Gary Usher - 'I've definitely got something to prove'
PUBLISHED: 15:01 19 March 2017 | UPDATED: 15:01 19 March 2017
Chester’s Gary Usher opens his fourth restaurant soon.He admits he has something to prove, writes Janet reeder.
Chef Gary Usher hit the headlines getting into the odd online spat with customers so it’s no surprise to find he’s uncomfortable with the idea of fame.
Ironically though, the rows he’s had with those airing their criticism on sites like TripAdvisor have worked in his favour and brought the punters rushing to try his brand of casual dining.
It’s ironic too that the more he’s discouraged press attention the more he’s received it. For example, a few years back he told one London restaurant critic not to bother visiting his first venture, Sticky Walnut in Hoole, as it was’ only a bistro’. She did anyway and loved it.
His masterplan to shun ‘media darling’ status is clearly not working. At 35 he has the charisma and looks of someone who might be in a band - those tattoos which cover his arms only reinforce the image but if he’s reading this I’m afraid he’ll already be accusing me of being ‘cheesy’ - a dodgy quality he’s keen to avoid at all costs.
It’s obvious why TV companies might be chasing him, as he fits perfectly a kind of ‘cook as rockstar’ stereotype that the media loves.
‘I think TV has done a lot to make cooking glamorous but I’ve spent the last ten years in the kitchen and it’s the least glamorous place you can be,’ he says, keen to disabuse me in the hour I grab with him at Sticky Walnut, which in spite of its reputation and AA starred cooking he describes as ‘humble’.
‘Chefs were hidden away in the kitchen and no one was meant to see them and now it’s all changed.’
His only reason for considering a more high profile role in the future will be to promote his restaurants: Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle in Heswall, Hispi (a kind of cabbage) in Didsbury and now Wreckfish (AKA stone bass) which will open in a former 19th century watchmakers in Ropewalks, Liverpool, later this year.
What drives him more is the will to succeed, which seems to the result of being written off when he was younger.
‘I’ve definitely got something to prove,’ he agrees.
‘My brother and sister both went to uni. My sister had completed a graphic design degree, my brother was halfway through a law degree and I was washing dishes in a pub. It made me feel pretty bad. Little things too, like one of my ex girlfriend’s dad said I was nothing but a two bob burger chef. That sticks with you.
‘But there was no sense of a vocation. It just rolled out from there. I definitely didn’t take long walks in the south of France eating oysters.’
What he lacked in vocation he’s made up for in ambition; his original business plan was for 10 restaurants and while he says it’s just an arbitrary goal and ‘something to work towards’ he’s heading in the right direction.
‘It is and it was unrealistic as well but at the same time why not? I think it gets addictive. There’s such a buzz about opening a restaurant,’ he says.
‘We like doing what we do and we are creating careers - I’m not doing it on my own I am doing it with a group of people who are seriously into it as much as I’m into it and our careers are all moving together’.
That’s another secret of his success, the ability to spot the people who fit in with his ethos.
He now works with a team of around 60, including managers and head chefs, and he says ‘All the chefs are better cooks than I am. You pick people who make you look good and can do the things you’re not so good at. I tell people I am not creative but I probably am creative - it’s where I shine. So for me to go out and find a site and have a vision, knowing something could do well, then all the little bits around it, I wouldn’t be able to do without the help that I have.
‘But they are all a credit to me and for me to be able to say that makes me proud. If I had to be involved in every decision every day I wouldn’t be able to expand.’
Originally from Hertfordshire, Gary moved up to Cheshire with his parents as a child and cut his teeth working at the Michelin-starred Grosvenor in Chester and Chez Bruce in London. It was a friend living in Hoole who drew his attention to the vacant property that became Sticky Walnut.
‘It was pretty horrible but it was cheap as chips. What can you say? That was it,’ says Gary who still lives close to Sticky in Hoole. The restaurant was a success but that didn’t stop his bank from denying him funds to install air conditioning. He realised that if he wanted to expand he’d have to find other ways of doing it. That’s when he decided to crowdfund restaurant number two, Burnt Truffle in Heswall. Crowdfunding also gave him £50,000 for Hispi in Didsbury, which opened last autumn, so he’s launching another campaign for Wreckfish this month.
In return, those who pledge money get meal vouchers and the pleasure of seeing their names on a plaque. It’s not he insists, an investment opportunity or a way of being on the zeitgeist.
‘The last thing we ever want to be is to try and be cool,’ he explains. ‘When Hispi came about somebody came and introduced themselves almost as a project manager. We sort of came together but every time he’d say something like “Oh what about having polished steel here and what about leaving that exposed there”... that’s the opposite of what we want to be like. I think once you start trying to create that you do get a certain type of person in so I don’t want that. You want to keep that humble thing.’