Two years ago nobody had heard of you. What’s your secret?
I made an effort to stand out. On Great British Menu, most chefs look and carry themselves in the same way and, because of that, I find the programme quite sterile and stale. My initial strategy was not to get through to the finals, just to get noticed. But it ended up going a little better than that (O’Hare’s dish Emancipation was featured on the final menu).
Did you create your look especially for Great British Menu?
Not really. I’d had that haircut for a few years before, but I did dye it jet black. A lot of people assume I’m into heavy metal but I like all sorts of music. People were shocked to see a chef that didn’t have a short-back-and-sides.
Which was better for business, starring on TV or winning a Michelin star?
For business, the star, and for me personally, Great British Menu. But it all happened at the same time because the 2015 Michelin Guide came out around the time the programme was airing. We took 7,800 bookings in three weeks.
Behind most ‘hot’ restaurants is a good PR, but that’s not the case with The Man Behind the Curtain. Why don’t you use an agency?
To this day we haven’t spent a pound on marketing or PR apart from the website. It’s mainly because I don’t understand how I’d promote the restaurant. I’m not trying to sell a million Ford Focuses. I can’t plaster it on the back of a bus. All I need is 40 people in the dining room every service. The population of Leeds is almost 800,000. That’s not difficult.
Was the restaurant busy from day one then?
No. There were a few quiet nights in the beginning. There was one when we just had a table of two booked in and we had to call them back and move them to a busier night.
Were you worried?
I knew it would build. Very soon after opening we were number one on TripAdvisor. A bit after that, we got a good review in the Yorkshire Post and then The Guardian. We were only open four nights a week at that point so it wasn’t difficult to fill the restaurant.
How did you manage to make money with limited opening hours?
The total investment required to open this restaurant was only £30,000, and half of that went on the chairs. The rent is also extremely low – £20,000 a year. We open seven services a
week now. It’s simple supply and demand – it’s not because the food is so complicated we need loads of time out to prep. Nobody spends hours on garnishes and my dishes are difficult to mess up. This restaurant is incredibly easy to run, especially now we’re always busy. If I break both my legs, the restaurant manager doesn’t show up and two of the chefs get pneumonia, the rest of the team would still be able to cope.
It’s just as well. You have a very busy year or two coming up with Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville…
Yes. I’m now the creative director of G&G Hospitality, which is backed by Singapore billionaire Peter Lim. It’s a cool job. We’re opening a boutique hotel in Manchester that will
be heavily F&B led with 30 bedrooms and three restaurants. I’m responsible for everything: the design, the art and, obviously, the food. There will be a restaurant there that’s pitched at a similar level to The Man Behind the Curtain, but I don’t know the direction just yet. It will have a development kitchen and that will service all the restaurants, including The Man Behind the Curtain. The other two willboth be very different. I’m not going to say one will be McDonald’s and one will be Le Gavroche, but there will be different price points.
Did they seek you out?
Gary Neville rang me. He hadn’t even eaten at the restaurant at that point, he’d just seen me on Saturday Kitchen and Great British Menu.
And there’s more projects on the horizon, too…
There are plans for a 200-bedroom hotel in Manchester that will have another high-profile restaurant. It wouldn’t necessarily be run by us, but I’ll be responsible for setting it up, which might involve me approaching another chef and working with them to open it. There’s visions to go further afield too. My brief is to come up with ideas for new restaurants: where would I want to go, what would I want to eat? I’m an ideas man and that extends to everything, including the way the restaurants look. I’ll also be involved operationally when they open.
Was food a big part of your early life?
Well I ate it. It’s a horrible word but my parents weren’t what you might call ‘foodies’. I didn’t make handmade pasta with my mum or anything like that. But we ate out a lot. Every Saturday night, we’d be out with family friends in Middlesbrough. It wasn’t fine dining, just Italians, Indians, Chinese, maybe the odd bistro. I loved the experience of eating out more than the food. I’m obviously more interested in the food when I eat out now but, for me, the main draw is still the overall restaurant experience.
You originally wanted to be a pilot...
I did a degree in aerospace. I liked Tom Cruise in Top Gun. I actually picked the wrong course – I should have done aeronautical engineering because aerospace was a lot more maths-based than I wanted. I ended up quitting because the maths was too hard. A few years later I got my pilot’s license independently in Daytona.
When did you get into cooking?
I never cooked when I was at home but when I was a student I started cooking for myself and enjoyed it. I wasn’t doing anything dickhead-y on a plate or aught like that, just fresh food. I was probably cooking a load of shit to be honest. A mate of mine was a chef back in Middlesbrough and it seemed like he had a much better life than me. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a chef. He had a girlfriend and a car. He sells photocopiers now.
How did you find yourself in a professional kitchen?
I just rang a kitchen that I knew was alright.I was thinking of going to catering college but the chef warned me off that and said it would be a bit of a comedown after university. So I started
from scratch with him. I worked in a few other places in the north and then did a stage with John Burton-Race at The Landmark Hotel (which held two Michelin stars). I loved it and got a job there as a commis. I think catering colleges are a complete waste of time. None of them are really based around the enjoyment of food. Who wants to learn how to make a béchamel? If you’ve got heart and a love for food and you want to work somewhere great, you’re too good for catering college.
What about everybody else?
The main problem is that you don’t need any qualifications. It sends out a poor message about the industry. We don’t want people who are thick as fuck in kitchens. I think it would be better to mix in more academic stuff – maths, English and science – and then spend two days a week cooking in a decent kitchen. Where I’m from, people do catering college because they can still claim benefits while they’re doing it. They swap halfway through the course to do hair and beauty. Middlesbrough is full of people that can sort of cook and also do shellac.
Are apprenticeships a better option?
I don’t think they’re necessary either. Just jump straight in. There are always jobs to do and the longer you’ve been in the industry, the more you get paid. I don’t agree with starting as a KP, though. You don’t learn much washing pots.
What was John Burton-Race like to work for?
He’s a phenomenal man. He was shouty in the kitchen, but who cares? I’ve never really understood why people get so upset about that. He’s a great cook, a proper two Michelin-star chef, and he’s got charisma and personality. But he wasn’t in the kitchen that much. It was Martin Burge (now at Whatley Manor). His parents are both deaf so he can lip-read so he always knew what you were saying about him. I struggled in London though. The cost of living was too high. When John’s restaurant closed in 2003, I did a bit of temping and then spent the last of my money on a meal at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay – which was ace – and fucked off back to the north.
And then you did a stage at Noma...
I was lucky because I actually got to cook. I was there with Lee Westcott (now at The Typing Room). Noma is great at what it does but I could not get my head round how it works. The logistics to feed such a small number of people are extraordinary. They do fewer covers than us. Food can taste better if it isn’t subject to all those restrictions. Whatever anyone says, a mango does taste nicer than grass. I also did a stage with Nuno Mendes at Viajante. He’s an incredible person to work with and I loved his food, but being in London got me down. I’d been living in York, which is a lot nicer than Bethnal Green.
Your first restaurant was The Blind Swine. What sort of food were you cooking there?
It was copycat bullshit. I just wanted to fit in and I felt I had to cook like that because I’d just done a stage at Noma. The Swine was a bit trendier than The Man Behind the Curtain – stoneware plates and carrot tops everywhere. It was the style of cooking Noma popularised five years ago that the whole world still seems to be obsessed with. I hope it’s on the way out, because René certainly doesn’t cook like that any more.
What’s the story behind your restaurant’s name?
It’s from the The Wizard of Oz, of course, but it’s also the name of a song by a heavy metal band called Valient Thorr. It references the fact that a lot of chefs create the impression they cook at a restaurant by putting their name on the door. My mum – who is no gastronome – went on a P&O Cruise recently and was convinced Marco Pierre White had cooked her dinner. The idea that it’s one person cooking is stupid anyway. I’d never want a restaurant with my name on it. The Blind Swine was on Swine Gate so it made sense but it was one of those The + adjective + animal ones at a time when everything was being called The Quirky Peacock and shit like that. At least it didn’t contain Social, Kitchen or Street. I like The Man Behind the Curtain. It can’t be abbreviated or shortened and it doesn’t sound like a restaurant.
How often do you cook there?
I’ve just been away on holiday and I didn’t even consider that there may have been a drop in standards. I don’t employ morons. I have chefs that cook out of enjoyment – there’s no way it could be bad. I hate that ‘I wasn’t here so it wasn’t good’ attitude that some chefs have. The notion that everyone else here is so bad that they can’t cook it as well as you can and it all goes to shit when you’re off skiing is ridiculous, not to mention arrogant.
What’s changed at the restaurant since you first opened?
It’s much better, but the format is exactly the same. The price of the tasting menu has increased by a fiver in two years. The big operational difference is that we had an open kitchen for the first six months or so that we used for finishing and sending out.
Why did you scrap it?
It was smoky and stinking the place out. Plus open kitchens are shit. Why would you want to watch it? People were taking pictures of us all the time on their phones. I get open kitchens in a teppanyaki restaurant because what those guys are doing is interesting.
There’s a bit more jeopardy at play maybe...
Exactly. At this restaurant’s level, it’s just putting things on plates and fiddling around with little plastic pots. It’s like a doctor’s surgery.
How did you feel when you got the star knowing that more experienced, better-known chefs were desperately trying to win a star down the road in Manchester?
I don’t get the concept of ‘pushing’ for a star. In theory we’re all trying to get three stars. To get a Michelin star, you need to be good enough, cook food in a nice environment and not be a c*nt about it. I couldn’t say if Aiden Byrne or Simon Rogan were trying harder than us. We obviously wanted a star, but we weren’t trying to get one as such.
Do you want another one?
I’m 34 so I’d be silly to sit back and dine off that for the rest of my life. The food will get better. We’re certainly not a two star at the moment, but it’s much stronger than it was so we’re going
in the right direction. No disrespect to Aiden or Simon because I think they’re great guys, but I think it’s good for the industry that we were able to achieve a star on a budget of £30,000 and with only four chefs in the kitchen including me.
How would you describe the food at The Man Behind the Curtain?
Someone asked me on Twitter if I’d describe what I do as post modern. How on earth do you respond to that without looking like a nob? People say that I put odd flavours together – I don’t. I challenge anyone to give me an example. I make plates of food with ingredients that taste nice together. My approach is a bit like Tom Kerridge’s – he knows what goes together and he’s honest about it. We focus on familiar flavours, step it up a few notches and then present it an avant garde way.
Aesthetically speaking, your food has more in common with that of avant garde Spanish chefs than your UK peers. Why is that?
We just like making food look interesting. It can be a bit annoying because my food is often described as technical or odd – people can’t see past how it looks. It’s actually very simple. Take the crab course. It’s just txangurro – a Basque crab dish – served in a small portion on a plate that makes it look pretty in a dark restaurant. What we do here is not French. If anything it’s Spanish with a bit of Asian thrown in. We blag it. I’ve never been to Japan.
What appeals to you most about Spanish cooking?
There’s a brutal honesty to it. And it’s not as technical as a lot of people think it is. What’s technical is my recipe book from John Burton-Race that has a truffle bullion recipe with two pages’ worth of ingredients.
Your website is refreshingly low on bullshit and there’s very little information on your food or pictures of it, or indeed a menu...
The idea is to not give the game away. I wanted something that didn’t look like a restaurant website and I definitely didn’t want any bullshit about where I get my tomatoes from or ‘my approach to cuisine’. If you take loads of pictures of your food you’re setting yourself up to disappoint because the picture is always going to look better than what you actually get. Kate Moss looks better in pictures than in person. She still looks good, but not that good.
This interview appears in this month's issue of Restaurant Magazine. Subscribe here