Mike Hughes meets Michelin-starred Michael O’Hare, one of the country’s most innovative chefs, who is rewriting the rules from his Leeds restaurant.
Have you ever met a genius – and how can you tell?? Mine works on the third floor of a men’s outfitters and had his silver-booted feet up on a window ledge, leaning out of the window wafting away a quick smoke when I turned up.
But trust me, Michael O’Hare is a genius. The thousands of people who will agree mean that if you want to eat on a Saturday at The Man Behind The Curtain on Vicar Lane in Leeds you’re looking at March or April next year. He uses the very best ingredients to create his dishes, but it is the combination and presentation that are his highly-valued signature.
When he was competing on Great British Menu on BBC2 (he will be back as a judge for the next series) he served a starter called Everyone I Ever Ate With, which was langoustine, lavender puree, salted cucumber, compressed melon and gin sour served in a huge upright eggshell covered with scrapbook images of... everyone he had ever eaten with.
In a recent Masterchef, the 34-year-old challenged contestants to work on a dish which required the diner to squeeze prawn heads until the brains oozed out and provided the sauce. But even with that astonishing level of presentation and imagination, it is flavour that has won the plaudits, which is what every chef wants to hear.
The fact that he had a natural talent waiting to be revealed is underlined by his start-up story. “I ate out a lot with family and friends but didn’t start cooking until I was 19”, he tells me in the empty restaurant (it is noon and there is only an evening sitting). “At that stage I was going to be a pilot or an aeronautical engineer, so I went to university and ended up studying aerospace engineering. That was the first time I had had to fend for myself - I think I was probably a bit of a mummy’s boy – and I really got into it and found that I liked shopping for food. It was nothing glamorous, maybe just a nice piece of fish, because when you are on your own for the first time you eat what you want when you want.
“I was afforded that luxury at university in Kingston-upon-Thames and it was a nice thing to be able to do. I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than the course lectures because I think I chose the wrong course - it was a bit too maths-heavy and it kind of did me in, so I took solace in cooking at home.”
If he had chosen aeronautical instead of aerospace (the latter can be more advanced because it includes space flight as well as planes and helicopters), he might have been more satisfied with university life and not been distracted by the kitchen. But then I have written many times about the inevitability that some people will become entrepreneurs because there is something in their DNA that demands that weird mixture of control and freedom. I worry about how things might have turned out for Michael (and us, his potential customers), so I am going to blank it all out by believing he was always going to be a chef – no matter what.
“A friend of mine was a chef and it seemed like a fairly nice life, enjoyable if not particularly social. This was almost 20 years ago and I thought it was cool because it was almost underground back then – a bit piratey.
“So I looked around for the best restaurant I knew locally – which was Judges in Yarm which already had three rosettes - and asked the chef if I could get involved. He gave me the option of going to college again or learning training on the job. So I chose the training and have still never spent a day in catering college.
“Here I have four members of staff who have degrees, but they are in things like psychology and fine art, which shows you can definitely still do it the way I did – learn your trade as you progress rather than on a course – but I think it should definitely be at the age I did it, not at 16.
“You need to be smart or learn to be smart, with life experience and a bit of knowledge. Unfortunately you can’t do that straight out of school at 16 by just dropping into a local catering college and hoping for the best.
“I tried then to stay at restaurants that were ‘top end’ for the area and from there worked my way further down south and ended up with John Burton-Race at The Landmark in London, which went bankrupt. So I moved back up north to work at Seaham Hall and then sort of floated on from there, job after job.”
The distinctive ‘it can only be O’Hare’ style had still not developed. He was cooking high class meals for people who knew about food, so there was certainly no hiding place, but it was the establishment of The Man Behind The Curtain that signalled the arrival of a new brand. “Even when we had opened, the first menu was stylistically miles away from where we are now. It is something that has rocketed.
“I think wanting to be different is quite a dangerous thing to say. I don’t really know where it comes from. No-one wants to be shit, so we were constantly trying to be better and I guess when you look at the landscape of fine dining, there are certain avenues you fall into. I love to eat classical fine dining, but it just didn’t seem right for here.”
His instructions for another of the Great British Menu dishes shows the distance his style has travelled to earn his Michelin star – and the gulf between his and any other style of cooking. Called My Mum Is Single And Looking For A Well-Dressed Man, it included pork skin which needed to be steamed for two hours (three if you were using a bamboo steamer over boiling water), then dehydrated for 24hrs in a dehydrator or in the oven for 48 hours. Then fried at 100ºC in vegetable oil...while pulling and stretching the skin with tweezers.
“The style developed here in Leeds based on what I and the staff felt was needed,” says Michael. “We moved here from York because back then it seemed to be just chain after chain after chain there, with hardly any businesses that weren’t leisure-led, which meant that everyone who worked there earned a leisure-sector wage.
“So there was not a huge amount of disposable income, which is what you need when you are pitching high-end dining because the cost of produce and ingredients is so high that to make a profit you need to charge a higher whack. If you haven’t got £150 a head to blow on dinner, then you are in the wrong city.
“Leeds was the obvious natural progression from that – it was only 22 miles down the road, and six months prior to us finding this spot Anthony’s – run by Anthony Flinn – closed down which meant there was a gap in the market for a fine dining restaurant in the city.
“Anthony’s might even have been a little bit before its time, and I guess we took advantage of that, but the move here was also for very cost-effective reasons.”
Apart from the name on the windows of the third floor, there is no signage on the outside. You have to know it is there. “It’s not a secret, there’s no sense in that,” he says. “There are no walk-ins so why do we need advertising or a sign? If you have booked online you can look at the windows and see that we are here. It’s not as if it’s a speakeasy that’s difficult to find.
“I certainly want to tell people ‘here I am’ but to do that with signs would be a bit chavvy. If you look at the great brands like Krug Champagne or Louis Vuitton, they don’t have bright pink labels or neon shining at you like Sports Direct. With Man Behind The Curtain, I always wanted it to be exciting, but understated at the same time.
“I didn’t want it to look like a chain or even like any other restaurant. It was always supposed to be about the food and the experience, and this site was perfect for a first-time business because it already existed as a restaurant so there was a kitchen, toilets and tables and chairs, even though we ripped all those out.
“So it wasn’t just a box where you would have to do all the plumbing, but somewhere where we could just make everything a little bit nicer. Plus the rent was effectively subsidised because we are part of the shop rather than just out on the high street.
“It was low enough that we knew we could make a profit without having to fill it with a million people because you never know when you are starting a restaurant whether anyone will come. You can throw a guess at it, but I don’t think anyone would have foreseen our level of success.”
The Michelin inspectors said: “A unique, very individually styled restaurant with a minimalist interior and bold graffiti artwork, set on the top floor of a privately owned fashion store. Accomplished, highly skilled cooking uses very original, creative combinations - and the artful presentation is equally striking.”
The Guardian added: “If a chef can put a silky foam of potato laced with puffed wild rice on top of an elaborate chocolate dessert and have you laughing out loud as you fight over it (turns out it’s scented like a salt and vinegar crisp), he’s doing something very right.”
So it is working – and attracting attention like no other restaurant in the country at the moment. “I had a bit of a name by then, but not huge. There was an interest in seeing what I would do next but, I’ll be honest, the clientele for the most part that I had built up in York (at the much-applauded Blind Swine) didn’t follow to Leeds. We almost started again and the style developed from here.
“The thing that I am surprised at the most – and I don’t mean any disrespect by this – is that I have been cooking a long time, as most chefs of my age have, and it is pretty easy.
“Cooking food nice is a standard. I think I have an ability to make food look new and interesting and original, but it is not unbelievably different, just food on a plate.
“I think we can stand on our own in this country, but internationally..... we definitely have our style, but it is food on a plate that we try to make look as if it belongs here.
“I went to Gordon Ramsay’s in London the other day and it was phenomenal. But we couldn’t take a single thing from that apart from the fact that we enjoyed it. Nothing at all would fit here...because theirs is perfect and ours isn’t,” he laughs.
“I think we have our own style that is relevant to here. Each restaurant should have its own style no matter what it is, and that doesn’t just go for presentation, but the ‘the’ of it, how staff are with you – and that doesn’t always mean nice, it can mean firm or just being normal.
“We try to be a restaurant that serves good food that is visually intriguing, that tasted great and used top ingredients, but moreover it would be somewhere you would go and have a great time. There is a big focus for us on the experience of dinner, like the music we play, the temperature, the lighting the beverages we serve, and the gaps between the tables.”
The Michelin star came in his first year at Leeds. As always, the inspectors arrived unannounced. You can’t request an inspection and they won’t tell you you’re having one, so you have to be very, very good every time. One night where you are feeling a bit out of sorts can cost you the chance of international recognition. So it means a lot when you officially become a star. “The Michelin guide has its critics, without a doubt, and nothing is perfect, but I think it is the best barometer for any restaurant, fine dining or not. It is the only guide book that has stayed current and has a level of class that is timeless and when I got that star it justified what we were doing, telling people we weren’t just being weird for the sake of it. This is a legitimate restaurant and if the food looked any different, we would still get that star.
“Our food costs are huge because our ingredients are world class, which means we can plan our menus far ahead. There are dishes I serve now which have been on the menu for 18 months and we won’t put a new dish on unless we are sure it is better than an old one.
“One of the things we have that is very fortunate is that because our bookings are so far in advance, we are not a neighbourhood venue that people come to each month. We are an international restaurant with a clientele that have waited ‘x’ amount of months and they want to see that cod dish on or that pork dish on because they have seen the pictures. You can’t change those - they are the staples.
“So there is a menu we serve that will be the same this week as next. Occasionally we will change a dish, perhaps if someone doesn’t eat pork or fish, but it is pretty much a set menu and I would say 50% are what we have become known for. Even if you only come once a year, you would be able to have that dish again.”
For the lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s three-star restaurant in London Michael opted for the ravioli, because it was so good the last time he had it – 12 years previously. He compares the decision to going to your local takeaway and almost always having the same one or two dishes because you know what you enjoy and you trust it will be served in the same way each time.
The other staple at The Man Behind The Curtain is how O’Hare the chef’s transition into O’Hare the businessman and boss means the restaurant is a good place to work – not one dominated by an ego, but led by a genuinely caring personality with a strong philosophy of looking after his staff. “For this business to work it needed to be an environment I wanted to be in – which was a happy one and a content one, that can’t be micro-managed. The best thing about this place is that on our worst day we are still a Michelin-starred restaurant. And that is a great experience.
“Among our 20 staff I have three guys in the kitchen who are head chefs in their own right and in the next couple of years I think they will have their own restaurants with their own star above it.
“There isn’t really a hierarchy here, everyone just knows what they are doing and enjoys it. That’s quite unusual, because often you will have some star at the front and everyone bowing down before him or her. It’s not that way here.
“Honestly, if I hadn’t been in the building for the last three months it would have been exactly the same. The only thing about that is that there is an expectation of customers to see me there.”
Those 40 customers each night (there is only one sitting over the five hours) share a very generous 3,000 square feet of restaurant space, adorned with huge graffiti-style panels of art by Schoph Schophield and sculptures by Gareth Griffiths. It has undoubtedly brought him fame. Some of it of the TV star variety where you can catch him on Saturday Kitchen, Masterchef or Great British Menu. Some from the people lucky enough to eat here and some from within the industry. So does he enjoy that level of recognition?
“Yes and no. I’m a perfectionist and because of that everything you do becomes a reflection of yourself and in your own restaurant you have complete control over how the restaurant looks and feels, what the food is like. But I am not a TV producer, so sometimes you have to give up that control to other people.
“I was happy on Masterchef and Great British Menu and the restaurant benefits enormously, but they are produced for their audience and how they wish for you to be seen. Sometimes you have to say to someone ‘that isn’t really me’, but as well as wanting to be seen and have our voices heard we want to fill our restaurants.
“There are good and bad things that come off it and when you do those sorts of things you tee yourself up and for all the niceities you get there will be one that cuts you to the core – and you remember that one. It’s almost as if you become removed from society a little bit and lose a little of your life and give a scaled-down version of yourself.”
Like any successful Yorkshire entrepreneur who has launched a new product, the question now is what comes next. Do you do more of the same to satisfy your market or do you have the confidence in your brand to believe you can recreate the success in another place? “As a restaurant, The Man Behind The Curtain (he pauses) I don’t want to say it has peaked, but it has found its place and has its own identity. It will evolve and change as everything does over time, but it is almost fixed to what it is going to be.
“Personally, I have other projects on the go, including GG Hospitality set up by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, who are opening a hotel in Manchester and I will set up a fine dining restaurant there called The Man Who Fell To Earth. I have been given free rein with that, which is good because I never, ever, wanted to wheel out this place as a chain.
“It needs to be recognisable, but different. It’s not that hard. The new place will be a la carte and we’ll do away with tasting menus. I’m not chasing Michelin Stars, but we got one in our first year here and I don’t think one is my limit at all. But even if we don’t get the accolades I still want to be at that level.”
To stay at that level, the supporting structure needs to be strong and as well as the 20 staff led by ever-efficient manager and sommelier Charlotte Rasburn, York solicitor Stephen Baylis remains as the business partner of the operation.
Michael lives an hour away in Prestbury and away from the kitchen, fiancée Amanda Gilby provides the essential work life balance. But it is not that easy now to escape that kitchen. As a chef it is possible, but he is now much more than a chef and that makes it trickier.
“You almost become a 247 chef and I suppose that is the sacrifice,” he says. “The simple reason for my success now is that what I do, I am good at. I was in awe when I first met Gary Neville, but he is just a guy like me. I have been fortunate to be in touch with a lot of amazing people I wouldn’t normally get the chance to meet. I get the reaction to me, but it is unusual, because it is still me, nothing’s changed.”
His mix of humility and acceptance of the breathtaking level of skill he has are what marks him out. His food is assembled and presented uniquely, which is an over-used word, but in its right place here in the heart of Yorkshire.