us on one step further. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are not trying to rip anyone off. We are trying to move the food scene forward.”
When it comes to cooking at the highest level, Byrne knows what he’s talking about. He was head chef at The Grill at London’s Dorchester from late 2006. Previous to that, Byrne was Tom Aiken’s head chef at his Chelsea restaurant and has also worked at Pied à Terre in the capital and Adlard’s in Norwich. More recently he opened The Church Green in Lymm with his wife Sarah. Although the venture had some serious teething problems (the fine dining concept didn’t go down well with Cheshire diners and it is now a gastro pub), it was named AA Restaurant of the Year in 2012.
“At Lymm, we took over a pub,” says Byrne, 41. “We didn’t have any money for investment…It wasn’t a sustainable concept. In hindsight, if I’d known six years ago what I know now, I wouldn’t have created a food experience in Lymm. What we’ve got now very much suits Lymm. We are catering for families. Making that change was important, it was the right thing for me to do.”
Money hasn’t been a problem at Manchester House. Backed by Living Ventures, some £2.5 million has been ploughed into the city centre site, which opened six months ago. Tim Bacon, the chief executive of Knutsford-based Living Ventures, owns more than 30 venues including some of the best places to eat in the North West (incidentally, Bacon had his own response to Gill’s attack on Manchester’s culinary offerings). Living Ventures’s annual turnover is around £60 million. But Manchester House is Bacon’s most expensive restaurant investment yet. According to the BBC documentary, the kitchen alone cost nearly £1 million.
Byrne says: “It was a very ambitious project to take on, not just because of the fact of the expensive set up. And people seem to be jumping on the back of how much it costs. Like it or not, you have to go through a process [when setting up a new restaurant], people have to be trained no matter what business you are in. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years and I’ve never experienced the level of intensity of training that we have here. If you don’t train people, then you deliver a sub-standard product.”
After the second episode of Restaurant Wars was aired last week, Twitter went berserk over a scene where, after a trial run of the menu, thousands of pounds of food was thrown away. Byrne finds the reaction exasperating. “Every industry does that,” he says. “I mean, how many clothes does the fashion industry throw in the bin? How much do supermarkets throw out?”
The BBC series charts the separate journeys undertaken by Rogan and Byrne as they try and take Mancunian dining to a new level. Much is made of the so-called rivalry between the two men but, in fact, they are good friends. What it does show is the blood, sweat and tears needed to launch a new restaurant. Consider this cheery fact: eateries are three times more likely to fail in their first year than at any other time in the life cycle of the business.
“It’s all about creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable,” Byrne believes. “One of the reasons that fine dining hasn’t worked [here] in the past is that fine dining restaurants can be quite intimidating places. We had a guy in for lunch on Saturday who was in shorts and a hoodie. I couldn’t care less what he wears. You have to feel comfortable in what you are wearing, that way you are already feeling relaxed when you come in. At this level, at the high end of the industry, we have lost one of the fundamentals of the trade and that’s hospitality. And the whole celebrity chef thing has got carried away with itself. We want the experience for the customer to be as enjoyable as possible.”
Kirkby-born Byrne makes no bones about the fact that he wants Manchester House “to be THE restaurant in Manchester” and is confident that it will be where “Manchester is going to accept fine dining”. If his menu is anything to go by, he stands a good chance of making this happen. From a combination of oyster, a beetroot reduction and oxtail served at a precise 50 degrees, all lying on a base of dry ice scented with sea salt that spouts ghost-like waves across the table, to roasted pigeon with black cherries and pistachio, finished off with a freeze-dried sour cherry dusting, this is food as theatre.
When I visited Manchester House the pièce de résistance was a tender fillet of beef juxtaposed with ox cheek, served with potatoes encased in edible clay – all of which was presented within a ribcage with a side portion of jus served in an alarmingly large horn. Byrne is quite the set decorator. Behind the scenes, he chooses the best cuts of meat and sources the highest quality of vegetables. For instance, an entire cow usually costs approximately £1,500. Byrne spends £3,000 on each animal.
“We are not using cheap ingredients but it is value for money, I don’t care what anyone says. For every £1 we spend we have got to bring £4 back in. That’s the commercial reality of running a business. Our profit margin is minimal.”
Despite the fact that the £95 tasting menu is one of the priciest in Manchester (and damn good, by the way), there’s a much more modest £22.50 two-course lunch offer. On the day I interviewed Byrne, options included scallops, duck breast with foie gras, Spring lamb and John Dory. There is a £35 steak on the menu but Byrne insists that he loses money on it.
The restaurant is all light and windows, friendlier and more inviting than some of Living Ventures’s other venues while still managing to ooze glamour. The open plan kitchen which houses 20 chefs is a particularly nice touch, effectively transforming the entire place into a chef’s table. It’s in complete contrast to the traditional and upmarket glamour of The French; Manchester House’s decor reflects the city’s industrial heritage. Like Manchester itself, it’s a mix of showmanship, history and bravado.
“The reason why I wanted to come here is because I believe what I have to offer is better suited to a city centre,” reflects Byrne. “Manchester is right at the edge of turning a huge corner [food-wise]. It’s quite an honour to be involved in that revolution.”
Thanks in part to the BBC show, Manchester House is now booked at weekends until the end of July and also packing them in during the week. But the city has still to secure the elusive Michelin star. Just how important is it?
“If Manchester gets a star, I think the city would be proud of it. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t set out our ambition that we want a star. We have drawn our line in the sand and said that’s where we want to be. But it’s not my be all and end all, it’s not what gets me up in the morning. If people walk out of here regardless of a star then we’ve done what we set out to do. But I think Northerners would be proud of it if we did get one, it’s all about the stamp of approval for quality.”
To see our review of The French, click here: http://www.northernsoul.me.uk/the-french-at-the-midland-manchester/
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