Michael O’Hare, chef-patron, The Man Behind The Curtain

The  Staff Canteen
Michael O’Hare aka The Man Behind The Curtain, started cooking age 19 when he was at university – he’s since honed his skills at John Burton-Race at the Landmark in London and at Seaham Hall in County Durham to name a few. Now his food style stands alone thanks to his no holds barred approach to both cooking and his image. An outspoken and often controversial chef from Middlesbrough, Michael has attracted attention from thousands of food fans thanks to his appearance on Great British Menu and his addition to the Michelin Guide 2016. The Staff Canteen grabbed a gin and tonic with him at his Leeds based restaurant and talked working 45 hour weeks, how he thinks ‘grow your own’ is a waste of time and flying melons…. Michael O'Hare low resHave you always wanted to break the mould? No – I still don’t. I don’t think it should be on my shoulders for being different, I think it’s those in the industry’s fault for being the same. At a high level I think there are stand out chefs and maybe what happened at Man Behind The Curtain was that as a team we were instantly recognisable from the get-go in our food and the identity of it. Normally at that level you’re talking Sat Bains or Daniel Clifford – dishes that are instantly recognised as their food. We got that recognition without having any accolades at the time. You first caught people’s attention at The Blind Swine in York, was your food as recognisable there as it is here? The food is nothing like it was there. It’s similar in the fact that it’s tasting menu only but it is way different here. Here we are able to do a lot more as we are able to charge more – it means I can spend more on produce. In York I was restricted by what people are willing to spend and it’s also about what people are ready for and what they will accept. For York we were the most modern restaurant there and probably still are to this day. Having studied aeronautical engineering, you’ve tried your hand at dance and snowboarding - what brought you to cheffing? I just liked it and I tend to do things that I like! On a really basic level I’m quite selfish so, whatever is appropriate at that time or whatever I feel is the right thing to do I’ll tend to do that. That’s what happened with cooking. The reverse happens though and I f***k things off. I got bored of cooking and stopped for three years – I just went snowboarding and lived in the Alps. I was bored of it because I didn’t like it and I’d be bored of it today if I didn’t do it for myself. At a high level of cooking normally the people who are eating the food, aren’t of the same background or class system as the people cooking it. So there’s no direct link to the guy doing the veg at say Royal Hospital Road and the guy spending £4000 on a bottle of Petrus in the restaurant.
Rising stars/restaurants of the future:  Lee Westcott, Typing Room Guilty Pleasures:  Peanut butter Top 5 Restaurants: 41 Degrees, Barcelona Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road Diverxo, Madrid Azurmendi, Spain Sat Bains
Whereas if you go into a fashion store say Vivienne Westwood, every one of the staff is dressed in Vivienne Westwood – they don’t have the same income but it’s the same kind of lifestyle. So I guess at the point when I stopped cooking, I was really into cooking but I didn’t get eating that much, I didn’t understand going out to dinner and the entertainment side of restaurants – then I developed a love for food and drink. Which, is the best bit – kitchens are really boring and monotonous. So, what made you come back to it? Money. It was the only thing I could do to earn more than the minimum wage. So I did it to fund my commercial pilot’s license. But the hours of cheffing were so intense I was never really able to continue with that – the hours are not like that now. Are they not? I think some chefs would disagree. We do about 45 hours a week here – start at 10am, finish about 11pm and that’s four days a week. Is that what you wanted? F***king right! Not just for me, for the guys. Working in London everyone you work with is miserable and you are doing a job that is supposed to be a passion but everyone doing it is bored, miserable or hasn’t eaten for six months. Is it easier here to change those hours than in London?pork No, not at all. I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved here as far as the lifestyle the boys and girls in the kitchen have got. We’ve been able to achieve a high standard without losing our life and we are better for it. I think that’s how the food comes about, we have the time to enjoy eating out in different places – we’re not just going to the nearest three star and stealing it or picking up a book. We’re experiencing it ourselves and it makes our cooking more honest. What are your thoughts on the current trend of chefs growing their own produce? Grow your own, I think, is the biggest waste of time in the world. It’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard of. I’m not a green grocer, you don’t get Tom Ford getting his own silk worms and making his own fabrics! There’s only so many hours in a day, if you buy veg you go to a grocers, meat you go to a butcher, fish from a fish monger and then people have got the opportunity to be really good at one thing. They then have generations of experience and you can use that, you just need to pick up the phone. If you have no experience in growing your own I see little benefit in doing it, it’s not like good vegetables are unattainable unless you grow them yourself. I do think there is a dignity in growing it yourself, I think what Tommy Banks for example does, has a real integrity about it and it’s beautiful to see that happen but he’s got the means and fuel for creativity, his dishes are based on how stuff grows. But we are not that restaurant. Milk ChocolateYou’re probably not a fan of foraging then either? People pretend that things taste nice because they found it in a hedge! It doesn’t, it doesn’t taste as nice as parsley, or a mango or a strawberry – no one has ever picked up chickweed and gone ‘try that it’s f***king delicious. It’s not, it’s disgusting. I think people panic, you get someone like Rene at Noma who has done something amazing and then it falls down to other chefs and they think the only way they can stay current is by somehow mimicking that. That’s not true at all, look at Glynn Purnnell in Birmingham he’s doing f***k all like that and his restaurant is current and it’s a great restaurant. Aesthetically your dishes stand out, is it difficult to achieve style and substance? No, the substance is the easy part. For a job I’m a chef, if I can’t make food taste nice I’ve f***ked that haven’t I? The looks thing is because that’s how I want it to look, maybe it’s a little over the top because I absolutely don’t want it to look like anything else. So if a dish looks a bit Nordic, I’ll just pull it or bin it or spray it yellow! You caused quite a stir on Great British Menu, were you expecting the reaction you got? Yes. I’ve changed my image since then because I didn’t want to become a gimmick, I didn’t want it to over shadow what I actually do. I’ve always been looking for success and money and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I’d be an idiot to say I’m just doing it for the passion, I’m not, I want a nicer life and I don’t think chefs should feel ashamed to want to be successful financially.man behind the curtain 1 In terms of comments about my image, I didn’t give a shit about that as it’s something I’ve had for a long time, I actively chose to look like that and I’m still choosing what I look like now. The thing with that attention was I didn’t take the positives about my appearance as a positive. People would say it’s great to see someone being different but I wasn’t being different at all, there are loads of people with long hair and wearing skinny jeans – I was just cooking in it. You’ve done Saturday Kitchen since GBM, how was that? It was mint! James Martin is really on it, I think a lot of chefs think he’s just a TV chef but the way he works during the live show – he just covers your back completely. Whatever time frame you’ve got to get that dish done he makes sure it’s done and he’s hosting a TV show at the same time. He’s not a three Michelin-starred chef but he’s a clever guy and he’s made a great living out of it. Whether you like it or not you will now be inspiring young chefs as you are in the public eye, how do you feel about that? I don’t want people to emulate what they see, they need to learn to be good cooks first. It’s flattering when they do and I do get messages with their food pictures in them but that’s not what cooking is about at all. Yes I’m fortunate that I’m good at making my food look nice but it’s not radical, I haven’t got anything on the menu that’s particularly crazy, we use the same ingredients as every other kitchen. We don’t just use an ingredient because it’s f***king nuts. As soon as you become a knob head chef, wanting to see and showcase everything now, you get people coming into your restaurant waiting for you to serve them some kind of melon that’s flying – I don’t have any flying melons, just food and wine. Sometimes people focus too much on blowing people away with weird ingredients, the latest techniques or the equipment they’ve got – it’s never been about that here. JS74608554You have a 12 course tasting menu, do you think people always understand your food? I think they do, it’s not hard to get. We run a 12 course tasting menu because there will be dishes on there that people don’t like – you can guarantee that your favourite will be different to my favourite. I’m confident in what it is and I wouldn’t let anyone tell me a dish was disgusting and take it off the menu – I’d leave it. It comes down to confidence in your ability, the person eating in my restaurant who doesn’t like my food, hasn’t got a Michelin star and 14 years’ experience under their belt. With that experience in mind, will you be doing a book anytime soon? I don’t want to do a cook book, they are really boring. You have to go and buy those ingredients on a list and it’s the dullest thing. I don’t cook food that people can cook at home so when I do a cook book I want it to be more of a look book. Something visually impressive which you can spend about two minutes staring at and that will do you. Sat Bains has a really nice cook book, it’s not really to be read it’s just to be admired. You got your first Michelin star this year and there’s talk that you could be the next chef to achieve two – is that your goal? I think you can aim for two and always want it but in all honesty I don’t think this particular restaurant in its current format is right for that level of cooking. I’ve always held Michelin in very high regard and I still do. If you make the restaurant you want to make, that you think people need now and that people will enjoy – it is entertainment as well, then Michelin inspectors are not robots, they are just people. They come in and have the same good meal my mam will have!CQK0c8VWgAAEhKr The menu here is not complex and I haven’t really cooked in the kitchen for about ten months. I’m here for every service but I apply myself in a different way, I think about what I want on my menu and I’m not just stood at a stove ignoring everything that is going on around me. I see how guests react not just to the dishes but the music, colour of the paint, the crockery – you can really keep your eyes open when you pull away from that. Daniel Clifford said to me that ‘you have to understand now you are not a chef you are a business man’. I think it’s really sound advice because all a restaurant is, is a business. There are some that are good, some that are value for money and some that are shit. This restaurant is a full expression of what I want to do and that’s what I think we got the star for. Technically yes, it’s a high level of cooking but we are just doing what we think is right and all my staff are happy. How do you evolve then? It’s got to keep moving forward, it can’t stay the same. Without a shadow of a doubt this restaurant will be a better restaurant in 12 months time than when we got the star. I don’t know if it will be a two Michelin-starred restaurant but it will be better.
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 6th November 2015

Michael O’Hare, chef-patron, The Man Behind The Curtain