Aiden Byrne, Hillbark

Peter Evans

Peter Evans

Executive Chef 23rd November 2010

Aiden, tell us a little bit about your role here at Hillbark. What your goals are for the business and why this is different from The Church Green, and why you've come to Hillbark.

Well, I wouldn't say I've moved away from The Church Green at all - I mean, I still get stressed out when they use too much washing up liquid or a plate gets chipped or something like that. I am still very much involved in it, and I still see it as very much my business; as my baby. I just believe that I have taken The Church Green as far as I can, and the ambitious Chef inside me still wants to do so much more. When I first started at Church Green I tried to concentrate on just doing fine dining food, but I quickly realised that the business wouldn't carry on if that was what I wanted to do, and fine dining was the direction I was going. Fortunately, we took over a pub and Sarah and I have been able turned it into a community eatery.

I guess there is a real danger of alienating the local community, isn't there?

Yes, I was very close to getting ousted out by the people of Lymm.

Because you were trying to do something that they didn't want? Something different?

I don't know whether it wasn't what they wanted; or wasn't what they were used to; or it was just the price bracket, but I had to charge those prices for me to deliver that product that I was producing, I had to charge a certain price.

Of course, but did that put off the locals who are important to any business?

I'm not in it to make millions of pounds, but the locals were seeing me as being the rip-off merchant, and I was getting called all kinds of things on different forums and different websites. And I really didn't like what I was seeing.

Did you take the comments personally?

I did. I did to begin with, but my partner Sarah, who has got a pub background, said "Right come on let's do something about it ...." I'd never worked in a pub in my life, so it was a very difficult situation for me to be dealing with. Making Cottage Pies and making Chicken Pies - and I'd never made a Cottage Pie in my life!

Aiden, you're from Liverpool, come on everyone eats Cottage Pies! (Laughter)

No, it's true I have never had to make a Cottage Pie in my life and when I first did them there was no interest in it at all from me. I just wanted to open my Scallops and do the stuff that I have done for the past 20 years. And I was getting criticised for my Cottage Pies, and I didn't like it; it hurt, so I went out and tried to find a fantastic recipe for a Cottage Pie and I poured my heart and soul into the bar menu for about three months. I left the a la carte as it was and just concentrated on the bar menu, usually I'm a bugger for tweaking menus and changing it all the time but I just left the a la carte as it was.

That was a hard thing for me to do, but I needed to concentrate on the bar food - I had to get the perfect Sirloin Steak and I had to get the picture-perfect piece of Cod to do my fish and chips with, and I realised that chips cooked in beef dripping are a lot better than chips cooked in vegetable oil, and it's those sort of things that I have never had to worry about as a Chef working in a Michelin environment. It was a massive learning curve and a real slap across the face for me, to be honest with you, because I was about to lose the business and it wasn't even 12 months old.

Right, so you were that close to the wheels falling off? What Changed? What Happened?

I had to make that conscience decision to make those changes and I am glad I did make those changes because I can hold my head high now when I can walk around Lymm, and I'm friendly with people from Lymm as opposed to me feeling that they distrust me. It was really tough. And now The Church Green does a fantastic job; we have a really good business there; we are considering putting bedrooms on upstairs, we've potentially got 9 bedrooms upstairs which would be great because it is right by the M6; halfway between Liverpool and Manchester.

Yes, it is a great location.

And the amount of people we are sending to the local hotels ... it's a no brainer, but we have got to get that money in first. It's going to be a very big job.

So, Aiden, does Hillbark offer you the space to do those creative things? For you to go down your Michelin route?

Yes, absolutely. We looked at another property called The White House at one stage, and it looked like it was all systems go, and I was very excited about it - we had the finance in place; we had one small investor; a lot of it was our own money and then we looked at the building and the surveyor came in and the whole back end of the building had to come off. And it just got to the point where it went from a £350/400K project to £1 million project for a rented property and we just said "Walk away."

That's a lot of money tied up to get a return on.

Yes, and it wasn't even my building. That cost me a good 10 grand to get to that point but I would rather it be 10 grand lost than £1 million lost. So I was quite deflated by that and then I met this guy - Craig Baker, the owner of Hillbark. He came in The Church Green with Mr. Michael Riemenschneider, himself, and he came back to me after Michael had departed, and said "Are you interested in doing something together?" I came and had a look at the opportunity in Hillbark, and it suits me down to the ground. I haven't had to put any money in. We have got a room there, we have got our own kitchen, our own brigade - the brigade have been with me from when I was at Danefield House, then The Dorchester, The Church Green and now here. There are six of us in the kitchen. It's great. I can do what I want to do.

So what are your aspirations then, Aiden, for Hillbark going forward?

I think I have gone passed giving a toss about the guides. 5 years ago I would have been "S**t, we missed the Michelin Guide" but now I don't give a s**t about it anymore.

Really?

Well, to say I don't give a s**t is probably a bit of an exaggeration - it doesn't bother me.

It's not you biggest driver anymore?

No, it doesn't bother me that much. Cooking great food is all I care about and making people happy. And I really mean that, that might sound really cheesy but I genuinely mean that. Yes, it is nice to be recognised and it is nice to get accolades and that but ...

I think what happens is, people mature and they actually realise that they are in a customer driven industry and they start realising that customer is king and not the guides.

Absolutely.

And I think when you do that, certainly from what we have seen, then accolades seem to come because you are comfortable with what you are doing, and you are not cooking for the guides you are cooking for the customers. And you are more relaxed.

Yes. I am in a very different place in my own mind, so my aspirations for Hillbark are that it will be a lengthy relationship. Hillbark used to be predominantly a Wedding venue, they used to do 200 odd weddings a year and we have cut that right back.

Bloody hell, that's 4 a week!

Yes, that's a lot of money.

That's a lot of Confetti!! It's a beautiful building. Stunning, I can see why it's been so popular for weddings.

Yes, he (Craig Baker) took it over 8 years ago and it was a shell. He loves this building as much as I love my place and my place (Church Green) will always be a priority to me - if something happens then I am gone, and I mean that in the nicest possible way, but I have a strong enough team here, at Hillbark, who have been with me for nearly seven years now that I can just walk away from it should and if I need to. I try to be here Monday to Friday but we had a food & wine tasting evening on a Tuesday night that was bringing in good revenue, so I had to be at The Church Green and show my face.

How important is having a strong team that have been with you for some time? You obviously worked at Danesfield; you worked for Tom (Aikens); you were at The Dorchester - predominantly in or around London there is a much bigger market for Chefs; a much bigger market for fine dining restaurants. How important was it for you to bring that team with you as opposed to looking to the local area?

For me to be able to consider looking at other places I needed to have that stability in the kitchen. They have been loyal to me, they have put up with a lot. After coming out of Tom's Aikens Kitchen, and then going into Danesfield House I was a very different person to what I am now. I left Tom's because of the person I was turning into and I didn't like what I was turning into.

But you had a star before you went to Tom's, didn't you?

Yes, but I found these guys when they were 18/19 years of age and Jenny she's fantastic - she came second in Young Chef of the Year. And I think I must be doing something right for them a) to want to follow me and b) for them to achieve that level, and beat off some of the greatest young chefs in the country. So it was very important for me to pay them all back. I mean, The Church Green is great, but when you are in the middle of a Saturday night service and you are doing 60 covers a la carte and you get an order on for fish and chips in the middle of it all - it does throw a spanner in the works. It's the last thing you want to do but as a businessman I think "fantastic bring the fish and chips on!" But I know what it's like for them, when I was an enthusiastic 24/25 year old Chef, I didn't want to be doing fish and chips. So, I guess, Hillbark is for them to be creative as well.

What about suppliers? How did you find that transition? I mean in London you have got access to everything. Everything is on your doorstep. Everyday people are going into Rungis.

It happens everywhere now, you've got everyone going to Rungis now. We have Wellocks going to France twice a week.

So you have a good source of products and suppliers in the North West?

Yes we do, having done Great British Menu, trying to represent the North West for the last two years, what I have tried to do is find more local producers and support them. Unfortunately, Cheshire and the Wirral don't have an abundance of producers; they are all over more Cumbria way. But I am trying really hard now to find more producers in my area.

Aiden, you mentioned Great British Menu, how important are Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen to you, maybe not commercially, but to maybe get your profile out there as a Chef, and does that drive customers back to your restaurant?

My main focus now is about getting people eating in my business, for my business.

Yes, and TV drives that?

I believe that promoting yourself is ...

I won't remind you that you were beaten by a girl!! (Laughter)

Don't mention Northcote Manor to me! (Laughter)

So would you do it again? Are you doing it again?

If I was 25/26 years of age, a Head Chef working for somebody and had gone on to Great British Menu previously and had been beaten twice, I'd probably say "no" because of the whole pride thing, but I have to say "yes", I don't have a choice. I enjoy doing it, but it is important for the impact it has on the business. It's all about your profile; it's all about awareness of you - so people recognise you and say "Let's go and try it out." It's goes round in a circle because the more people that come and try us out; the more people return; and so the business grows, that's why I believe the website is very important and Twitter and Facebook - I need to get as much information out there as possible.

Yes, I totally agree with you - Social media, viral marketing is very important .

When someone said to me, last year "You should start doing a Blog." And I said "Why? I've got nothing to say." But then once you get going on it the buzz comes, and people read it and come up to me and ask "How was such and such?" or "How was New York?" and I think ... How did they know that? Then I remember I stuck it on the internet for thousands of people to read!

Which also makes you think, you have to be a bit careful what you put on there with such a large audience.

Absolutely.

Aiden, last but by no means least, you have got The Church Green and you are now at Hillbark too; you have got your crockery range. What does the future hold for you?

To take each day as it comes really. There isn't a set plan. At the end of the day, I want to keep The Church Green and I am really happy here, at Hillbark.

Is there a Church Green formula that you can roll out to another operation?

Yes, the pub side of it. We are looking at a pub on The Wirral at the moment. I would like to do that because I think there are a lot of pubs out there that are serving really bad food.

Yes. I've eaten in two the last two nights! (Laughter)

Really?! I think there is a great opportunity there. I'm also in the middle of writing a second book.

What is the second book going to be? An evolution of Made in Great Britain?

No, Made in Great Britain was a bit of a story about me developing as a Chef, the next book (we haven't got a title for it yet) but it is the story of coming from the high-lights of London to the pub.

OK, is it going to be recipe based?

Yes, very much so - there will be that Cottage Pie in there! And the kind of food we are cooking - affordable dishes for everyone.

That will transcend into the housewife market (for want of a better word) and that is a big market, isn't it?

Yes. The first book has now come out in paperback and we have sold more in the first month in the paperback issue that we did in hardback. I like where Aiden Byrne is and I like the person I have become. Owning the pub has humbled me. It has made me look at the bigger picture. I have come off my high horse, and I am not so strung up as I was when I was in London with Tom. I like what I have become. Sarah and I have a beautiful daughter now.

That certainly changes you, doesn't it? Makes you understand where your priorities lie?

Massively, so does owning your own business. Maybe if I had opened a high street restaurant that did 40 covers and was going for Michelin stars, then I might still be that prick that I was back then, but owning the pub has turned me into the person I am now, and I like that person. I am not aiming for a Michelin Star at The Church Green - I was blown over when we got 3 Rosettes. So it's all good and long may it continue.

Fantastic. Aiden, thank you very much for talking to us today and I wish you every success for the future.

Thank you.

Peter Evans

Peter Evans

Executive Chef 23rd November 2010

Aiden Byrne, Hillbark