The coolest man in cooking has a busy 12 months ahead. He meets Mark Sansom to talk failed careers, callings and keeping ahead of the game
Careers advice is terrible, isn’t it? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had conversations lambasting the quality of counsel provided when leaving school. I remember using Kudos, a Microsoft DOS-based program that asked multiple-choice questions to provide jobs based on pastimes you enjoy. My three suggested professions were refuse collector (because I liked being outside), a member of the clergy (I’d noted a reverence for nature) and a professional footballer (yeah, right). It would appear that Michael O’Hare had access to the same software.
Ballet dancer, workshop hand, pilot and aerospace engineering litter his CV; he didn’t find direction until he discovered cooking in his mid-twenties. However, look closely enough and you can find elements of everything he has tried his hand at in the post-modern plates he creates.
‘I had no idea what I wanted to do,’ he tells me. ‘I picked the wrong course at uni. I looked at the prospectus and saw Aerospace Engineering and Aerospace Studies and picked the former without really checking. It was maths-based and I struggle with numbers.’ Not a good start. Surely it would have been easy to just swap a few modules and carry on working towards becoming an aviator, as he’d dreamed of doing? ‘No. To be honest I hated being a student; students are gross.’
They say everything happens for a reason (a career advisor’s ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card) and it was at Kingston University – a long way from O’Hare’s post-industrial seaside hometown of Redcar in North Yorkshire – where he discovered his love for food. ‘There wasn’t much to do in Kingston,’ he says. ‘I had a pokey little room and no one around me spoke English. I just didn’t build friendships like I had at college – all I had to do was cook and eat.’
Although he wasn’t knocking up dishes like Emancipation, the plate that won him the fish course at The Great British Menu banquet in 2015. It was this concoction of cod loin, cod dashi, squid ink powder, scorched gem lettuce and gold shoots that looked so close to graffiti it could have been peeled off an old railway bridge that propelled him into the public consciousness. ‘No, I wasn’t cooking anything like that,’ he laughs. ‘A bit of meat, a bit of fish and I’d never make a sauce. However, I had started cooking and just knew that it was going to become a big part of my future.’
With a trajectory as varied as his, it was never going to be a conventional path to the pass. ‘I had no interest in catering college. It’s not very good, is it? Name one chef who’s been to college?’ I rattle off a list including Marcus Wareing, Jamie Oliver and Jason Atherton. ‘Yeah, fair enough,’ he concedes. ‘But if you’ve got an immediate interest in fine dining or food with any kind of flair, there’s no place for you at catering college.
‘People there will always draw on the fact it’s a science, which is mental. It’s absolutely not, otherwise there would only be one recipe for everything. There’s only one correct answer to every equation and cooking isn’t like that – if there was, there wouldn’t be so many cookbooks.’ He makes a good point but he’s not done yet: ‘Making food can never be a science, not even pastry. Otherwise there wouldn’t be different ways to make each type, would there?’ It’s hard to disagree with him.
Tearing up the rule book
O’Hare’s Michelin-starred Leeds restaurant, The Man Behind the Curtain, champions his anti-Establishment ideology with aplomb. He opened in 2014 above a clothes shop with a budget of £5,000 – surely the cheapest launch ever – in two months. The kitchen is tiny and the equipment looks more boot sale than El Bulli, yet it has held a star for two years. ‘I don’temploy any specialists,’ he says. ‘I don’t have a sous chef; everyone is in it together. I’m not saying there’s a flat pay rate – some people earn more than others because they are better than others – but there are no job titles or anything like that.’
Assumedly he doesn’t pay any regard to training, either? ‘Absolutely not. My team has degrees in things like psychology and fine art and they have done exactly what I did, which is make decisions when they’re too young. At 16 or 17 you’re told to pick a job, which is stupid. You don’t know anything about life.’ The career counsellor kicking continues.
Before launching in Leeds he opened and closed The Blind Swine in York in two years flat. ‘It was successful but it wasn’t my restaurant and I was just there to fill it,’ he says. ‘I look back on it a bit embarrassed, like I’ve been caught singing in the shower.’ He is referencing the style of food that he cooked, influenced heavily by a three-month stint at Noma in Copenhagen, then the best restaurant in the world. ‘It wasn’t my food and I get the fear about it. You know those dreams when you find yourself naked in the street? That.’ However, if you read the reviews, he had nothing to be ashamed of.
From O’Hare’s demeanour, you’d be forgiven for thinking he pays as much regard to restaurant criticism and awards as he does catering college but it’s not the case. ‘Michelin does an excellent job but there’s going to be flaws in any system,’ he explains. ‘There’s no better guide and any chef who says he doesn’t rate it is a liar – it’s as good a barometer as you are ever going to get. It will never be 100 per cent as they can’t afford to get an inspector everywhere all the time but it’s a good outline. If you are good enough, they want you in there, it’s in their interest. They’re not trying to try to kill a business, they just want to produce a good book.’
Falling to Earth
As Food and Travel meets O’Hare, he’s just announced he is teaming up with ex-footballers Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville to open two new restaurants for their hospitality group.
The first, The Rabbit On the Moon, will be inside Manchester’s National Football Museum. With 500,000 visitors a year, it’s O’Hare’s first chance to showcase his food to a wider audience than those who find their way to a 40-cover space above a gentleman’s outfitters.
It will sit on the top floors of the building serving ‘really simple food. Fish and meat with a nice wood-fired oven at the centre.’ The second, The Man Who Fell to Earth, will be O’Hare’s magnum opus. Based in the city’s former Stock Exchange, it is ‘where we’re really going to push boundaries’, opened with none of the budgetary restraint he’s experienced in the past.
‘It’s seriously exciting. They’ve given me free rein,’ he says. ‘I can install the artists I want and the furniture I’ve longed for. It will be a bit bolder and brighter than Curtain and I won’t be holding back.’ If he considers his early work restrained, we can’t wait to see him with the handbrake off.
One thing is for certain though, he won’t be shadowing trends.‘I’m done being a follower. You won’t find me foraging anything from Manchester street corners or sticking a weird growing fridge in my kitchen,’ he says.
‘There was a time if you were buying strawberries from Holland, you were a fool but if you can grow them in December in your garage, you’re a visionary. It’s too easy for young chefs to get sucked in to what appears to be cool and is actually not cool. And it’s certainly not cool to have a restaurant filled with crap.
‘A chef just needs to like food and enjoy eating. There’s little more to cooking and it took me a while to realise that.’ I couldn’t agree more. Kudos to him.