"The service industry needs to stand up to c**ts. We’re not fucking here to be spoken to like shit. If you can’t handle booze, drink Ribena.”
This is the knife-sharp opinion of Gary Usher, outspoken chef owner of Sticky Walnut restaurant in Chester. Rather than it be voiced to a journalist on an off-the-record basis, however, it is instead a public comment Usher had tweeted the night before our interview from his restaurant’s now legendary Twitter account.
In the cold light of day, the 34-year-old chef and restaurateur is remorseful of the tweet, not over the sentiment that his staff deserve to not be abused by customers, but of the dropping of an (unstarred out) c-bomb from a business account.
With his second restaurant, Burnt Truffle, in Heswall, a day away from opening, Usher is having second thoughts over his maverick approach to Twitter, one that has made him the most entertaining chef on social media but which has sometimes undermined the serious nature of his business.
Maybe it’s time to take things more seriously, he muses. But where would the fun be in that? Thanks to Usher, Sticky Walnut’s 10,000-plus followers have experienced the ups and downs of running a neighbourhood bistro first-hand, from a catalogue of pictures posted of its empty dining room during lunch service and a long-running Larkinesque rant about the fitting of a new air conditioning unit, to an ongoing discourse about a table sited precariously near the toilets.
There have been tears and tantrums, public spats and plenty of ‘bantz’, to use Usher’s terminology. This heart-on-sleeve approach has led to revelations that many self-respecting chefs might want to keep to themselves, the most recent being that Burnt Truffle’s green sign was in fact meant to be grey and that the walls have been painted the wrong colour. Yet it has also had a positive impact. Usher’s off-the-cuff comments have endeared him to his followers in a way many businesses can only dream of, something which proved pivotal when he managed to raise more than £100,000 through crowdfunding site Kickstarter to finance his second restaurant.
Two's a crowd
Despite the aplomb with which he carried out the campaign, which included a video giving a very honest account of what he was trying to achieve, online wasn’t the most comfortable means by which to raise funds.
“We had initially approached the bank for money but they made it almost as difficult as it could be without actually saying ‘no’,” Usher recalls. Even without funding, he still made an offer on a site, which was accepted but fell through on more than one occasion. “I gave up and realised that securing funding was something we needed to be serious about before we looked at property again.”
On the advice of his brother Shaun, who had successfully crowdfunded his own book (Letters of Note), Usher took to Kickstarter, raising a total of £103,000. Once all the various fees had been paid, he was left with around £90,000, with which he approached the owner of the site he had courted one last time, and was successful.
Crowdfunding a restaurant has its obvious advantages, but there are drawbacks too. Apart from the stress involved in the process – it was stuck on around £42,000 for 10 days, which was not good for Usher’s nerves – there was also the palpable expectation of his backers, summed up, he says, in a simple series of tweets. Usher posted an image of some furniture on Twitter that he was buying for Burnt Truffle and flippantly asked people what they thought of it. The response identified the feeling of collective ownership some had with the project.
“A few people replied ‘You’d better not have bought that with our money’,” he recalls. “Although they were joking, there’s a reason why they said it. People have given us a lot of support and the responsibility to them is huge. I like Twitter for the banter but sometimes it can get me stressed. I feel the pressure from people.”
The irony is that, unlike other crowdfunding models where backers own a stake in the business – albeit a small one – with Burnt Truffle there is no such deal. Some pledged £25 to have their name on the wall of the restaurant, others paid over the odds for aprons as a show of goodwill and one person gave £1,000 for Usher to never use the word ‘emoticon’ again, but most of the money came from selling meals in advance.
Having to cover hundreds of pre-paid meals could have been potentially crippling for the new restaurant but the lateness of the launch – it was due to open by early summer – has meant that many meals have already been honoured at Sticky Walnut. “At Sticky [the meals] get lost and it doesn’t affect the GP,” he says. “For the new restaurant –that’s closed two days a week – if we were to do a lot of these meals we’d really feel it.”
The £90,000 Usher raised was also never going to be enough with which to open a restaurant, especially after £40,000 went on the premium for the site. With the eventual total set-up costs coming in closer to £250,000, Sticky Walnut’s piggy bank needed to be raided.
“We knew we were going to need more than £100,000 but, because Sticky does well, we felt confident we’d be able to wing it. In the back of my mind I thought that no matter what happens we’d be able to do that because I’ve got the site. All it has meant is that we’ve bled Sticky dry, which is scary and quite annoying. I get worried every single month when the wages go out. I look at the figures and wonder why there’s no money, and my bookkeeper says there is but that we keep spending it.”
In hindsight, does he wish he had set a higher crowdfunding target? “No, I should have asked for less,” he says. “£100,000 was a big ask. I heard some chefs chatting about me who had said ‘If Sticky does so well, why the fuck do they need to ask for help to open another one?’ I also hear comments about why I’m not a more successful person. The answer is that every penny has gone back into the business. People take the piss out of the fact that I drive a Volvo. I could go and get any car I wanted to on lease, but that’s not the point. It’s about working to build a business and securing everyone’s career, not showing off to your mates.”
As a result, a lot of financial juggling has had to be done to open Burnt Truffle, not least the leasing of all the equipment, from its ovens right down to the plates. “Without doing that I’d have had to open it in a similar condition to when I bought it, and it was fucking disgusting,” he says.
“When I open the doors, this is exactly how I would have wanted it for the budget I had.” It also means that Burnt Truffle is following a similar launch trajectory to Sticky Walnut, despite Usher being determined for it not to.
“We did a lot of stuff as we went along at Sticky. We put in air con and so had to close the restaurant for a week, two years in. I said to people that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes with Burnt Truffle but I’ve had no choice. The quote came in for air con for £10,000, which we can’t afford at the moment so we will have to put it in later. Some things you can wing, but that wasn’t one of them.”
The new opening has also been beset by other problems. Usher wanted to install induction but discovered it required a 200-amp, three-phase electricity supply and that the restaurant only had 100 amps. “Who knew there were different types of three-phase?” he says with a shrug. “It went from what was a pavement dig-up for £3,800 to a road dig-up for £16,000.”
A tough nut to crack
Usher’s online persona might be one of a brash, confident and even cocky chef to those whomhave never met him, but IRL (‘in real life’ in Twitter speak) he couldn’t be more different. Pragmatic, sensible and with a good business head, Usher’s scattergun online opinions belie his carefully considered approach to running a restaurant as well as his more fragile side.
When we meet he is full of nervous energy and mixed emotions about the next few days. “I’m not excited because I’m so stressed and nervous,” he says. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful but it’s hard to be happy and excited when you’ve got what feels like a lot on your shoulders. But let’s face it, we’re not saving anyone’s life.”
Past comments by chefs – online, naturally – that have suggested Sticky Walnut’s plaudits are down to its Twitter account rather than its food still play on his mind, despite much evidence to the contrary. Last year, his restaurant achieved a glowing review from The Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin, never one to let online fluff misdirect her taste buds, and was also named Restaurant of the Year by the AA Guide. Last month, it was ranked at number 30 in the National Restaurant Awards, something Usher finds simultaneously humbling and baffling.
What Sticky Walnut’s success can be attributed to is its simplistic approach to cooking that knows its limits. St Albans-born, Usher has worked with Angela Hartnett at York & Albany, in Camden, and at Chez Bruce, in Wandsworth, but headed to Chester with dreams of starting his own place after a friend told him about an empty restaurant there for sale. When he opened in 2011, he realised the type of cooking he’d done in his career to date might not be what Chester locals wanted, nor would be possible with the resources he had.
“Chez Bruce shaped me as a chef but I was fully aware that to do the food they do takes eight chefs working from 7am till midnight. That’s a big operation and there was no way I could replicate that with a £100,000 restaurant. There was only me and one other chef with no experience. The one thing I could do was have good standards and serve simple food I knew tasted good.”
Usher then discovered the current gas supply to the building was not substantial enough for his kitchen requirements, but only after the paving of the outside terrace had been completed. So, for the first couple of months the restaurant will only be able to use one of its gas ovens before the terrace is dug up and the supply sorted.
“We’ve closed for at least a week every year at Sticky Walnut,” sighs Usher. “I feel like such a bad operator. It’s hard not having a business partner to share decisions with. It feels like I am making a few of the same mistakes again but, with a small business, you haven’t got a massive bucket of money at the start. You’ve got to earn it before you spend it.”
The food has evolved over the years, with Usher letting customers tell him what they wanted. On opening, it served aubergine lasagne, two different pastas and whole grilled mackerel – “nothing more than three moves on the plate” – but as it found its feet, Usher let his creativity flow. It was these more ambitious dishes that captured his diners’ imaginations and came to define his cooking.
Today, the menu at Sticky Walnut comprises brilliant, unfussy dishes such as oven-roast beets, sticky walnuts, spicy pumpkin seeds and fresh goats’ curd; crispy ham hock, soft-boiled egg, pea and radish; and glazed shin of beef and truffle chips. Burnt Truffle continues in this vein, with dishes including chicken and pig’s head terrine with deep-fried pickles; char-grilled lamb rump with fennel, romaine lettuce and peas; and stonebass with charred sweetcorn, lemon couscous and buttermilk-fried oyster and tartare sauce. Some dishes are available at both, notably its chicken liver pâté, crème brûlée and Jacob’s ladder with truffle chips.
“I like simple food. There’s a pretty thin line between doing something too simple and too complex. A lot of what we serve can be done at home so our job is to make it flawless. We serve a lot of game because people don’t buy grouse or pigeon to cook at home.
“People say they respect us because we have skipped all the bullshit and that we do food that’s not in fashion and don’t try to be anybody we’re not. It’s funny for me to hear that because that’s all I know anyway. Whenever we do well in a list or guidebook, I wonder how we did it by serving pâté with toasted foccacia, but people are coming back so they must like it.”
Sticky Walnut has been something of a slow burn. Lunches were quiet for the first three years, Usher’s gallows humour of making mention of this on Twitter helping to alleviate some of the pain, but they aren’t any more. Given the slight off-pitch location, however, the early days weren’t a total shock. “A lot of people said the site was a shithole in a dead area and it definitely wouldn’t work based on the figures the previous place was doing and the premium on the lease, but I had a gut feeling for it.”
Usher’s gut played a pivotal role in the location and size of Burnt Truffle, with him sticking to his tried-and-tested formula of a relatively small neighbourhood bistro. He wasn’t short of offers for larger projects though, with sites in central Liverpool and Manchester on the table. One operator approached him for a rent-free site in Chester, which he turned down because of its location.
“I didn’t want a big, city centre site. Lots of people said I was crazy and that I should max it out, but that has never been my approach.” Usher even passed up the chance of opening up next door to Sticky Walnut and extending the restaurant, partly because of issues with the landlord but also over scale.
”It wouldn’t work for us. We bake three focaccias in the morning and that’s really tight, the queue for the oven is down to the minute. If we were three times the size and cooking nine focaccias, we’d need to use the oven twice and that would mean a extra hour and a half cooking.”
While this may smack of a lack of ambition – after all, a bigger restaurant could have more ovens – it shows a desire to keep control. Indeed, it has taken Usher four years to be able to step back from Sticky Walnut. With 60 covers inside and 40 alfresco, Burnt Truffle is a bigger operation, however, and he is taking no chances with it; the restaurant will be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays until its finds it rhythm.
When fully up and running, it will need to do 400 covers a week to be a success, something which he is not taking for granted.
“There has been a bit of hype about the restaurant and I’ve see the nice messages on Twitter with people saying they are going to come along. This can give you a false sense of security that it’s going to be busy from day one. Twitter accounts for about 0.01% of the guests who do come in so believing all that would be stupid. We need to make sure we do what we do well and hopefully that will be why people come back.”
If they do and Burnt Truffle is a success, Usher believes he has another restaurant in him. Given his experience with crowdfunding, would he take that route again?
“One hundred per cent yes. There are people who’ve said ‘people have bought you a restaurant, you can’t ask them again’, but I’m trying to build a business and no matter how you do it, you need funding. I’m not asking for money to go on holiday with. I’m saying to people ‘do you believe in what we are trying to do and would you help us again?”
Given his charm and personality it’s likely people would back him again, although Usher reveals that he’s not quite the stimulating company his online presence might indicate. “I’m the most boring person because I can only talk about restaurants, there’s no other subject I know,” he confides.
Happily, then, with Burnt Truffle the time for talking is over.