Interview with an Innovator

Wagamama's Steven Mangleshot: ‘All we ever want to do is make sure that people think we’re going a bit mad’

Wagamama’s executive chef tells us about rocking the ramen game and why he’s been converted to veganism – well, at least for one day of the week.

23 February 2018
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Mangleshot on Paper – CV

  • Catered events like Ascot and V Festival early in his cooking career, followed by a stint at Café Rouge
  • Started at Wagamama as head chef in the brand’s now-shuttered Lexington Street branch in 2001
  • Began training other chefs in 2006, before being promoted to executive chef in 2007

Steven Mangleshot is always on the hunt for something ‘cool.’ Whether he’s talking about vegan ingredients like seitan or discovering a little-known fish that could be cooked up Vietnamese style, the executive chef uses the word frequently to describe the ideas he’s most excited about.

While Mangleshot has put in time catering for well-heeled spectators at Ascot and demanding singing stars at V Festival, it’s at Wagamama where he’s spent the better part of his career. When he first joined the group as a head chef, there were just five locations in the portfolio. Now there are 180, spread across 23 countries, from America to the Middle East. And Mangleshot has grown with the company. In 17 years he’s gone from running the kitchen in a single branch to overseeing the 3,000 chefs that work for the modern Asian chain.

Aside from jet setting around the world to tweak menus – particularly in the brand’s American outlets – and find new inspiration for the future, he spends most of his time in the new Noodle Lab. Opened last October, the site on Dean Street is where Wagamama has been trialling fresh ideas on willing customer guinea pigs, a concept that’s gaining traction, with both Wahaca and Bill’s following suit.

The ‘test kitchen’ format is just the latest example of why it pays to keep an eye on Wagamama, especially with a new Noodle Lab menu scheduled to appear in April, as well as a wider brand launch set to roll out in May.

 

Noodle Lab is something we’ve been playing with for the last eight or nine months, trying to get it right and trying to make sure that we’re doing something that’s really cool – as well as that we actually are genuinely innovating something that is going to end up on our menus.

People in Soho, they’re going to give you loads of feedback, which is a brilliant thing. And it’s been great watching the rest of the industry sort of start saying, actually, that’s a really good idea; actually we should do that.

The people that win are the customers, because they’re telling us what tastes good, what looks good, what should we think about expanding on… It just gives me a great playground to play in and cook loads of different food that is hopefully going to blow people away and make them smile.

The vegan menu has gone absolutely stunningly. It’s been good fun to do that – and not just take the meat protein out of it and say, oh, it’s vegan. Actually work on it properly and try and bring some really cool things up; actually try and make some great new flavours and work with some great new ingredients.

We’ve been playing a lot with the seitan stuff, in particular with the House of Seitan, as well as talking to loads of our staff who are vegans… We’ve used [seitan] in Noodle lab to create the vegatsu, which is our take on a vegan chicken katsu.

We’ve been working with Cook Daily out of Shoreditch, people like King Cook, and actually collaborating on a dish that we’ve had on the menu for the last couple of months now, which is the udon noodles with a curry base, lots of veg and things like coconut bacon. Just pulling stuff out of the ordinary and working with someone like [King Cook] who’s a real vegan, who does lots of great stuff down in Shoreditch, and actually trying to bring some of his ideas and my ideas together to create a really cool dish. It’s been fun non-stop.

I try and eat vegan once a week now. But actually I try and not eat meat every day of the week. I suppose it’s not hard, it’s not getting into a routine, it’s just finding other stuff to eat. And with the Noodle Lab, I’ve got loads of dishes down there that I can eat whenever I want. You sort of feel like you’re doing the right thing by leaving a little bit of meat out now and again.

I think the world’s on a big health kick about sugars, salts, fats, and I think everyone’s been drawing from that… I think [the food industry] is going to be quite parrot-y around health.

We’ve had some of the cool kids and now we’ve got to look at some of the other chefs that we can use. It’s not going to be just about doing vegan all the time, it’s going to be about doing some other collaborations – it might be a ramen chef, it might be someone in the world who does teppanyaki, or tatakis. Whatever we’re going to do, we’ll choose someone who is doing something cool that loves Wagamama.

I’d like to work with someone like Marcus Wareing, but that ain’t going to ever happen. I love that man. I would lick his face quite happily. I think he’s absolutely brilliant, he’s an absolute god to me. Him, someone like Jason Atherton, they’re the chefs that I admired throughout my career that have been at the top of the tree. Fine dining is an art form, and some of the food that they produce is just out of this world.

At the moment we’re trying to do new bits of menus for the US, incorporating some new flavours and some vegan menu stuff for our five restaurants out there.

America is very much on Yelp. They go very much by how much someone grades a restaurant or writes about a restaurant, and then they will follow that.

Where maybe 10 years ago we felt we were a bit behind New York and New York was the pinnacle of food, I think London is on a parity with it. I’m very proud of what we can do in London and all the great stuff we have in London. I think it is on quite an even footing with New York. But I’m sure a load of people disagree with me!

We’re seeing a lot of people snacking on grains now. I love golf – I watch golf regularly – and you see the pros, where they used to take out a chocolate bar or banana, now they’re taking out bags of seeds. They get a better release of energy, they can eat just a handful and not getting bloated.

Dishes I’m most proud of, probably chilli squid was one of the favourites. Or hirata buns, when everyone else was doing bao, doing things like pork and apple. It was Asian, but getting people thinking of roast dinners. Doing beef and red onion, getting people thinking of pies, but putting it in a bun.

Things that haven’t worked? I remember we did a whole fish once, bones, head on – the lot. And we did it with beautiful Thai basil, some beautiful lemongrass in there, loads of flavour to it, some fresh chillies in there, and we used to bake it in a banana leaf. But we could never get it to work. People were petrified of the head.

We’re so used to our fish coming filleted, gutted, ready to use – same with our meat or whatever we use. It’s all ready to use, and we don’t like all the bones and the heads and the bits that come with it.

I remember when we launched our ramen section, just before the Tonkotsus and Shoryus of this world had all entered London, and I think we launched some great ramens when we started to change up the flavours we were using, the proteins we were using, to try and make them our own. Putting a short rib of beef in a ramen with the bone poking out of the broth – for me, it was genius, because it just made people’s minds think: ‘Oh my god, it looks amazing.’

All we ever want to do is make sure that people think we’re going a bit mad and I’m going a bit mental – as long as they taste it and then go, yeah, but I get it, I really get it, I get why they’ve done that.

I’m always on the lookout for that new piece of fish that people possibly might not have tried. Because everyone’s done bass and bream and trout and cods and pollocks and all that stuff.

In Thai and Vietnamese cooking, they deep-fry the whole fish, and then they curl it so it looks like an ‘s’ on the plate, and you just pull the fish flakes off and it’s beautiful. I think we’ve just got to have a little play with it and see how we can bring some of those Korean, Vietnamese, Thai ideas through.

We’ve got 60-odd dishes on our menu, so getting our guys to make sure they’re doing all of them right can be a challenge.

Adding more complexity into our kitchens, sometimes it’s not the right way to do it. Sometimes it’s about making our menus a bit simpler, rather than adding loads of new stuff. It’s all part of the development process.

Back-of-house innovation now is more about energy efficiency, how easy [equipment] is to clean, how sustainable it is for the planet, what are the benefits that it gives you. We’re looking at things that can regenerate fryer oil, for instance, to make it last a bit longer so you haven’t got to use as much.

At the end of the day, a wok is a wok, and people just want to know they can cook on that wok. So you’ve got to be very careful that you’re not trying to innovate too quickly, that it’s not becoming harder to use.

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