Were their debut restaurant to receive a Michelin star in its first year, most 29-year-old chefs would party hard in celebration.
The awards’ night would end at 5am, god knows where. There would be a raucous staff all-dayer on Tuesday. Champagne would flow for days in a blur of media interviews and congratulations from backers, suppliers, fellow chefs and regulars. For a while, all bets would be off.
Mana’s chef-owner Simon Martin stayed at the 2020 Michelin after-party for a couple of hours, then headed back to Manchester. “I would like to have stayed longer, there were some really good suppliers there,” he says, ever the chef. But he had train tickets booked and plans to meet his team that night. They eventually hooked up at Mana in Ancoats for a few drinks. But it was no wild night. “We haven’t really celebrated yet," Martin concedes. He promises they will go all out at the staff Christmas party at Hawksmoor, but I’m not convinced.
Sat in Mana’s modishly swanky dining room in early November, Simon Martin does not come across as someone with much time for silliness and drunken hijinks. He is friendly but serious and driven, a sober man engaged in the pursuit of excellence.
“It’s only now the importance of [the star] is sinking in. It’s amazing,” says Martin, previously at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Noma. But there is no hint of resting on his laurels, as he thinks aloud about Mana breaking into The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. As he puts it: “We’re nowhere near done.”
This fits with how the Shropshire-born Martin has conducted himself in delivering Manchester’s first Michelin star in 42 years. He is not a garrulous industry presence. He keeps a low social media profile. He does not actively court publicity. Instead, he gets his head down and works. “We had all this press after Michelin. It’s fine. I don’t dislike it. But ultimately I want to be in my kitchen. I’m happiest cooking.”
Coming from most chefs, that sounds like a hollow cliché. From Martin, less so. Sure, he will politely answer questions about business (Mana was funded by the founders of Altrincham’s LIFT-Financial) and the logistical detail of how his kitchen operates (organised by temperature, not in traditional sections), but he only becomes genuinely animated when talking about ingredients and his dishes.
The menu development that so impressed Michelin (it described Mana’s 16-course tasting menu as “packed with originality” and reflective of a “clear, unadulterated vision”), is Martin’s main focus at Mana. If you are looking for the secret of his Michelin success, that is probably it.
Martin very quickly created an environment where he can devote most of his time to imagining new dishes, while Mana functions around him like the proverbial well-oiled machine. Over the 90 minutes of this interview, he is not interrupted once by the staff. In the open kitchen, Rage Against The Machine clashes with the noise of whirring blenders, drinks are prepped at the bar, chairs are being individually cleaned hours before service. The restaurant is busy with activity. But it all just happens.
“I couldn’t do anything without my team,” says Martin, and in particular his sous chef, Connor Slater. Martin is here every service because he wants to be. But day-to-day, Slater runs the kitchen. “I can focus entirely on [menu development],” he says. “We talk and liaise. I have a very active relationship with Connor, to make sure that he’s progressing, that the kitchen is functioning as it should, and getting better. I need that peace of mind.”
That serenity leaves Martin free to research ingredients and create. Increasingly, that often means meeting specialist suppliers, plugging them for information about harvesting and optimum storage, and letting that deep dive into the nature of the product underpin the lateral creative thinking that inspires new dishes. “You can’t polish a turd. We find the best ingredients and apply preparation or preservation methods which best represent that ingredient. I want more clarity in my cooking, to start taking things away. But for that we need to be guaranteed the best produce. Suppliers have to bend over backwards for you to achieve that. We need to know how long [an ingredient has] been out of the water or ground.”
An ingredient focus
At this level, Martin says the process is very little about cooking. “The majority is what happens to ingredients before they get here and how we treat them before the pan,” he says. But that underplays both how fastidious Martin’s kitchen is and the deceptive level of technical complexity in his dishes of British and often wild, foraged ingredients.
For instance, Martin reduced the number of covers from 32 to 25 at Mana because (“that’s us busy not rushed”) and likes to cook from raw in service. “We can’t make a lacto-ferment but if something can be done on the day, it is. I’m talking things like picking thyme, even. It’s got energy on that sprig. Vegetables are cooked in service, not blanched and reheated. The same for meat and fish, such as a whole duck or a venison flank. It’s a better product. As soon as you take something out of its raw state, adding heat and manipulating it, it starts to lose its soul.”
Not that Martin has any issue working tirelessly outside of a primary ingredient to make sure a dish hits home with a rare intensity. For instance, his knowingly named ‘beef tartare that tastes of beef tartare’ uses 120-day dry-aged beef from 15-year-old, retired ex-dairy cattle, bound with a beef fat mayo seasoned with a garum-inspired beef stock held at Maillard reaction temperature for aeons. It is garnished with horseradish and oxalis for acidity. “That dish really felt like we’re settled now, this is our identity: powerful flavours, balanced and not complicated.”
Martin’s queen scallop with preserved tomato and caviar arose from tasting “the best tomato I’ve ever had” (from Flavourfresh near Southport), and wanting to intensify that flavour by dehydrating the flesh and then rehydrating it with a rosehip tomato water. This was after he had previously lacto-fermented the tomatoes to create a natural vinaigrette, which he also combined with an elderflower red lentil miso to create a meat-free broth. That way, Mana is able to cook both with and around the seasons.
For all its apparent slickness, like any new restaurant Mana has had issues. As previously reported in these pages, in a last-minute panic Martin retooled a couple of Noma dishes on his first menu, an embarrassing move for a restaurant aspiring to originality. His plan to cook a veg-centric menu also encountered pushback from customers who felt it was not value for money; more meat was introduced.
Martin is sanguine about that shift. “I’m cooking what I want to cook. It’s creative and progressive.” But using more meat and luxury ingredients such as wagyu and langoustines – the latter in a one-bite snack – has, at times, made it tight financially. It is for that reason, insists Martin, not to cash in on the Michelin star clamour (600 emails overnight, now fully booked on a rolling 120-day basis), that the evening menu will rise from £105 to £140 from January.
“If it was the Michelin bonus we’d have capitalised already. We’re putting the prices up because I want caviar and white truffles on the menu. I like luxury ingredients. I don’t like the idea of anything being mediocre in my life or around me, and for me to get more of my personality across I want those amazing ingredients on the menu.”
Managing the brigade
Martin opened Mana determined, and vocally so, to run his kitchen in a sustainable manner where staff welfare was paramount: no incoherent bollockings, no bullying, three days off each week, fixed holidays. Mostly, he has been able to stick to that (staff now work two extra half-days each month).
“Of course there are times when I get angry,” he admits, “but that’s when everybody knows it’s extremely serious. If you shout all the time it loses effectiveness. Nobody’s here just for a pay cheque. You have to understand that. People are trying their best – maybe not always 100%, but if it’s 95% it’s my duty to get that extra 5% out of them.”
Yet this enlightened management style has not prevented considerable staff churn. Mana opened with 14 kitchen staff and at one point was down to four (now nine, but Martin is recruiting).
Some chefs did not like working in Mana’s beautiful black £300,000 Dekton-clad kitchen, which is built directly into the dining room. They missed the banter and noise of a hidden kitchen. Other chefs hated having to take dishes out to guests or the repetition of creating the same dishes for the tasting menu. Some people, Martin fired. “Unfortunately, a couple weren’t right for this or were cocking up too much. This is my livelihood. If anybody negatively impacts my business, I stop it. Immediately.”
Even the apparent positive of three days off does not suit everybody. “They get bored, spend too much or go out drinking every day and feel like shit. This restaurant has been created in my image, what I’d like as a chef. It’s my duty to find chefs who appreciate that,” says Martin, who claims to take all this in his stride. “If you get a problem you just fix it, don’t you?”
The star should aid recruitment and Martin’s aim to push on once again. “We have a management team now who are all young and hungry and appreciate the standards we need to work to,” says Martin, who intends to spend 2020 doggedly refining his work: questioning it, objectively analysing it, paring dishes back to their essentials in a bid to rival the quality found in the starred restaurants in which he was schooled. As he says: “I’ve been in Michelin environments my entire career. That gives you an aura of confidence. I know when it’s good. I’m not deluded. I don’t think we’re brilliant regardless.”
Nervous as he was on that trip down to London in early October (imagine if Mana had won one of the service awards, instead?!), Martin has no jitters about retaining the star. “If we’re always trying to get better I don’t think you have to worry. We’re just going to keep moving forwards.”
This feature first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here