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Michael Campbell profiled: head chef Mint Hotel

Jonathan Schofield talks to a chef with ideas

Published on August 8th 2011.


Michael Campbell profiled: head chef Mint Hotel

MICHAEL CAMPBELL is a charming fella. He has a ready smile, is softly spoken, and conducts himself like a proper gent. Unlike many chefs he never swears once. 

I'd do something a bit different for the diner, a bit braver: soups, dumplings, jerk, yams. Cooking these to restaurant standard would be a good challenge and I'm sure would really intrigue people."

The 38-year-old has recently been put in charge of the kitchens at Mint Hotel, which incorporates stand-alone restaurant, the City Cafe. This sharp dining establishment sits tram-track side close to Piccadilly Station and is becoming a proper destination in the city centre offering excellent food in a shiny modern environment softened by a progressive attitude to original art.

So what's Campbell's form?

"I worked at the Grand Hotel, Birmingham, my home town as a commis chef," he says. "Then I spent lots of time in Manchester at the V&A on Water Street, at the Normandie in Birtle, at Le Petit Blanc and with Eyck Zimmer at the River Restaurant in The Lowry."

Many Manc foodies will remember Eyck Zimmer. He was one of my favourite Manchester chefs of all time, flamboyantly camp and assidiously precise in his cooking techniques yet with the flair to carry off mass-catering for 200 as though he were cooking for three. 

"Eyck taught me a lot, I really owe him," says Campbell. "He showed me how to manage and run a brigade – a very complicated process at the best of times." 

So what is his management style? Is he a curser in the kitchen?

"No," he laughs before getting serious. "It's hard work in there....if you can't stand the heat and all that. As far as I'm concerned we're a team - there's sixteen chefs at Mint. Kitchen staff need to encourage each other not tear each other up. And we all have to work hard. That's what I'm here to do. A good kitchen has to have a good work ethic and that begins with me, I have to lead by example."

That work ethic was seen in the interview for the position when Campbell proved his worth not through a roster of certificates but the proper way - he cooked. 

"I rustled up a risotto for the interview. I love risottos, they can't be too soft, too dry or too cheesy. Timing has to be just right, risottos are a test of a chef. We do one here that I did then, with pumpkin seed pesto, with butternut squash and sweet potato and lemon. Very light, but again full of flavours working together. "

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So how would he describe his style?

Campbell thinks for a minute, settling back and crossing his legs.

"My style is lots of bold flavours, not complicated. The food should speak for itself, show the chef's skills and ideas, but not so much the chef forgets the basic function which is feeding people. Five different flavours on the plate is about maximum, with presentation that's smart but straightforward not overwhelming."

And if he had button-hole his cooking?

"Well I think people would call it Modern European style whatever that is," says Campbell. "I'm using a lot of classic European techniques then bringing my own ideas to bear. It's me cooking my food in my way, but in familiar ways to the customers as well."

What about any variations on a theme aside from Modern European cooking? Will he be taking the menu on any long haul flights?

"Well I'd like to do a specials menu - we call it a market menu - on a Caribbean theme," he says. 

We chat for a while about how the leap for African or Caribbean food has never been made in the city centre. I've certainly never envisaged it storming the established restaurant dining scene. The one attempt, Jowata, on Deansgate was plain weird in many ways and never a success.

"That's true," says Campbell about the fast food point. "There's nothing much in the city centre representing this type of cuisine. But it can be converted into good restaurant food. I'd do something a bit different for the diner, a bit braver: soups, dumplings, jerk, yams. Cooking these to restaurant standard would be a good challenge and I'm sure would really intrigue people. And entertain them."

He's probably right.

Under Campbell's calm tenure City Cafe looks set to go from strength to strength. He appears to have the right attitude and character to realise his ambition of providing 'uncomplicated, bold flavours' while tickling a customer's fancy with some mouth-watering Caribbean food. We'll be keeping an eye on Mr Campbell's progress. 

Mint Hotel and City Cafe is at 1 Auburn Street 1 Piccadilly Place, Manchester , M1 3DG.

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movementAugust 10th 2011.

I'd love to try a Caribbean menu there, please do!

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