Mary-Ellen McTague, Aumbry, Manchester

The Staff Canteen

Great British Menu contestant Mary-Ellen McTague, is chef-patron at Aumbry, a haven of traditional local cooking in Prestwich, Manchester. 

She originally studied languages at university before leaving to become a chef, first working at Michelin-starred Sharrow Bay then Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck before moving back to Manchester to open Aumbry. In 2013 she took part in the North West heats of BBC2’s The Great British Menu and she is back this year to battle it out again. She writes regularly for The Guardian and is currently working on her own cookbook.

Why did you give up university to become a chef?

I got to Easter of my second year at university and it was just this proper Eureka moment – in the bath, literally – I thought, I know, instead of doing this university course which I hate, I’ll start cooking which I love. Obviously my parents were delighted! I got a copy of the Good Food Guide, read it cover to cover and picked out five places that I really liked the sound of – The Waterside Inn, Le Manoir, The Fat Duck, Sharrow Bay and Le Gavroche and I wrote to them all. Heston responded very
quickly. He rang me up and said come down and see me so I went down for lunch at The Fat Duck with a friend and he said, great you seem really keen but you need to get some experience first. Then Sharrow Bay offered me a job in housekeeping with a promise of going into the kitchen the following year so I did that and that was where I started as a commis.

What did you learn in your time at The Fat Duck?

I think the big thing was that the driving force behind the whole thing was Heston and his passion – his complete, clinical, scientific fascination with food and how food works; the way he questions stuff and how tenacious and determined he is. He gets an idea in his head and just pursues it and pursues it and pursues it until he gets it right. Also I worked with a load of really brilliant chefs and I learnt a lot from the other CDPs and from Jockey [development chef James Petrie] as well. I think I learnt more in my first few months there than I had up to that point in my whole cooking career.

Why did you choose Aumbry?

The reason we took it was because firstly we could afford it and secondly it was right round the corner from our house. At the time our eldest was 15 months and it was important to me that I could work close to home because I knew I’d be working ridiculous hours and I didn’t want to be anywhere I couldn’t pop home for lunch. It was a converted Victorian cottage or rather two cottages knocked together. It’s in a conservation area and the whole street, Church Lane, is full of historical buildings with the original cobbles on the road. There’s a lot of history here which really suits me.Roast Sirloin of Longhorn Beef with nasturtium, pastrami, oyster & pickled cockles.

How would you say your food style has changed over the course of your career?

You can’t help but be influenced by the places you’ve worked – it’s kind of how you grow up as a cook. When we started Aumbry, I was kind of just replicating what I’d picked up but you kind of just find your groove eventually and find what it is that you love about food. For me it was in my last year of working for Heston doing historical research and development. I got to
read loads of old manuscripts and cookbooks and met some really interesting food historians, so that was a big influence on me, but also the local traditions which I think are really important in cooking and create an emotional link with people; so when people come to the restaurant from round here and they eat Bury black pudding and black peas and all this stuff which is part of our local food tradition, they really enjoy it. So those are probably the two main elements of my style now – historical recipes and traditional local recipes.

Could you take us through a couple of the historical dishes on your menu and the history behind those?

One is oyster loaves, which is from an eighteenth century cookbook called The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse. It’s basically a loaf with the bread pulled out and a load of oysters stuffed in it and put in the oven and baked; we serve that as a kind of pre-main course. 
 We’ve also got ratafia pudding which is in loads of eighteenth and nineteenth century cookbooks. It’s basically like a custard with bay and almonds. We’ve changed it slightly, so we make a bay custard and we siphon it then poach it in nitrogen to make a kind of ice cream which is liquid in the centre and we serve that with baked apple and a bay and almond Daquoise.

Why has the UK lost touch with its culinary heritage?

We lost touch because of the industrial revolution when the numbers of people dwelling in a rural setting just dwindled over a very short period. People were moving to cities in their hundreds of thousands so food production just changed – people didn’t have their little patch of land and nobody kept animals because everyone was crammed into these little city dwellings. Because there were so many people living in such a small area, food production had to become industrialised too which led to a fall in quality. Home smoked mackerel with roast celeriac, pickled beet & malted ryeIn countries like France, Italy and Spain the proportion of people living in a rural setting is still pretty high so all the knowledge and traditions didn’t disappear. Prior to the industrial revolution we had a very strong culinary heritage. The French call us ‘les rosbifs’ not as a derogatory term but because they used to send their cooks over here to learn how to roast meat because we were the best in Europe.

How do you see the state of health of the North West culinary scene?

I think it’s really healthy. I’d say especially the street food side is massive. On the restaurant side of things Simon Rogan and Aiden Byrne opened in Manchester last year. There’s Marc [Wilkinson] at Fraiche in the Wirral doing amazing stuff. Northcote have just redone the kitchens and expanded so there’s loads going on. It felt very flat around here for a long time but in the last 12 months things have really picked up. The standard’s going up everywhere as well.

What about the race to get Manchester’s first Michelin star?

I don’t doubt Simon and Aiden will get stars this year. I wouldn’t even be surprised if The French got two. The meal I had there was at least as good as the meal I had at L’Enclume, in fact I think I might have enjoyed it even more.

If you want to run a kitchen like Mary-Ellen then see our current head chef vacancies here

>>> Read more stories in the Britain's Got Talent series here

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Editor 1st May 2014

Mary-Ellen McTague, Aumbry, Manchester