Interview with an Innovator

Sticky Walnut’s Gary Usher: ‘It’s annoying going out for dinner and not understanding things on the menu’

Ahead of a documentary tracking the opening of his fifth restaurant in Prescot, the founder of Elite Bistros talks to Tom Lee about the pros and cons of cookery shows, simplifying menus and the many uses of a konro grill.

16 August 2019
barbecuechefsdessertrestaurantsseafood

Usher on Paper – CV

  • Sharpened his chef’s knife under Matt Christmas at Chez Bruce and Angela Hartnett at the York and Albany
  • Opened his first restaurant, Sticky Walnut, in Chester in 2011
  • Has since embarked on a further five sites, putting down spots in Manchester, Liverpool as well as smaller towns

“I’m not a business person,” insists Gary Usher. “I don’t come from any type of business experience or background. I am just a cook.”

The chef behind such acclaimed restaurants as Sticky Walnut, Hispi and Wreckfish has previously talked about suffering from impostor syndrome, but he seems to have a knack for opening his bistros in the right place at the right time – and getting the public to back him. All but the first of his six restaurants were able to launch thanks to crowdfunding on Kickstarter – his most recent, Kala, smashed the website’s world record by raising £100,000 in 11 hours.

Earlier this year, he was nominated for Restaurateur of the Year by GQ magazine, and in the autumn, he’ll be appearing on British screens in a Channel 4 documentary about the process of opening one of his fashionable eateries in Prescot, a Merseyside town whose high street appeared to be on the decline just a few years ago.

While Usher says that his executive chef, Richard Sharples, increasingly handles the menus, he had a more direct involvement with the Prescot restaurant, dubbed Pinion. “It’s much more my style,” he adds. “It was the most simplistic form of the bistro that I know. Really simply things on the menu, like pate on toast, chicken Kiev for the main course, creme brulee for dessert.”

It makes for an interesting comparison to Kala, which opened May 1 and is situated in Manchester’s city centre, as he tells Food Spark.

 

We were able to push the boat out a little bit more with Manchester, just because there’s so much more variety of people coming to Kala. There’s so many different walks of life coming into the restaurant. Whereas in Prescot it was much more localised, that is where the guest is from.

Kala, we were able to put things on like a grilled octopus starter. That was very popular. And a main course we had was monkfish, which was whole monkfish on the bone, cooked on a konro grill, spiced up and served with a macadamia and red cabbage salad, and a very rich, herby barbecue sauce.

Another dish on the desserts that’s been really well received – it’s the most popular dessert – is a choux bun. So, choux pastry that we cook before service every day, hollow out the middle, and then we put inside it a thick custard of banana ice cream. Then we serve it with a salted caramel sauce. It’s almost a take on a banoffee flavour, but in a choux bun.

We bought this konro grill in most of the restaurants now… It is just this tiny little table-top Japanese chargrill and we’re cooking lots on that. I guess that is quite in vogue at the minute. It’s not something I would have brought into the restaurants, but all the young chefs in the group have been talking about it because they’ve been seeing it everywhere.

We got it and the first thing I had off it was just some tenderstem broccoli, and I can’t even tell you how good it is. It’s a smoked flavour but not an artificial-tasting smoke; it’s a really natural, just chargrilled smoky flavour, and the broccoli has been cooked just by the smoke of this chargrill. It turns something as simple as broccoli into this amazing, amazing vegetable or garnish. I’ve loved seeing that. They’re putting monkfish on it, they’re putting lamb racks on it, they’re putting celeriac on it.

With Prescot, we are putting on things that are much more accessible and relevant to the area… There hasn’t been a restaurant there for 30 years, so any new menu is going to be new, if you know what I mean. Whereas in Manchester, a new restaurant with a new menu is no news, it’s nothing. There’s hundreds of restaurants and there’s lots of restaurants opening every month. There’s so much choice in Manchester, whereas in Prescot there hasn’t been that much choice.

We were chatting the other day about why a dish on the menu which we’ve worded as duck ham wasn’t selling, and I said, ‘Because it’s f*cking pretentious!’ What is duck ham? It’s a term that gets used amongst all the chefs, all the fancy restaurants use it, but how many people are in that circle of know? It’s minimal, it’s so small. Actually, if you were going to call it cured duck or smoked duck or something like that, people would buy it, because they understand it… The worst culprits are chefs, they’re so quick to put a name that they’ve learnt only a few months ago or that is only [used] in chef circles on the menu. It’s an egotistical, selfish way of writing a menu. It’s show off. And actually, if you take out that terminology and you make it more accessible, people enjoy the menu more.

You need to drip-feed food. It’s annoying going out for dinner and not understanding things on the menu. It’s embarrassing as well… You don’t want to embarrass people by putting random, peculiar names all over the menu, but you can bring them in slowly and you can also bring them in by wording them differently. A delicious, delicious ingredient on a menu is when you cook something beurre noisette, and that’s French terminology for cooking it in brown butter, basically – so, cooking butter until it turns a brown colour. It gets this amazing nutty smell and flavour, and anything cooked in it is stunning. You can introduce things onto the menu by not being patronising, by not dumbing things down, but just explaining them more – don’t assume that everyone is going to know what beurre noisette is.

When I opened Sticky [Walnut], the first restaurant I opened in Chester – this is going back nine years – all I did was, for each dish, I phoned up my mum and I said, ‘Mum, do you know what pappardelle pasta is?’ She said nope, so I wrote ‘jumbo ribbons of pasta.’ I phoned her up and said, ‘Mum, do you know what beurre blanc is.’ She said nope, so I wrote ‘butter sauce’ on the menu. It’s nice to put some different things on the menu, but it doesn’t have to be with their French terminology or their fancy cooking name. And I think if you’ve had something cooked in brown butter on the menu for a few months then maybe change it to beurre noisette afterwards, but just introduce things slowly. And if you want to put a load of offal on the menu, don’t put it all on there at once, just put on a piece and test the water.

Cooking’s on TV so much now. It’s ridiculous… People look up to chefs now and it’s embarrassing, because chefs are the wrong people to look up to. I’m going to be absolutely guilty of it in the documentary that comes out!

[Cooking on TV has] been good to promote the industry, that’s great, but it definitely has changed the way that people dine out. They’re much more aware of cooking techniques, particularly any modern techniques. If a new technique had come into cooking 15 years ago, members of the public, other than die-hard foodies, would never have known about it, but because of all the cooking that’s on TV now, everybody knows.

When I was younger, Gary Rhodes was on TV a bit, and I thought he was amazing, I loved watching him on telly. And then to be honest it was really cheesy shows like Ready Steady Cook. But in the last 10 years, it’s just everything, so many shows on TV.

I am up for anything! If somebody said, ‘We’ve got a restaurant in Ibiza that we’d like you to open,’ I’d go and have a look. If someone said, ‘We’ve got a site in New York, could you come and have a look,’ I’d get on a plane and I’d go and have a look. If someone said that they had six empty restaurants all across Scotland and they wanted me to go and have a look, I’d go and have a look. I am up for anything. Absolutely anything. I’ve got no plans.

The most important thing at the moment is to make sure that the six [restaurants] that we have are running to the best that they can be, particularly with the economy and uncertainty with Brexit and everything to do with the government at the minute.

I will cook myself in the new restaurants for the first few months or however long it takes. I get the restaurant set up in the way that I want it, and then I move on to the next one. This is the first time now where I might actually stand still for a bit and just make sure that the six restaurants we’ve got are the best that they can be and concentrate on those for a bit.

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