Kingdom of Cooks: Gary Usher, chef/owner of Sticky Walnut in Chester, United Kingdom
Andy Lynes - March 10th, 2014
On a cold midweek winter’s evening in the residential area of Hoole on the outskirts of Chester in the north of England, both floors of 32 year old chef Gary Usher’s Sticky Walnut bistro are packed. The tiny open kitchen is turning out immaculate plates of modern bistro food, including the signature salad of oven-roasted beets, spicy pumpkin seeds, fresh ricotta, and the caramel-coated walnuts that give the restaurant its name.
There’s a genuine sense of relaxed informality that every neighborhood aspires to but few really achieve. With its cookbook-lined shelves, floral wallpaper, exposed brick fireplace, and chunky wooden furniture, you could almost be eating in someone’s home, as long as that someone had trained in some of the most demanding Michelin-starred kitchens in the United Kingdom and worked for the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.
Dishes such as panko-coated and deep-fried lamb’s tongue with a silken chickpea puree, goat’s milk curd, and punchy green charmoula or incredibly tender cinnamon-braised pork cheeks served with slices of fillet roasted to perfection and served with creamy butternut squash croquettes and a tart fresh apple relish are as far from home-cooked food as you can get.
But you’d never guess any of this if you’re one of about five thousand followers of the restaurant’s extraordinary Twitter feed (@StickyWalnut), maintained by Usher himself. You’ll find bad reviews from Trip Advisor flagged up, pictures of an empty lunchtime dining room, failed dishes, and numerous complaints about the life of a neighborhood restaurateur (including the customer who wanted Usher to serve a cheap supermarket frangipane tart he’d brought with him for dessert even though the restaurant makes its own), all seasoned with a fair amount of salty language.
“I like to say it all because it’s true. I don’t have any partners in this, and I have never run a restaurant before. It’s all new to me, and I’m making lots of mistakes, and I think I might as well tell people about them,” says Usher, who opened the 40 seat Sticky Walnut in a converted house in an arcade of small shops in January 2010 on a shoestring budget. “I’m not sure how easy it would be to tweet about having a quiet lunch if we weren’t doing so well in the evening. Because we’ve got that, and there are quite a lot of people who’re coming here and saying that they had a fantastic meal, I can be confident about tweeting something bad because we’re trying really hard.”
Usher’s humorous and self-deprecating daily account of the life of a provincial restaurateur has been likened by one chef follower as “The Truman Show set in a professional kitchen.” It’s a risky strategy, but one that’s paid off in terms of national press coverage. In her 8/10 review in the Guardian, restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin says that “Sticky Walnut came to my attention not via its swaths of slavering local reviews, but by its chef/owner Gary Usher’s gung-ho way with a tweet.”
But there is far more to Usher than his witty Internet presence. His highly individual approach combines technically accomplished cooking with bold flavors and reflects a CV that encompasses both fine dining and mid-market establishments. Starting out working in pubs at the age of 16, Usher’s first position in a recognized kitchen was at The Chester Grosvenor hotel, less than a mile from the Sticky Walnut’s front door.
“It was the first place that gave me an insight into chefs who were really passionate about what they did and who showed that they cared,” says Usher, who made contacts at the hotel that resulted in his move to London to work at the Michelin-starred Chapter One restaurant under Nico Ladenis-trained head chef Andy McLeish.
“The food was stunning, but I was completely out of my depth. On the outside, I looked fine, and I was promoted straightaway but deep down I was a wreck. It’s one of the busiest Michelin-starred restaurants in the country, and we’d be doing 150 covers on a Saturday might and 180 for Sunday lunch.”
Reeling from his time at Chapter One, Usher took an executive role with a northern-based restaurant group training chefs across 15 outlets, but now admits the move was a mistake. “I was only about 24, and they wanted me to train younger chefs in the basics, like how to make risotto or a chocolate brownie, but I was ridiculously young myself. I’d travel around in a company car with a laptop, which I didn’t use, and I absolutely hated it.”
His next appointment was a far happier one and has proved crucial to his future as a chef and restaurateur. “I had two weeks before I was due to take a sous chef job at a restaurant called Room in Manchester, and I arranged to do a stage at Chez Bruce in Wandsworth in south London. I went down, and I just absolutely loved it. It had the same passion that everybody had at Chapter One, but it was in a different style. I just felt so comfortable there, and I asked if they were looking for anybody, and they said yes. I moved back down and stayed at Chez Bruce for a couple of years and just absolutely loved my time there.”
Although Chez Bruce chef/owner Bruce Poole’s classical French¬–meets–modern European approach has clearly made a mark on Usher’s menus (both share dishes like spiced parsnip soup and crème brûlée), working as Angela Hartnett’s sous chef at the Gordon Ramsay–owned Italian restaurant, deli, and boutique hotel York & Albany in Camden was equally influential.
“I just had a really fantastic relationship with her, She’s an amazing person to work for,” says Usher. “I was really honest with her about everything and told her I wanted to open my own place at some point, and she said, ‘Stay here and we’ll sort it out.’”
But despite the offer and the occasional opportunity to work alongside Ramsay himself (“he came in the kitchen a couple of times and stood at the pass, but I was involved in more meetings with him than I was in actually working with him”), Usher felt the need to learn more about the business side of the industry and felt that an offer to work as head chef of a branch of Jamie Oliver’s high street chain, Jamie’s Italian, would provide that opportunity.
“It was a big mistake, to be honest. I had a really bad experience there. I just thought it was terrible. I stayed seven months. I had gone from almost family-style kitchens with Angela and Bruce, where the cooking was so important and the focus was just on coming in and doing your job and cooking to the best of your ability, to Jamie’s, where I didn’t fit in with their style or ethos.”
Usher was soon back on track, however, when fate intervened in the shape of a former Chester Grosvenor chef colleague. “He was living opposite what’s now the Sticky Walnut, and the premises were up for sale. He texted me saying, ‘are you still looking for your first place?’ I came up to have a look, and that was it. I stayed in quite close contact with Angela, and so I went to speak to her about it. She said, ‘I think you should come back and stay in London, but, yeah, go for it.’ And that was it. I got a loan off my dad and a loan off the bank and went for it.”
Despite all his kitchen experience, Usher was starting over as a novice restaurateur and admits he had no strategy when he first opened Sticky Walnut. “We opened on the first day, and there were a couple of dishes that we hadn’t even tried! We had a couple of bowls of pasta, a vegetarian aubergine lasagna, and a risotto—and that was it.”
Usher continued to make life very difficult for himself and his brigade, which, at the time numbered just one other chef, Isaac Heffernan (they met while working at Jamie’s Italian). “We had a sourdough, a focaccia, and we were making a bacon/onion bread as well. We had a couple of tarts on the desserts, and we had a quiche on as well, so every morning we were just baking.”
Hell-bent on offering value, Usher initially kept main course prices below £15 ($25) and sold some starters for as little as £4 ($6). “We played around with things like grouse, serving one breast and a sausage made from the trimmings, trying to still give everything that we could but keep it cheap, but it wasn’t working out. For a couple of years, we were really not making any money. I was running around like a headless chicken just trying to please everybody all the time.”
Usher says he “snapped out of it” last year and put his prices up, although main courses still mostly top out at under £20 ($33), apart from an 18 ounce Châteaubriand for two that costs £60 ($100). Although his workload is now shared by a brigade of five, Usher is yet to take a holiday and says he’s had about four days off since opening (Heffernan worked every day for the first year).
Mise en place is still labor intensive, with foccacia made fresh at least once a day (Usher uses Jamie’s Italian consultant Gennaro Contaldo’s olive oil–heavy recipe to excellent effect), stocks put on daily after service to simmer overnight, along with the restaurant’s perennially popular rolled pork belly that’s stuffed with onion, sage, amaretto, raisins, and leftover focaccia, then served with smoky bacon lentils.
“Normally, at about half past 11 at night, the pork goes in. We crisp the skin first to make the crackling, so we take the oven up to 250ºC (480°F) for about 20 minutes. We get people on Trip Advisor complaining about the aroma. We think it’s a lovely smell, but I guess if you are out for dinner, burning pork skin is not exactly what you want.”
The pork cooks for a further eight hours at between 80ºC (175°F) and 90ºC (200°F) and then just needs to be reheated for service, which also recrisps the skin. (Usher gets his butcher to hang the meat for three weeks—the ageing, he says, is the only way to get really good crackling.) “The thing that we like about the dish is that all the effort is in making it and preparing it. In service, it just goes on a plate,” says Usher, who is looking for a similar “savior” dish as he calls it, for his new restaurant, the Burnt Truffle, due to open later this year in the affluent area of Heswell, about halfway between Chester and Liverpool.
“We’re going to need something that’s very popular that’s also good for us, gross profit-wise and service-wise, so we’re thinking about a simple duck leg that’s done well.”
With four years of hard earned trial and error behind him and a growing national reputation, Usher looks set to repeat Sticky Walnut’s success when he moves over to the new site—which he describes as “strangely similar” to the original restaurant—and leaves Heffernan to take over the Walnut’s kitchens.
An unmatched dedication to his craft and a willingness to both please his customers (that comforting pork belly) and push them to experiment (you really don’t see lamb’s tongue that often on menus outside of London) puts Usher right at the top of the British restaurant tree. Not that you’d ever know it from reading his Twitter feed…
Recipe from Gary Usher: Oven-Roasted Beets with Sticky Walnuts, Spicy Pumpkin Seeds & Fresh Ricotta