Out Of The Frying Pan: Aiden Byrne Interviewed
David Blake talks Bacon, Rogan and Michelin stars with the master of Manchester House
MANCHESTER food and drink operator, Living Ventures (Australasia, Alchemist, Blackhouse, Oast House, Gusto, Botanist) has a new man. This is Aiden Byrne who, to say the least, had an above average beginning to his career, achieving a Michelin star at the tender age of 22.
This was an accolade even Byrne admits he couldn't fathom at the time. Still, not one to dwell, star spangled stints followed in Ireland, under Tom Aikens and at The Dorchester in London, cementing Byrne's place as a rising star of the British food scene.
The craziest moment was watching a chef put a knife through his hand to get out of a service.
In 2008 Byrne bought a pub in Lymm and not long after had turned it into the AA's Restaurant of the Year for England. Having outgrown the potentiality of Lymm, Living Ventures' captain, Tim Bacon, snapped up Byrne and has now installed him in Manchester House and burdened him with the task of bringing the city's first Michelin star since 1974.
But stars aren't what gets Byrne out of bed in the morning, actually it's surprising he manages to rise at all considering he functions from just three hours sleep a night. That's even less than Maggie.
So Aiden, Manchester House is six weeks old. Happy?
It's been amazing yeah. We're really happy with it. It's been busier than we thought and we've taken more money than we thought.
It's never plain sailing. There are days when you're exhausted and a negative comment may get to you, then there are the positive days. Today's a positive, yesterday not so much. That's just the way it goes. When you're working eighteen hours a day it does begin to take its toll. But it's been like that since we opened.
It's been hands on then?
I've barely left the place. But the restaurant has been set up around me and it's such an open kitchen that I have to be in there. You can't expect customers to come in and not see me in working away.
Had many comings and goings in the kitchen since opening?
Yeah we've already had a fairly high turnover of staff. My core team is still here though. It's the youngsters from around Manchester that struggle. There's very few restaurants of this level around here and they're just not used to it. It's not just the hours; it's the pressure, the intensity, the precision of what we do.
When you're doing eight hours with pressure you can go home at five and switch off. When you've got pressure from 6am until midnight then it piles up. People realise they're not up to it.
Is it a lifestyle choice?
Absolutely. I say to the young guys that they haven't got any money, their family hasn't got any money, so if they want their own restaurant they'll have to graft, make a name for themselves. I've been there, I've done it and it's paying off. But at 40 years of age I'm still working eighteen hours a day. That's just something you have to accept.
How did you first become involved with Living Ventures and Tim Bacon?
I'd been watching Living Ventures from afar while at Church Green and admiring what they were doing - running multiple successful operations. I'd been heading to Manchester anyway. I was meant to be doing something with MacDonald hotels but when that fell through, frustrated I rang Tim up. I said I'd heard he wanted to open a high-end restaurant and did he fancy meeting up.
So you'd already decided to come to Manchester?
Not necessarily. I was looking at opening a high-end place in Prestbury at the White House but I pulled out of that one. If you want to be serving Michelin star level food but there's no competitors for twenty miles around you've got to ask yourself why? And don't get me wrong, the Church Green is a great restaurant, but it's not the model I'd set out with. I'd been working in high-end restaurants all my life and Lymm wasn't going to give me that level.
An odd site though isn't it? An ex-office building I mean...
It is yeah but I love it here. It works. Funnily enough I'd viewed this place a couple of years before. We didn't want a formal environment, I knew Tim was after stars but we never wanted dickie bows and all that goes with it. That kind of environment just wouldn't work in Manchester. It does in London but not here. Manchester doesn't want to feel intimidated, doesn't want to be told what to do or how to eat. We're not trying to show off, we're not saying we're better than you. The idea is that you come in here and feel relaxed. This is a £3 million project. It has to work.
Must be nice to be handed a £3 million cheque to do as you please.
Yes it is but there's a serious amount of pressure that goes with that. It's all on your shoulders.
Where'd it all begin for you?
I had an elder cousin who was like a brother to me. Every subject he chose at school I'd also choose. He'd done catering so I chose catering. That was it. When I walked into that class I felt I belonged there. I threw myself into it, heart and soul. I went to college, worked every weekend and holiday for free. I got the bug at a young age; I've known what I wanted to do since I was fourteen. I'm very lucky in that respect.
So, unlike many chefs, you weren't surrounded by food as a kid?
Not at all. I was brought up on a council estate in Liverpool. Like most families like ours the food was very basic. It was a pretty simple upbringing, we were hardly holidaying in France every year.
Did achieving a Michelin star at such a young age have a profound effect on you?
I didn't really understand what having a star meant at 22. If I was savvier at the time, I would have made more of a career out of getting that star so early on. The penny didn't really drop until I was about 28. But I'm past forty now and that was a long time ago, I don't dwell on it. It's just something that gets mentioned every time there's something written about me.
Does achieving stars spur you on or do you begin to rest on your laurels?
I've never done that. Even now, when we came to do this restaurant I ripped up all my old recipe books. We started from scratch, did our stocks differently, all the basic fundamentals are different. Someone that rests on their laurels would cook recipes from the past; we're not cooking anything from the past. Everything we're doing is brand new.
Is there too much emphasis placed upon Michelin stars?
Manchester places more emphasis on getting a star than I do. As long as we've got a restaurant full of happy people then I'm happy. And we couldn't get any fuller, you can't get a table here on a Saturday night until the end of February. Tim Bacon wants stars, he's made that clear, I'm not going to say I've been there and done that but it's not what gets me out of bed in the morning. That's obviously the level we want to be at, higher if anything, but I don't need that pat on the back.
It'd be good for Manchester and great for Manchester House but do enough people buy in to that anymore? I'm not sure. It'd bring people to the city but ultimately the success of this restaurant will be decided by the people of Manchester.
Where's the best and worst place you've worked?
Well, for a start I wouldn't say I worked here. I've never felt about a restaurant how I feel about Manchester House (aww). I don't feel like I'm coming to work in the morning. It's more than that. But the best place I've worked is under Tom Aikens. That guy will never know how much he gave to me. But I gave everything back. The worst place? I owned a pub on the Wirral called the Collingwood. That was the biggest mistake of my life. It nearly bankrupted the Church Green.
Do you miss the Church Green?
The Church Green is a great success story. The day we opened in 2008 all the headlines were saying we were officially in a recession. I thought "Oh shit". But here we are, five years later. Yeah we had to change concept to fit the economy but we'd listened to our customers. We got recognised for that, The AA Restaurant Guide gave us Restaurant of the Year for England last year. But my wife looks after the place now, I've got a strong young chef called Dylan who knows what he's doing. The Church Green very much runs itself.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
This sounds really cheesy but it's just making people happy. We've got a chef's table here for that very reason, for that interaction. When I know a customer is walking out happy there's nothing better than that. We're in hospitality after all.
And least like?
I miss my family. I have three young children and a wife and I miss them desperately. I do go home to Lymm every night and sleep in my own bed but I only spend three hours in it.
Three hours? Can you function on that? Even Maggie Thatcher had four.
I do yeah. Five nights a week with three hours sleep. That's what I've done all my life. My wife askes me why I have to be in at 6am and I say it's because I want to be. The product has to be right.
What's your favourite dish on any of your menus?
It changes, but I get a real kick out of the beef dish we've got here. It's the one I sent out for the Great British Menu last year. Puts a smile on my face everytime.
What has been the craziest moment of your career?
The craziest moment was watching a chef put a knife through his hand to get out of a service.
He was getting a load of shit from the chef so he put a knife through the back of his hand to get out of service. The chef told him to wrap up and carry on. I'm not going to say where it was.
Wow. Ever wanted to pack it all in?
Never. I miss my family but I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.
You've done the Great British Menu a few times. Does all that TV chefery appeal to you?
It doesn't do your businesses any harm to go out and self-promote but that's the main reason you put yourself through it. It's not real enough for me, the world of TV is artificial. You're manipulating the product for it to look real but that's quite far from the truth. It's hard putting yourself in that public arena when you fail. I did the Great British menu four times before I won. That's hard to take as a grown man, picking yourself up and going at it again. I must enjoy it though.
You say all that but now you've got a BBC documentary coming up...
Yeah we don't know the exact date, sometime in the early new year. We're still filming it. They wanted to portray it as a head to head between myself and Simon Rogan, they even wanted to call it ‘Restaurant Wars' - but we weren't having that. It's an insight into starting a restaurant from scratch, not me and Simon trying to knock each other off a perch. We're both trying to raise the bar for food in the city, pave a road for other chefs to come in. Not us trying to outdo each other.
What do you do with your days off?
Because I'm not at the Church Green I spend one full day there and one full day with my family. Just simple stuff. I don't have the luxury of going out and getting pissed.
Do you have a favourite place to eat in Manchester?
I'm not trying to cross promote but I just love going there. You don't feel like you're in a basement, you don't even really feel like you're in Manchester. There's nothing not to like about it.
Do you have a favourite dining experience ever?
Azurmendi in Bilbao. Without a doubt. It's off the chart. I recommended it to Gordo actually (click here) and he fucking loved it. The food was so good there that, for the first time in my life, I sat there with tears running down my face thinking that I'm completely shit at what I do.
If you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life?
It'd be what I eat most of, at least two a day on the go. Sandwiches.
And to drink?
Coffee. I need to keep going.
What has been your proudest achievement?
Personally, having my daughter. She was the first. Professionally, probably launching my book six or seven years ago. It sold something like 25,000 copies. At £25 a pop too.
Who's the scariest person you've cooked for?
Probably Heston. Actually, Simon Rogan came in for lunch the other day and I absolutely shit myself. We get celebs in all the time but as far as I'm concerned he's the biggest thing that's walked in here.
Aspirations for the future?
I think this is the start. Tim Bacon and I may do much more together.
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When you approach Tower 12 in Spinningfields Manchester, it looks like a very normal city tower, don’t be fooled. Inside lies a very special experience for both food lovers and lovers of a life with a view. Two stunning independently different environments. The Lounge on level 12 and the Restaurant by Aiden Byrne on level 2.