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Out Of The Frying Pan: Mike Jennings, Grenache

David Blake speaks to the chef making it work in Walkden

Written by . Published on April 29th 2014.

Out Of The Frying Pan: Mike Jennings, Grenache

THIS IS not intended to be a dig to Walkden ribs (it still is one, of course), but making a restaurant out in the boondocks on the way to Bolton not only work, but be a destination is no walk up the escalator.

Aumbry did it. Damson did it. Grenache is doing it.

People complain that the nearest Michelin starred restaurant is Fraiche in Liverpool. Well, if you're only interested in stars then fuck off there.

Stretford chef Mike Jennings (the one fondling the crab) arrived at Grenache in 2012 like Dick Whittington, with a knotted hankie full of dreams, pockets full of experience and a point to prove.

Stripping back the kitchen and without the budget to accommodate fancy gimmicks and cooking robots, Jennings retrained himself to get back on the pans. Honest cooking.

The whispers soon started creeping back to the city, there was a new guy at Grenache and he knew his way around a plate.

A nomination for ‘Best Chef’ at the Manchester Food and Drink Awards quickly followed, he's also just scooped two AA Rosettes. Right now Jennings' kitchen is a healthy place to be. Unless you're a crab...

Grenache: Crap place to be a crabGrenache: Crap place to be a crab

Mr Jennings, put down that crab and tell us where it all started?

Stretford. Once you became of age in my house, if you wanted something, you had to go get it yourself. I started at 15 as a kitchen porter at the Green Dragon in Lymm. Those Nike Air Max weren't going to buy themselves.

I saw everyone running around in the kitchen and thought I fancied a bit of that. Plus, I was crap at school and a careers adviser said, "Catering is easy to get on." Thanks very much.

So where have you cooked?

Throughout college I spent most of my time in a kitchen. I did a placement at Gleneagles, then came back to the Manchester scene at Reform and Nico's, before flying the nest for Jersey. There I worked at a restaurant called Bohemia, while I was Junior Sous we scored a Michelin star. But Jersey was like Alcatraz, very easy to get to but a nightmare to leave.

Back up here I landed a job with Big Nige (Nigel Haworth) at Northcote Manor. I was itching for a Head Chef role by this point. Luckily, I landed the Head Chef role at a Gary Rhodes' restaurant in Dorset.

Gary Rhodes eh. Big step...

I was like the kid with the golden Wonka ticket. Sat there asking one of my food heroes about absolutely everything. Philosophy, best meal, worst meal. After a few beers he offered me the job. Unfortunately the company backing it pulled out after twelve months so I found myself at a famous tapas joint in Ripponden called El Gato Negro.

But it wasn't me, I wanted to be back in Manchester, so I took a job at Southern Eleven to tide me over but I was beginning to lose faith.

Gary RhodesGary Rhodes

So Grenache saved you?

Well, you could say I saved Grenache. I got wind from an old lecturer that a former student was looking for a Head Chef in Walkden. I said, "Walkden? Where the fuck is that?" But then I spoke with Huss, the owner, and he told me that although he couldn't pay me a footballer's wage, he could give me complete control of the kitchen and the menu. That's gold to a chef. I started a week later.

So you were handed complete control...

First thing we did was rip it out and start again. We got stuck in, some money was spent but the budget didn't allow for all the fancy toys, the sous-vide, waterbaths, pacojets, so I retrained myself. Got back to the pans. Real honest cooking. That's now our selling point.

Chefs seem to be fond of a 'food philosophy', what's yours?

It's quite simple. Don't fuck with the ingredient. Take the best seasonal ingredients and give them respect. It's that size, shape, texture because that is how nature has played it. You can take asparagus, stick it in two machines, make a liquid and purify the water, and yes there's a market for that. But for me you pick it out the ground, it gets buttered, blanched and on to the plate.

On the Glorious Twelfth (12 August) when the grouse season starts, that's also when the blackberries are in season. That's nature telling you there’s a great combination so get on and cook it.

Gavin found August toughGavin found August tough

We assume you're in to 'locally sourcing' like everybody else?

Yes everybody says that now, it's become a bandwagon to jump on, but we really are sourcing locally, from down the road actually. I got a call this morning from a bloke with an allotment down the street telling me our rhubarb was ready. He gives us all sorts, strawberries, apples, cabbage, anything you can grow on an allotment.

We don't even have to buy it, he gives it to us. Then we'll sort him and his wife out at the restaurant. It's good 'ole local back-scratching.

Where's the best and worst place you've worked?

The best was Bohemia in Jersey. Being involved in a Michelin star kitchen is pretty special, plus it taught me all the basics, you're nothing in a kitchen without the basics (Jennings pulls out a cooking book the size of Yorkshire, it's called Larousse Gastronomique, he refers to it as his 'bible').

Worst has to be the hotel in Sale. The chef was a first rate dick, if he ballsed up he'd send a young chef out to take the blame. Once we found a full rotting fish under the fridge. The maggots had moved in. Awful place.

Jennings at the allotmentJennings at the allotment

What do you enjoy most and least about your job?

I enjoy the buzz. Creating. Seeing a dish grow from nothing to something. Worst are the complainers. Not the 'this food isn't hot enough' complainers, that's fine. I mean the ones who don't know what they're talking about. The ones that come in and brush-off a dish without understanding what you're trying to achieve.

There's a great story from British chef Sat Bains. A woman stood up in his restaurant and said a dish was disgusting. He invited her into the kitchen to explain why. She said putting those two flavours together was a disaster. He said to her, 'Well Madam, I, like most people in this restaurant, think your blouse is a disaster. But you like it and that's your choice.' The point is one of individual taste.

Do you have a favourite dish on your menu?

Last week we had a halibut dish with roasted langoustines, scallop tortellini and a langoustine bisque with asparagus. I knew that was a solid dish but the AA guys said that was a three Rosette dish. Overall we got two Rosettes.

Two is good going though...

They said we were knocking on the door of three. It was our first inspection and most go in at one Rosette so we were chuffed with that. Michelin were in recently too, I spoke to the Michelin guy on the phone for about 45 minutes. Usually you only get ten minutes. They were surprised to find this food out here, they're coming back at some point. They're so elusive though, it's scary. Nobody knows until 25 September.

The AA awardThe AA award

Do you believe Michelin is losing gravitas?

There's no chef in the world that can honestly say they don't want a Michelin star. We all have a burning desire for it. But ultimately, it's the bums on seats that pay the wages. I'd rather have a successful restaurant.

Had any particularly crazy moments?

We went on a trip to the famous Rungis Market near Paris, the world's largest produce market. On the way back we got caught in a blizzard. We were stuck in the snow for 26 hours. Gridlocked with snow up to the windows. No food, no water, no toilet. Three of us sat in a refridgerated van shivering.

Hope it was a bloody good market. Is the kitchen life a tough one?

Put it like this, I once had an ex-soldier work for me. He said it was the hardest thing he'd done since serving on the front line.

Ever wanted to pack it all in?

Once. It was when I was looking for a Grenache and couldn't find it. I was starting to lose faith. I approached a mate about another career in property, he said he could give me £40k there and then, but that I was meant to be in the kitchen. Then Grenache came along and it's the happiest I've been.


Does TV chefery appeal to you?

Always, always. It's the only way you're going to make serious money in this job. If somebody asked me to go on Great British Menu or Saturday Kitchen I’d bite their hand off. Whether I like cameras in my face or not, you have to do what you have to do.

There's enough cooks on TV already isn't there?

Cheffing has become a fashion statement. The creative aspect is disappearing and now you've got people on TV cooking who've never worked in a kitchen. Say what you like about Jamie Oliver but he makes people want to get cooking. Nigella, with her food porn shit, she's not a chef. She's just a good-looking cook.

What is Manchester missing?

I do think Manchester has become a chain reaction. If you go to Spinningfields what have you got? Tim Bacon, James Hitchen or chain restaurants. They're just spreading. If you put Grenache in the city centre it would stand up and give them all a good scrap.

Actually, Manchester is missing a top Portuguese restaurant. Kebabs with huge chunks of steak, king prawns and scallops.

Jennings in the fishJennings in the fish

Finally, what's the state of the Manchester dining scene?

People who have the money will jump on a train to go eat Michelin food in London. Let them. We should be proud of what we've got up here, and it's only getting better. I think Gordo summed it up best when he said the critics come up here on a wet Monday evening, go to Rosso, then make a sweeping judgement on all of Manchester. They need to do their research, get to Grenache, Aumbry, Nutters. 

I worry that Restaurant Wars has made the city look one dimensional, that we've only got Rogan and Byrne to offer. We've got loads of quality chefs grafting their arse off up here and churning out some fantastic food. People complain that the nearest Michelin starred restaurant is Fraiche in Liverpool. Well, if you're only interested in stars then fuck off there.

Mike Jennings is Head Chef at Grenache, 15 Bridgewater Road, M28 3JE. 0161 799 8181. @grenacherest

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The 'bible'The 'bible'

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

TimetoshineApril 29th 2014.

I've been to Grenache several times and it never fails to impress. The food, staff and ambiance and all top notch and I fully agree with Mike that the restaurant would thrive in the City Centre.

TimetoshineApril 29th 2014.

There was a Portuguese place on Bridge street a fair few years ago but the name escapes me... That was good too !

DrakesterApril 29th 2014.

Portuguese place on Bridge Street was called Luso. Had the best ever swordfish there.

1 Response: Reply To This...
TimetoshineApril 30th 2014.

That's the fella, they did a mean hare too.

crisbyApril 30th 2014.

Refreshing and spot on comments on the Manchester scene in the last paragraphs. More power to him!

Poster BoyApril 30th 2014.

No bull...

1 Response: Reply To This...
TimetoshineApril 30th 2014.

The Bull is still there, the Stocks has gone tho !

Nigel GaskellMay 1st 2014.

Hi Mikey. An old lecturer! Is that the best you can do?!? Great article matey. I am always pleased to follow your career and wish you continued success. Maybe just one day you might give a metion to Trafford college where a little rascal walked through the door and grew into a great character whom we are all very proud of!! :) Up the reds!!

Kris CullineyMay 4th 2014.

Good to see a graduate of Trafford college getting the respect they deserve.Great place great chef tutors. I remember doing the pass with the now principal. Bill Moorcroft. Anyway when I'm out that way will have to check out Mr Jennings food. Sounds like Manchester again has a diamond in the rough.

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