Aumbry and Great British Menu Chef Mary-Ellen McTague talks to Northern Soul
The smell emanating from the kitchen at Aumbry when I arrive on a damp, grey Manchester day almost defies description.
Intense, powerful and meaty. I asked Mary-Ellen McTague what was cooking. Was it for the beef dripping? No, it was bones ahead of an infusion of herbs to make a tiny blob of beef sauce reduction for one of the dishes. The amount of time and effort invested in making such a small part of the menu seems remarkable. But that is what makes Aumbry so fantastic.
I visited early afternoon on a Thursday and my belly was grumbling for food due to the tantalising smells swirling around. So much so that I booked for that Saturday night. It seems churlish to write about such a fantastic restaurant without actually tasting the grub.
I’d wanted to eat there for such a long time. It was the place where the food was cooked to match the cuisine in Emma-Jane Unsworth’s debut novel Hungry, The Stars and Everything. McTague created dishes from the description in the novel.
As Northern Soul editor Helen Nugent noted in her interview with Aiden Byrne, Manchester hasn’t had a Michelin-starred restaurant since 1974. There was Juniper, of course, in Altrincham. I ate there once with my husband. The owner shuddered with disapproval when my husband mispronounced turbot while ordering. I get the impression that Aumbry isn’t like that. There’s no pretension here.
Surely it’s only a matter time before Simon Rogan at The French in Manchester’s Midland Hotel gets a Michelin star? McTague thinks so. She hopes Aumbry will get a Michelin star one day, further down the line.
“It’s not something we think about every day, we’re here to make fantastic food. But it is about a nod of recognition and acknowledgement of what you’re doing,” she says.
McTague was studying languages at university when she decided she wanted to be a chef. Her first job was at Sharrow Bay in Penrith and she also worked as a pastry chef at Ramsons in Ramsbottom.
Aumbry has been voted eighth best restaurant in the UK by voters on Toptable and she was voted the Chef of the Year at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival in 2013. Her menu on the BBC TV show The Great British Menu was based on her husband’s grandparents, Bill and Vera, and their experiences of the war.
She and her husband moved to Prestwich in North Manchester four-and-a-half years ago with their 15-month-old son and simply wanted to open a restaurant. “I knew I was going to be working ridiculous hours so it needed to be close enough so that I could pop home in the afternoon and it’s a five-minute walk away. This property happened to come on the market – we’d been looking for three years.”
The building was affordable and the couple were working on a tight budget.
Like Aiden Byrne and his early days at The Church Green in Lymm, McTague admits that she and her partner were massively naive when they opened Aumbry. “We thought we’d open and then they’d come,” she laughs. “We did no marketing or publicity. Then we had two reviews, one in the Manchester Evening News, and it all took off.”
There are a series of cookbooks in the lounge area above the restaurant. With titles such as History and Fundamentals, Techniques and Equipment and Animals and Plants, the hefty tomes in the lounge look scientific. They indicate how serious Aumbry is about the science and art of cooking.
A cabinet gives a whiff of whiskey and thank you cards abound. A vase holds a single blush pink hydrangea that takes me straight back to my childhood. Downstairs, it feels like a living room but is effortlessly stylish with white linen tablecloths and distressed white painted chairs.
Church Lane is an unprepossessing road off the high street in Prestwich and Aumbry is near the Conservative Club and by a parade of lovely terraces.
Principally, McTague is influenced by Jane Grigson and the historical cooking of Hannah Glass (from the 18th Century) which also influenced Grigson in the 1970s. Food history is a huge influence on Aumbry’s cooking.
Speaking of the The Great British Menu, she says her second stab at it was worse in a way. “In my mind I thought I was a little bit more prepared and that would make it easier – but it didn’t because the production team knew me.
“They had their own agenda because they are making a TV programme that has to have a start, middle and end. I found it very difficult doing TV because at home all I’m worried about is the cooking and when you’re on TV there’s the worry about doing the restaurant justice.”
“I found it just as hard as the year before if a little bit harder as there was more pressure. The food didn’t go down so well and I got low marks.”
Still, it wasn’t that bad. She was runner-up again and wasn’t eliminated in the competition. But it must be great to win it.
She said: “Phil Howard last year seemed to really like the food and my approach to things. Daniel Clifford this year, I think he liked it but didn’t really dig it and that had an impact on the scores. I think the scores were a little bit harsh as I was scored quite low. But it is just someone’s opinion and you can’t really say that there’s an empirical good or bad.”
She describes the experience of filming The Great British Menu as “Awful. I felt as if I was having a heart attack for the entire week due to the pressure but I’m sure everyone feels that way and feeling that it was going to go terribly wrong. Then it do go terribly wrong.”
She explains: “I felt like I was letting the restaurant and my family down because two million viewers were watching it go wrong in full public view. I didn’t enjoy the process at all.”
Last year – the first year McTague participated in the programme pitched against Aiden Byrne – it had a huge impact on Aumbry. “For a few months it went crazy with bookings but then it went back to normal and nicely steady. We’ve been steadily busier this year since the programme aired.”
Asked if she’s tempted by a third series she shrugs her shoulders and says simply: “I have no idea. I don’t know.”
As for the rivalry between chefs on the programme, she says: “That’s just bullshit. Everyone knows that. You can be looking at your pans or at the clock or the fridge and they will cut it so it looks as if you’re scowling at a competitor. It’s just the way they edit it. It looks as if I’m giving someone evils when in fact I’m just squinting at a pan.”
She concludes, rather philosophically: “It makes me feel a bit sick when I think about it. I don’t think competitive reality television programmes are my medium, but I do think overall they were very kind to me in the edit.”
“Hopefully, I came across as reasonably competent but so much went wrong. The fish course went really wrong and I scored low in the other courses.”
The whole experience makes her feel a bit sad and “a bit gutted. I put that much effort into it and it’s a bit deflating when someone does not get it, but the other two chefs were pretty complimentary about my food in their feedback”.
She now has a sous chef and so can work at home for two evenings a week – but it’s still a seven day-week operation. “Cooking is just a little part of what I do,” she says. “There’s the whole business and millions of other responsibilities. I don’t want to work long hours doing something I hate while feeling knackered and miserable. I have a passion for what I do and I love it.”
The lunch menu costs £22 for two courses or £26 for three. There’s a five-course tasting menu on Tuesday evenings and a choice of nine or six-course tasting menus at other times.
Aumbry has access to super-fresh vegetables and really great meats that are sourced from within the UK – apart from sugar, olive oil and lemons which aren’t grown here.
“I like quite clunky sounding old fashioned food, I am interested in historical food,” she says. “Obviously we are using modern equipment, technology and techniques to cook the food.”
I tell her about our experience of Juniper. She says the layout of the Aumbry building is part of the appeal; it’s supposed to convey a friendly dinner-party atmosphere, like walking into someone’s front room or “going to one of your mate’s houses for dinner, a vibe that’s supposed to be friendly and warm”. It is not, she says, a place where you should feel that you have to wear a suit.
“We don’t always 100 per cent get it right. Some people do not find the service quite right but still you don’t need to be intimidated because you’re having a posh meal.”
Siobhan, the restaurant manager, is a lovely, friendly and warm person. She gave me a box of teabags because she said they wouldn’t use them in the restaurant.
Then there’s char-grilled whole. It’s a fish the size of a sardine from the fresh water trout family served with fennel and raw red cabbage. They have whole suckling pig with the most incredible meat from Hincham Farm in Gloucestershire.
Most of the vegetables at Aumbry are sourced from within a 30-mile radius and frequently picked to order. The suppliers will grow things especially for the restaurant. Partly they take seasonal produce, McTague says, such as the gull’s eggs and asparagus, and incorporate them into dishes. “Or they are just a natural progression of an idea about making something better or changing the way it looks.”
Where do her ideas come from? “They are all here,” she says pointing to her temple. The influences of Jane Grigson run through her cooking as Grigson was “so erudite and so much interested in the history of food and the traditions”.
The food takes a huge amount of preparation. To make the dripping served with bread, beef bones are roasted and stock is made that’s infused with herbs and then roast rib scraps are slow cooked and infused with herbs to add to the flavour. “It’s an unbelievable amount of work,” she admits. “But well worth it. Every little step of what we do is because we love it. I like to think that people can in some way see the effort that’s gone into it and hopefully that translates into the food and making people happy.”
Her greatest achievement, she believes, is writing three articles in The Guardian, which was an amazing experience.
“I’m really pleased by how far we have got, we’ve come a long way since we opened. It feels as if we’ve made progress. I can’t remember the last time I had a full day off with no work emails or phone calls. When I think of the restaurant, I can think of about 100 parallels with having a child. It is like having another child.”
Photos of Mary-Ellen McTague by Chris Payne
For more information, follow this link: www.aumbryrestaurant.co.uk
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