Interview with an Innovator

Byron’s Sophie Michell: ‘I like to take classic dishes and inject new life into them – I think that’s the secret’

The food and drink director reveals her three most important aspects for a modern burger, her major plans for the burger chain’s ongoing brand revamp and why the US food scene has always been her inspiration

13 March 2020
americanburgerchainsfast casualrestaurantsvegan

Michell on paper

  • Trained at Butler’s Wharf Chef School in London while doing work experience at the likes of La Gavroche and The Lanesborough Hotel.
  • Joined the Belgrave Hotel as executive chef in 2013, becoming the UK’s youngest female chef to hold such a role.
  • Has enjoyed a varied TV career as a presenter and judge, at home and abroad, with a food and drink director role at burger chain Byron arriving in May 2019.

Byron’s Sophie Michell needs little introduction. A presenter on Channel 4’s ‘Cook Yourself Thin’ and co-author of the book of the same name, Michell has also been spotted on Sky Taste, Market Kitchen, Comic Relief, Iron Chef USA and Masterchef during what has been a rather successful career on the telly.

However, she is most at home in the kitchen, having started in brigades from the tender age of 15, working her way up through the restaurant and consultancy arenas to becoming the UK’s youngest female executive chef at London’s Belgrave Hotel in 2013.

During her three-year stay at the five-star institution, she overhauled Mark Hix’s previous menu and helped relaunch the Pont St restaurant, with Michell leaving in 2016 to help open The Gorgeous Kitchen in Heathrow’s busy T2.

Last summer, Michell joined Byron as food and drink director with the intent of rejuvenating the brand following years of restructuring and uncertainty. Much like her time at Belgrave, Michell is overhauling menus across the burger chain’s portfolio, with the latest swath of dish updates arriving at the end of March.

Here, Michell details her major changes at Byron so far, reveals her love for all things pickled and explains how coloured buns will play a part in her ongoing brand revamp.

Byron Burger
image credit: Byron

I always loved eating and my mum was a big foodie, so it was a natural interest for me. When I was eleven, we travelled and lived in Bali, Indonesia and Australia, and that really cemented my interest because the food was so incredible and intriguing.

It was really inspiring, and it opened my eyes to so many different flavours. Australia has got amazing influence from Europe and Asia, and everything was just so colourful, bright and fresh. I’m still inspired a lot by that part of the world and by the flavours.

I’ve been very lucky to have had so many different aspects to my career. I would say that being put in charge of the kitchen at the Belgrave Hotel was really significant for me – I was the youngest female executive chef in England for a five-star hotel and it was amazing to have my food there and oversee the whole operation. The TV work has been very fun throughout the years, including everything from judging Iron Chef in America to doing shows in the UK.

Byron has been a big step for me – it’s the first time I’m not doing an operational role in a restaurant. It’s a much more ‘intellectual’ role in terms of overseeing the brand redevelopment and how we can take this iconic, well-known brand and turn it into a new brand that is fit for now.  

So far, I’ve overseen three big changes and each one can be classified in different directions. The first was the fixed core items, which was essentially retraining chefs on how to season things, how to cook the chicken better – a bit of a refresh and look at best practice.

Then we did consolidation - I took a lot of dishes off the menu, cut down on SKUs and cleaned out anything I didn’t think was doing well. And now we have a menu change at the end of March which is really my biggest brand menu change so far with new flavours coming in. We’ve got items such as Asian chicken wings and steaks, which is more my direction now.

We’ve got a more widespread range of ingredients at Byron now but we’re still American – I’m very inspired by LA. We’ve got some fantastic plant-based and vegan burgers, one of which was the second-bestselling vegan item on the whole of Deliveroo for January.

Byron dessert
image credit: Byron

Our upcoming steak is with an umami bone marrow melt that I recently developed with a company. We’ve got a gorgeous chicken burger coming called ‘The Holy Cluck’ which has chicken crackling – crispy roasted chicken skin – and a roast chicken mayonnaise.

For me, I like to take classic dishes and try to inject new life into them – I think that’s the secret.

I’m not a vegan but I understand and support the principles behind it – it just personally doesn’t suit me (I have tried). What I think we need to be really conscious of is where we source our meat from and how our meat is reared. There is a big feeling that meat is bad for the environment, but it really is mass farming and production that’s dangerous for the environment and raising animals badly that’s more of an issue.

On a modern menu, you need to have a bit of everything to appeal to all the different demographics. We now live in a world where you need to have gluten-free options (I’m in the process of making all our chicken dishes gluten free) and you need to have light options too. You have to move with the times.

Most of our sales are still burgers and I don’t see that changing any time soon. You want the classics done well, which is our cheeseburger and Byron burger (which I updated recently), and then you want a couple of interesting flavours coming through in different forms. Balance is key.

The three most important aspects for a burger are simple. Firstly, a good quality patty. Secondly, a good bun which is nice and fresh. And thirdly, seasoning the burger properly is so important.

Byron salad
image credit: Byron

I love a pickle on a burger, and we have homemade pickles at Byron. I love fermented food and I have lots of it at home. At Byron, we use a quality vinegar and pickle our own veg. Anything pickled is great, whether it’s naturally fermented or not. Gut health is important, but again, it’s all about having a balance in your overall diet.

Believe it or not, we are currently looking at pink buns, green buns and rainbow buns. We’re thinking of loads of fun things to take the brand back to where it used to be, and coloured buns is an example of what will be coming out. 

Having ‘squidge’ in a burger is really important – you need to have bounce. We have extra malt and extra super gluten put in our buns to make it hold up because our burgers have quite a high fat content.

I’m totally inspired by the US – and I always have been - by the type of produce they have and the fascinating street food scene.

Our vegan plant-based range outdid all expectations, but our cheeseburger and Byron burger will always be our best sellers. We make our buns with an artisan baker and we’ve fine-tuned our recipe (I think we’ve done something like 28 different versions of it).

We have these insanely decadent little salted caramel brownies also coming at the end of March. When you’ve had a big burger and fries, you might not want a dessert - so these are perfect. We’ve also got mini cinnamon doughnuts with vanilla custard and apple compote which I think are going to be very popular.

I’m really into scotch bonnet chillies at the moment and pickling them with slices of garlic, brown sugar and pickling vinegar. They’re great on burgers and sandwiches, and the leftover pickling vinegar is great with a Bloody Mary.

Overcomplicating things is probably the biggest mistake chefs make. I think we underestimate how simple people like things – I’m guilty of doing it sometimes.

With the new branding and the new menu changes, we’re opening Byron up to be an all-day dining experience.

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