Chef Michael Carr, 23, is back in Harrogate with “affordable fine dining”. Sheena Hastings stepped into his kitchen.
I’m in the kitchen with chef Michael Carr. Well, that’s his Sunday name - he prefers Mike, especially as it’s Tuesday.
He demonstrates how to cut perfect, ultra-fine ribbons of celery, which will be plunged into iced water for a couple of hours to make them curl into interesting shapes then served with cheese.
Holding the celery - sliced with a mandolin beforehand - with four vertical fingers and using the index finger to guide his super-sharp chef’s knife, his precision rocking motion does the job in seconds.
The unaccustomed knife is scary and the pressure to make uniform ribbons is too much. I labour slowly, producing uneven, ropey strands. Mike laughs and declares kindly that one of my slivers is thin and even enough to be acceptable.
He’s giving me a few knife skill tips that he has honed in a career which so far encompasses a schoolboy weekend job at gastro pub The Square and Compass in North Rigton near Harrogate, Rudding Park, a smart Cornwall hotel, a host of Gordon Ramsay kitchens across London including his Claridges flagship, and Michelin-starred The Westbury.
Today the 23-year-old is happily running his own place in Harrogate, a 30/70-financed venture recently launched thanks to a partnership with local businessman and foodie Ian Humphreys, whose properties include a terraced row of flats, offices and former Chez La Vie restaurant premises on Station Parade.
Humphreys ate a dinner cooked by Mike on his return to Yorkshire and was highly impressed. They discussed a jointly-financed business, found they saw eye-to-eye and after a £2m spend recently opened Restaurant 92 together with wine bar The Optimist next door.
What had initially brought Mike back to Harrogate was a family crisis and the need to support his parents. Later he decided it was a good time to cook up something that would fill a gap in the town’s busy restaurant scene.
That something, as they describe it, is fine dining but with heartier portions and affordable prices.
Ingredients are almost all sourced within 50 miles, and the wine bar offers charcuterie and cheeses as well as bottles unavailable elsewhere locally, which also retail here for prices £7 - £100.
As for the kitchen’s credentials, I tried the £15 two-course lunch before we met, and can vouch that the slow-poached egg with pearl barley risotto, morrels and Ibérico ham followed by Yorkshire duck breast with raisins and kale offered perfectly balanced flavours and some excitement. They were also filling without leaving you in want of a nap.
I watch Mike slicing king cabbage into a little mound of chiffonade that will cook in onion seeds and complement breast and cutlet of lamb poached in buttermilk then charred for five minutes on the griddle and presented with risotto of finely diced purple potato cooked in butter, garlic, bouillon, finished off with Black Sheep purée and an ‘ash’ made from sweet baby onions cooked in the oven slowly for two days.
It’s evident that for a true pro the knife is an extension of the arm: with what appears to be minimal effort, Mike dices potato mathematically, starting off each slice by making an even, thin rectangle. Small corners of excess lamb fat are trimmed in a couple tiny, deft moves.
As he brings the dish together, he says: “Some people find slicing and dicing tomatoes quite difficult, but nothing is too difficult to prepare if you have the right knife and it’s sharp.” In a kitchen full of specialist equipment, each chef has a favourite knife that suits many purposes. Mike’s is a Shun, made in Japan. Pricey - yet invaluable, and will last for many years.
“I think a really good quality knife or two is the essential starting point for anyone. A very good chopping board is also important, so as not to damage your knives. As for pans, Tefal are solid and reliable for good home cooking.”
At Restaurant 92 Mike rings the changes with two or three new dishes every fortnight, and aims to keep best sellers such as Beef Wellington on the go while at the same time offering the likes of ox cheeks. He adds his own twist to everything, and fish and chips involve Scarborough woof rather than the predictable haddock.
“The great thing about this partnership with Ian is that he is a fan of really good food, and so we agree in our ambitions to give imaginative dishes at a good price. I love designing menus, and am aiming for awards. There’s no point in being shy about that.
“I have a great team here, and although 23 might seem young, actually the experience I’ve had in nine years - especially the skills and inspiration I got after being head-hunted by Alyn (correct) Williams for The Westbury - make me feel I can aim very high.
“It’s great that I discovered a passion when I was so young - even though my first job was just about pocket money in the beginning. In the world of food, the hours you work and the frantic pace in top London restaurants, mean you learn at an amazing rate, from butchery to fishmongery and pastry.
“Being here means I’m no longer following someone else’s dream and ideas. It’s about following my dream now.”
Restaurant 92 and The Optimist, 92-94, Station Parade, Harrogate HG1 1HQ