Gary Usher, owner, Sticky Walnut, Chester

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 5th March 2015

IN ASSOCIATION WITH

Gary Usher is chef owner of Sticky Walnut in Chester. He cites Chez Bruce as his biggest influence and after 4 years at Sticky he is opening Burnt Truffle.

Taking the decision to leave working for Angela Hartnett at York and Albany, Gary Usher took over a run-down restaurant in Chester and turned it into a successful bistro with a funny name.

However Sticky Walnut is a name that has stuck (excuse the pun) as four years later Gary and his team are now opening restaurant number two – Burnt Truffle – after a kickstarter campaign exceeded expectations and made it possible. Citing Chez Bruce as the place where he learnt the most, Gary has worked in a kitchen since leaving school and although there have been mistakes along the way he wouldn’t change a thing.

Why he wanted to be a chef

gary usher3
Gary Usher

Was being a chef something that you always wanted to be?

I didn’t do very well at school and it was the easy option really, I started like most chefs do as a pot washer and prepping for 6 months and ended up doing salads etc. Then the place I was in, in North Wales, I got offered to do an apprenticeship. The manager at the time knew I wasn’t doing too at school so said why don’t you leave school early and do a modern apprenticeship here and do half the week cooking and half the week front of house but one day a week on a day release in a college. I started to really enjoy it and then that was it.

Where did you go after that?

The main role after that was The Grosvenor Hotel in Chester, as a commis chef. That was my first experience of people that really cared about cooking, it was the first real professional experience that I had and where people took pride in what they did which was enjoyable.

Who did you look up to when you were starting out?

If I gave you an answer to that I’d be lying, no, there wasn’t. To be honest what has taken me from one job to another is just personal ambition, not to do with aspiring to be anybody. I’ve always wanted to be the best that I can be and prove that I can do something even though academically I couldn’t; being in a kitchen and being told you were good at it was enough drive for me to pursue it.

Info bar

Guilty pleasures:

Stuffed tortellini – those crappy stuffed ones that you buy in supermarkets.

Rubbish cheese – as I go at like midnight so it’s all that’s left at that time

Dominoes

Top 5 restaurants:

Chez Bruce

Hedone – been there once but such a good meal I’m booked in to go back

Café Murano

Mr Coopers

Medlar

Cookbooks:

Riailles – it’s French-bistro food, lots of rustic dishes and I the photography is great.

Chefs who have inspired him

Who would you say has been your best mentor?

Matt Christmas who was the head chef at Chez Bruce when I was there. He was ridiculously hard on me and at the time I almost didn’t know why but I think looking back I can see that he just wanted to teach me the right way. Everything about his approach towards food you couldn’t help but be inspired by.

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I hadn’t met anybody that understood food rather than just cooking it, he was someone that thought about temperatures of things, seasonings and was almost philosophical about it. Even simple things like if I had got a terrine out of the fridge before being with Matt I would have sliced it and served it, where as he highlighted the temperature of the fridge and how something being served fridge cold wasn’t good enough.

What would you say was the driving force behind wanting to open up your own place and how did you decide when the right time was?

It was all I had ever thought about and I always want to be the best that I can be and the way I saw to achieve that was to be your own boss in your own place. I had spoken to Angela Hartnett about it and she advised me on what the possibilities were if I stayed in London. I was really open about the fact that I wanted to learn about business as well as cooking and, as I wanted to open a bistro, I thought I had enough food knowledge; but the thing that I was lacking was the business side of things. Angela said that she could teach me all of that. Then a friend called me, who was the pastry chef at the Chester Grosvenor when I was there 10 years previous, and said there’s a little restaurant for sale in Chester that’s really run down but it’s cheap and you should come and take a look. I got on the train the next day and that was it.

Mackerel fillet by Gary Usher
Mackerel fillet

Where did the name Sticky Walnut come from?

It was meant to be called ‘Bakehouse’ as I’m from a family of bakers and in my mind it was to be the name of the first place I opened as I heard it all the time as a child. I had all the names, signage and menus done and the sale of the restaurant fell through three times so I had to go back to Chez Bruce as I had to work.

After trying again I came up here and drove past the restaurant but on the corner a deli had opened up called ‘Baked’, I panicked, the restaurant went through and I didn’t have a name. I said to my family ‘you wouldn’t believe what’s happened’ and they all agreed that I couldn’t continue with Bakehouse, so my sister said have a look through your menu. There was a dish on there that was walnut praline however when I opened here I was conscious of names on the menu that people wouldn’t know, so instead of walnut praline I called it sticky walnuts.

My sister then said call the restaurant sticky walnuts, I was like ‘are you taking the mick? You want me to ring up all my old bosses and say hey, I’m opening a new restaurant and it’s called Sticky Walnut’? But she said yes, just do it. And in the end it might be a rubbish name, but it’s worked for us as people don’t forget it.

So was the area you opened in always the plan or did you consider London?

London had too much competition, I’m not like these modern chefs that are trying all the new stuff, I’m just a simple cook and I thought if I open in London I’m just going to be swallowed up by all these new boys. This little place outside of Chester, not even in the city centre, I thought under the radar and if we were completely crap then no-one would notice but it worked.

Sticky Walnut
Sticky Walnut

So after the success of Sticky Walnut what made you think now’s the time to open a second?

We’re just in the process of opening Burnt Truffle, we’re close after the funding from the Kickstart project, furniture brought and staff ready; it’s just a case of waiting. We were doing well here and we’ve just maxed out. All the staff are ready, we’ve had a lot of in-house promotion so sous chefs are now head chefs and so on.

It was Angela that said to me that the main reason she looks forward to opening a new place is to give the staff new challenges, new positions and to keep them motivated. I couldn’t offer people the next thing if I’m stood in the kitchen every day, I can’t offer the sous chef the head chef, so there was no room to progress; so opening the next one was the logical step. I’ll be hands on in both so they’re only 15mins about meaning I’ll be able to have a handle on both.

Using Kickstarter to fund restaurants

Were you surprised with the response from the Kickstarter campaign?

We raised £25k in the first 24 hours. I was really nervous about doing it as I hate self-promotion and I didn’t think it was going to work, I said to the guy doing the video that if we didn’t like it and the way that we came across then we’re not doing the project because I knew the video was important.

But I watched it but thought it was true and everything in it is how we are, there’s a bit at the end of outtakes which showed us as down to earth and I really liked it. I wasn’t expecting it to be popular at all and for the campaign to make money but I was proud of the video, so when we put it up and it raised that much in the first 24 hours we were unbelievably gobsmacked.

So are you happy with how everything has gone with Sticky Walnut? Would you change anything?

I didn’t know what I was doing, I opened up with no experience. I made loads of mistakes but I wouldn’t change them but hopefully wouldn’t make the same mistakes with Burnt Truffle. It’s been really good, even the mistakes as you learn from that.

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What are your thoughts on social media and reviewing sites like TripAdvisor, do you care if people post bad reviews if Sticky Walnut is successful?

I care more than you know, I unbelievably care. I check it a couple of times a day as I hate it when people aren’t happy. I’m not sitting there thinking they must be wrong, as all I want is for people to come here and have a nice time and to go away and tell a few others that they enjoyed it. But it doesn’t mean that people can come here and be rude, if they have a bad experience and are rude then I prefer that they don’t come back.

Where would you say your inspirations come from for your food?

I’ve worked in a lot of places, bad and good, but the two places that I worked that really made an impact on me was Chez Bruce and working for Angela; so it’s probably a combination of those two.  Also Chapter One but I love Chez Bruce’s food and I was taught everything there, they taught me how to cook properly.

What would you say is the style at Sticky Walnut?

It’s not as basic as homely but it’s rustic but not overly rustic. We do try with presentation, but I tag this place as being bistro food but I’m not even sure it’s that; it’s hard labelling your own food.

Do you personally like to eat out as much as you can?

Yeah, that’s all I do. My life is ridiculously boring, I’ve got the restaurant and then eating out and that’s it. I love it. Whenever I can I go down to London for lunch and then come back.

So what are your future plans for Sticky Walnut?

All we do at Sticky is just to maintain consistency. The kitchen was so small here that we built a room at the back and that is where the pastry was coming from, but it was just a glorified shed, so in the last refurb we made it into an official pastry room with a proper kitchen. But it wasn’t so we can change our style, it was just so we can keep the consistency of what we already do. So when I look at the future of this place I don’t look at it as changing, I look at it as staying exactly the same

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 5th March 2015

Gary Usher, owner, Sticky Walnut, Chester

IN ASSOCIATION WITH