23 July 2014

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Grill the Chef: interview with Aiden Byrne


Tim Bacon and Aiden Byrne 2013 - Aiden_Byrne_Tim_Bacon_2013.jpgNorthern boy Aiden Byrne (pictured, right, with backer Tim Bacon, left) was the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star when he picked up a gong at Adlards in Norwich, aged just 22. A protégé of Tom Aikens, he moved to The Grill at the Dorchester in 2006 before decamping to Cheshire.

Now he’s back, fuelling Manchester’s profile as a red-hot ticket for foodies. With Simon Rogan already installed in the iconic Midland Hotel, Byrne’s hugely ambitious Manchester House project is also poised to take the city by storm. Square Meal caught up with him to find out about appearing on TV’s Great British Menu, his cheffing heroes, coping with film crews and regaining that Michelin star… plus an incident with a Bratt pan.

by Emma Sturgess

Whose idea was Manchester House (pictured, left), and why now?

Tim Bacon, from Living Ventures [a Cheshire-based hospitality group], announced he wanted to do a high-end restaurant in Manchester. I’d been looking at a site in the city centre with Macdonald Hotels. That fell through, which prompted me, in a bout of frustration, to phone Tim. I think Manchester’s ready, and wants a high-end restaurant to call its own.

Manchester House 2013 - Manchester-House_2013_COOPER028_resized.jpg

What does the opening of the restaurant mean for your pub, The Church Green? How will you divide your time?

We changed the concept of The Church Green about two years ago, and it’s now more relaxed. It’s a family restaurant with a sense of community. My wife’s very much there, we’ve got a really good young head chef, and it’s manageable from day to day without me having to be there.

Why did you decide to be so open about your ambitions for a Michelin star?

The whole Michelin thing started off with Tim and Living Ventures; it’s an area of the market Tim hadn’t got into. Our aspirations are to gain accolades. I’ll be disappointed if Michelin and the other guides don’t come, but it’s not the be all and end all. I would like to get a Michelin star for Manchester more than I would like to get one for myself.

Which dishes are you most proud of?

My Longhorn beef with grilled mushrooms, salsify and clay-baked potatoes with truffle jus. It was designed for Comic Relief and the Great British Menu, so it was a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s got the integrity to make it stand up. And I’m happy with the pigeon (with cherries and pistachio) on the menu, which is full of flavour, with lots of different textures. Technically a lot of work has gone into it, which is a typical trait of mine.

You’ve appeared on Great British Menu and MasterChef, and are currently being filmed by a BBC documentary crew. Were you keen to get back on camera?

When the BBC came to us I was more excited about the effect it would have on the business than I was about being in front of the camera myself. There are times when you want to tell them to get out of your face because you’re dealing with a dilemma, but they want to show people the highs and lows of opening a top-end restaurant.

the french at the midland hotel 2013 - The-French-Restaurant-at-the-Midland_Simon-Rogan_2013_resized.jpgSimon Rogan has opened two restaurants in Manchester recently (including The French, pictured right), and Manchester House is another big launch in the city. Is Simon a rival or a friend?

Very much a friend, and he’s been a friend for quite a while. I first met him on Great British Menu and I was absolutely gobsmacked at his technical ability. We borrow things from each other – I’ve borrowed liquid nitrogen from him. We’re not competing, and if anything we will collectively raise the bar of the dining scene in Manchester.

How would you describe Manchester’s current reputation for eating out?

I think the worm is turning. The North West in general is creating a bit of a storm in the UK and obviously Simon’s got a lot to do with that. It’s about to become extremely exciting.

How does the Manchester dining scene differ from London?

London has a pool of potential diners for every concept that you throw at them. I don’t think that Manchester House would be lost in London – it would sit very nicely, but there are a lot of eateries in London that wouldn’t sit very nicely in Manchester. A stuffy, overformal destinsation wouldn’t survive here.

Manchester House 2013 - Manchester-House_2013_COOPER054-resized.jpg

Do you have any rituals in the kitchen?

I binned my recipe books and started afresh for Manchester House, trying to break old habits and come up with new techniques and ways of working. But I’m always adamant that we have a friendly kitchen. I have worked in some really nasty hard-core places, and I don’t want Manchester House to be one of them.

Which chefs do you admire the most, and why?

I worked for Tom Aikens at Pied à Terre and was his head chef when he opened Tom Aikens. I was at my lowest because of how hard we were working, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be standing next to anyone else. I look to Marcus Wareing for advice; he’s been fantastic. And Heston, for putting the UK on the map. He’s given everybody the inspiration to move forward.

What’s been your biggest kitchen disaster?

About two months after we opened Tom Aikens, I left the Bratt pan on full of stock. At about 4am in the morning I remembered that I hadn’t turned it down. I jumped out of bed and ran all the way from home in Battersea to Chelsea. It had burned dry. The restaurant stank of smoke and they had to close for lunch.

This feature was published on 23 September 2013.

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