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Gordo Chews The Fat With Four Top Chefs

The Fat One interviews Tom Aitkens, Michael Wignall, Daniel Clifford and Aiden Byrne

Written by . Published on March 4th 2014.

Gordo Chews The Fat With Four Top Chefs

Recently four top chefs cooked in Manchester House for Hospitality Action - the food and drink industry charity. Generous Mancs raised £15,000 and a lovely time was had by all at the £100 per ticket event. 

You can blame the wholesalers for people being obese, it’s the fat fuckers who go out and eat all the fuckin’ burgers. End of.

Before the munching started Gordo went and bothered the four fellas with probing questions and occasional expletives. Here's the result.

Gordo is 'G' and his questions are in bold. Tom Aikens, Aiden Byrne, Michael Wignall and Daniel Clifford's responses are indicated by the forenames. They are pictured at the top of the page in the above sequence. 

G: How did you all meet? Had you met Aiden before?

Daniel: About ten years ago through a friend of mine. He was a restaurant manager where Aiden was the Head Chef. I went down to eat the food.

Aiden: It’s quite an incestuous industry. Everybody knows everybody especially when you get to a certain level. We all jump from one kitchen to another. I’ve known Tom since he was 25. 1994. Our history goes back a long long way.

Tom: We’re like a married fucking couple. I’m 41 now.

G: Who was the one person that motivated you during the early days?

Aiden: Him over there (points to Tom). 

Daniel: I would say David Cavalier.

Tom: David Cavalier was the only person who responded when I sent out loads of emails to Michelin star restaurants after college.

When I got the job, I worked on the vegetable section. The work load was massive and kept piling on. At nineteen years old it was difficult. I quit and left a note in the fridge.

Cavalier sent his wife round.

I went back and saw him, he gave me the fatherly talk, he told me he was going to give me shit because he saw my potential. So anyway I was impressed with the sweet talk, motivated by the fact he saw something in me, I went back and the rest was history.

Cooking away merrily

Cooking away merrily

G: How old were you when you decided you wanted to cook?

Tom: About 12. I didn’t see myself in an office job.

Daniel: A pornstar?

Tom: My willy wasn’t big enough.

G: Has anybody come through the business without a family cooking background?

Aiden: I’m from a council estate in Liverpool, my parents had no money so we never went out to eat. I took catering up at school and as soon as I walked into the classroom I thought, ‘this is it.’ I followed the natural progression through to college and when I worked in a professional kitchen for the first time I knew that this was going to be me.

Daniel: I went for work experience at Canterbury University and  I came home after two weeks with my report and every box of excellence was ticked. It was the first time my dad had seen a school report, let alone one that was perfect. So my Dad rang up the school and said my son has to leave early because he’s found what he wants to do. They gave me a job straight away.

Manchester House

Manchester House

G: As a group of chefs at the pinnacle of your careers – hopefully you have some more years to go yet - What is the common denominator with chefs that can run a business and a kitchen successfully?

Tom: Maturity, patience, understanding, drive, passion, care and attention to detail. You’ve also got to be a bit mad and a bit eccentric.

G: Which one’s your top?

Tom: You can’t have one you got to have everything.

Daniel: I’d say commitment more than anything. You’ve got to be committed to it. Everyone around this table has probably missed their nan’s birthdays and parent’s anniversaries and weddings.  We’ve missed everything to get where we are. And we’ve put everything on stop.

When my wife was in labour I went back to the kitchen to fillet a fish.

G: Interesting point about running a family and a business, how have you managed it?

Daniel: You have to meet someone who is slightly twisted as well to understand what you do and why you do it.

Tom: ... and let you get away with it. Sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve got until you lose them.  Sometimes it’s a good thing to lose ‘em!

Daniel: If they can’t handle then on to the next one!

Tom: Next!

Captive audience for a Manchester House meal

Captive audience for a Manchester House meal

G: What do you think about the local produce in the North West? You must know it quite well?

Michael: Most of our stuff comes from the South but the venison still comes from the north in the Lake District, same with the lamb as well.

G: Did you hear about the guy who got sacked as a chef and then bad mouthed his restaurant on Twitter? What did you think?

Daniel: That’s because he was asked to work on Christmas Day and wanted to take a weekend off. I think he’s employed to do a job and he knows the hours that come with the job. This is the difficulty in our trade.

Fifteen years ago you didn’t have human resources. You could fire someone and they were gone.

Tom: What do you mean fire? You’d just tell them to fuck off.

Aiden:  Tom’s claim to fame is he’s never sacked anyone.

Daniel: Once they’ve had a pan whacked against their forehead they’d soon realise.

G: When you’re looking at the business model of a 2 star vs 1 star and a 3 star....

Daniel: I’ve had 2 stars for ten years and I look at it as you’re in the middle. Everyone wants to go forward not backwards but if everyone knew how to get 3 stars everyone would be doing it – it’d be fucking easy.

G: Is there anything you can identify that’s stopping you from getting a third star?

Daniel: No. I’m constantly investing in the restaurant. There isn’t a blueprint. This year I’m doing a journey of doing every 2 star in the country. Just to look at the UK’s 3 star such as Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumental etc, if you went to all of those restaurants day after day by the end your head would be fucking pickled. The one thing they’ve all got is quality and great service but they’re all so different. You wouldn’t be able to make a concrete Michelin star blueprint.

G: Somebody told me Dinner has 2 stars now. Where did that get the second star from? It’s only a very good one star, surely?

Daniel: Michelin went in and inspected it and said ‘yeah it’s alright.’

G: I walked into that one.

Daniel: It’s difficult for us to say. Even tonight, you’ll see four completely different styles of cooking. Tom, Aiden and Michael have a very specific style and if we all copied each other then the food would become boring.

We all try to be creative and enjoy it. We all try and look at food in different ways.

The whole team

The whole team

G: Why do you think Koffman, the French genius at the Berkeley over the road from Dinner, doesn’t have a star?

Daniel: Does Koffman want a star?

G: He seems to be working hard enough for it...

Daniel: He’s been there, he’s done it but does he need it? Probably not.

He cooks because he loves to cook. At his age going into the kitchen, being passionate, firing all the chefs and having a good time – I’d be happy man, wouldn’t you?

Tom: He doesn’t necessarily need a star. He doesn’t need to prove to anyone what he’s done and what he’s achieved.  He just wants to have a nice restaurant and a happy life.

Manchester House dish from a recent lunchtime menu

Manchester House dish from a recent lunchtime menu

G: The question is, does he deserve a star?

Tom: He’s got a lot of dishes on there that are a lot simpler in format. Does he deserve a star, I don’t know?

Daniel: If Marco reopened with the menu he had back then, would it still get three stars? If you look through his second book, a parfait with butter going round the outside with sour dough on the side, I’ll be honest you can get that in 90% of the pubs now. It was very excessive and very luxurious. Would that restaurant operate in today’s climate? No it wouldn’t. Because people don’t want that, they want this.

G: The level that you guys are cooking at has become more and more refined. I mean, please explain the File du Brix Cigar to our readers.

Michael: It’s just a pastry that’s been rolled like a cigar with a smoked eel moose.  It’s Turkish originally.

G: The Jerusalem artichoke pudding?

Michael: Artichoke is quite a sweet vegetable so we make a parfait out of the puree.

G: Did you wake up one morning and think, ‘yes, artichoke would work well in a pudding’. How did you come to think it would work?

Michael: We try it.  If doesn’t work – it doesn’t work. We may have ideas and think a dish will come out amazing and tastes like crap but that’s how you evolve yourself. Other times you make things just off the cuff that you just thought of within the space of a few minutes of talking and it can be great. 

You can’t reinvent the wheel but you can look at things you did ten years ago and think, well we could look at this a different way.

Aiden: It’s not very often you just wake up with a ground breaking idea for a new recipe. It’s all about evolution and you have to keep evolving. It never just happens like that. Never.  It comes from being playful and adventurous.

G: I know your cooking well Aiden. I was looking through your last cookbook and you are totally different today...

Aiden: The Made In Great Britain book is coming up to 10 years old. In The foods is completely different, OK there’s lots of fucking truffles here on the menu but it’s progressed since.

Daniel: I can’t take ‘em off!

G: The food I ate when you first came back up North was one thing – you had to hit the ground running with a completely new style. How the hell did you manage that here in the North?

Aiden: What we were doing in a pub in London wouldn’t have been accepted in central Manchester. We had to bring fine dining and we had to make sure it didn’t fall flat on its face. I had to think long and hard about how I was going to approach it and made sure we brought the best.

Chefs and bosses

Chefs and bosses

G: Do any of you think modernist cuisine is going to stay with us? And if not what’s going to be the next big thing?

Tom: Everything is much softer and gentle. Ten years ago in the kitchens ovens were really hot with roasting and you just had to hope for the best.

G: What do you expect to see in the kitchens in ten years?

Daniel: There’s got to be lots of new ingredients. We’ve got to get back to what it was. The produce I’ve seen throughout my career is just brilliant. I saw someone today using pink strawberries that taste like pineapples and you think, ‘fuckin’ ‘ell, it’s amazing what we can produce here.

The quails we’ve got tonight are the best – you’re not going to get better quails in UK. And that’s because that person is solely farming quails.

It’s got to be produce driven, as obviously equipment and new technology is only going to take you so far.

G: Do you ever get youngsters coming in who are classically trained?

Daniel:  Every Thursday night my chefs have to pick out of a hat a classic French dish, like Coq au Vin or a Cassoulet. I expect in this kitchen now, if I asked any of those young chefs to make me a Cassoulet they’d look at me like I’ve got two heads. 

But how can you develop beautiful food, if you can’t cook rustic beautiful food properly?

G: What’s your favourite food to cook at home?

Michael: It has to be the roast dinner on a Sunday because it is back to the basics cooking.

Daniel: And you put more love in that than you do in anything. It’s the best thing I cook all week.

G: Sugar, it’s got a very bad rep in the press over the last few weeks. Apparently it’s not about fat content it’s the sugar that’s killing us. Do chefs have a responsibility to ensure that what’s on the menu is healthy?

Tom: Chefs will know to create a well balanced menu with something healthy and something vegetarian. In today’s world you know you can get vegetarian, vegan, celiac, whatever you want.

Aiden: Of course it’s not down to us, or the people that deliver the dinner it’s down to the individual what they put in their mouth. You can blame the wholesalers for people being obese, it’s the fat fuckers who go out and eat all the fuckin’ burgers. End of.

G: Leave us fat fuckers alone!

Aiden: Well you can’t blame me if you don’t stop fuckin’ eating. Stop eating. Not that I’m saying Gordo is fat!

Daniel: Fuckin’ hell, we’ve been using sugar for years and we don’t use that much. It’s our job to make the food taste better, if we get beautiful food we shouldn’t have to do a lot to it to make it better.

Twenty years ago we used to put mountains on the plate, the sauces were heavy and you knew you were getting a three course meal. Now we have taster menus with smaller portions but the taste is intense because people have cooked it properly.

Tom: In terms of the way people are eating food, there’s clearly a class divide. People bang on about not having enough money to support them, or don’t have enough money to have the right balanced diet. At the end of the day you can have a beautiful homemade vegetable soup that costs pennies.

Daniel: How many jobs have you got in your kitchen? I’ve got 4. The whole thing about ‘it’s a recession and you can’t get any work’ is crap. Get a fuckin’ job.

G: I’ve been attacked in the street for advocating foie gras, what’s your thoughts on it?

Daniel: I’ve had my windows smashed in. I had my restaurant completely destroyed because of it.

G: Would you back down?

Daniel: Over the space of 6 months I was referred to as Hitler, family were threatened, they threatened to follow me home, windows smashed in. I didn’t back down on it but now I’ve stopped using and it’s probably the best thing I ever did. As it made use a broader spectrum of ingredients: it used to be langoustines, foie gras, scallops, truffle. It was all the prime ingredients I thought I needed. We all thought that was what was needed for 2 stars but now that’s not necessarily the case. 

You can follow Gordo on Twitter here @gordomanchester

Chef profiles

Tom Aikens worked at a succession of Michelin starred restaurants before becoming the youngest British chef to maintain a 2* rating while Head Chef at Pied a Terre. In 2003 he launched Tom Aikens Restaurant in Chelsea, which has been followed by three UK branches of Tom’s Kitchen and another in Istanbul. 

Daniel Clifford’s quest for culinary perfection has taken Midsummer House in Cambridge to another level in his 15 years at the helm. The restaurant won its first Michelin Star in 2002 and a second followed in 2005 – a standard which has been maintained since, along with the 4 AA Rosettes awarded in the same year. 

Michael Wignall opened Michael Wignall at The Latymer in 2007 and quickly established it as one of the best restaurants in Surrey. Michael’s complex and carefully crafted cooking has earned the restaurant two Michelin Stars and five AA Rosettes.

Aiden Byrne is presently chef at Manchester House. He was head chef at The Grill at the London Dorchester from late 2006. He was previously Tom Aiken’s head chef at his Chelsea restaurant and has worked with several other high-profile chefs such as Paul Rankin and David Adlard. Aiden has made numerous TV appearances including Masterchef and Great British Menu. At the age of 22, Aiden Byrne became the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star.

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