Psycho Sandbar Leeds: Michael O’Hare on rebranding The Man Behind The Curtain and handing back Michelin star
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Scrapping the single tasting menu format in favour of more choice, more paired-back dishes and a more relaxed atmosphere, the top chef and Great British Menu judge will close his Vicar Lane restaurant in its current guise in January, opening Psycho Sandbar in its place.
And with the change, Michael will hand back Leeds’ only Michelin star.
He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “The restaurant that I created, The Man Behind The Curtain, was a restaurant that I wanted at that time in my life. That was the kind of restaurant that I was going to - to sit down for two to three hours and have multiple plates of food, as many different flavours as possible, as many different ingredients as possible, and be blown away by that.
“Now, nine years down the line, that’s no longer how I’m eating. When I book to go to restaurants myself, it’s not that format that I’m interested in particularly, although I still think it’s got a place. It tends to be things where I can have a bit of choice, where I can have whatever I want. I book for the cuisine rather than a list of everything.
“I wanted to change The Man Behind The Curtain and by keeping the name, we potentially confuse people. A new year is time for a new start, and I want to reimagine the whole space.
“It’s still going to be my food, it’s still going to be my technique. But as a restaurant, as a team of chefs, we need to think - what is fine dining? What makes us so fine? Is it the elegance on the plate, is it the product that we’re using or the method we cook in?
“Ultimately, it’s the way we cook the products that we get. We buy the finest ingredients and we cook them the best way we know how. If the talent is there and the product is there, then the food shines.”
Promising a “fish-heavy” restaurant and the same quality of food diners have come to love at The Man Behind The Curtain, Psycho Sandbar will be more versatile and accessible, with a “surf-shack” theme.
Michael said the change was inevitable, but accelerated by three big “waves” that have hit the restaurant industry - Brexit, the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis.
“Brexit for us was huge,” Michael said: “We relied so heavily on the cultural part of Europe, where we had a lot of Spanish staff, Italian staff, people from all over.
“There's a lot more career-driver waiters and sommeliers in France, in Italy, in Spain than there are in the UK. And that’s fine because we benefit from it and we learn from it, but once you take that away - we struggle.
“It’s had a negative impact on the talent pool. If you look at Premier League football, it’s full of European superstars. If you look at top-end restaurants, not so much anymore. Maybe the name above the door, but the brigades - it’s not as easily flowing.”
Restaurants at all levels on the gastronomy scale are battling with soaring prices, and The Man Behind The Curtain is no exception - a single scallop will set Michael back £4, while one prawn costs him £6.
“I can’t justify incorporating that into a menu and making people pay for it,” he said. “I’d much rather charge for it on a la carte pricing, and if you want to eat that prawn, you should do.
“It costs a lot of money to eat in a place like Man Behind The Curtain, in a Michelin-star restaurant. Only a certain percentage of the country can afford that - I’m not blind to that and I’ve never been blind to that. The same can be said for Ferraris, for Lamborghinis - they don’t make a cheaper option.
“But if you squeeze on people, the bottom end of what becomes affordable gets narrower and narrower. Things that used to be an option for a treat are now an absolute write off. [The cost of living crisis] has decreased that already small percentage of people that were into gastronomy, that had the disposable income.”
Psycho Sandbar will be a restaurant that guests can visit for just cocktails and bar snacks or opt for the full experience that guests enjoyed at the Man Behind The Curtain. It’s all about choice, Michael said.
“With the change we will hand back the star,” he added.
“I’m incredibly grateful for it, it’s one of the reasons that I personally have been so successful. The reason the restaurant was so big internationally for so long was because of that beacon of the Michelin star.
“I like the idea of having creative freedom again. Psycho Sandbar gives me the opportunity to cook whatever I want - because I like it, because I think it’s right, because it’s good. And it doesn’t matter if it’s ludicrous, it doesn’t matter if it’s basic. For the most part it will be more simple and paired back.
“It will be nice to have that, to not be sweating about what other people think. I care about what my guests think, but I don’t need that badge of honour anymore. Nine years is a long time, and I’d much rather just cook food that I love, that people love.
“If we were to get another star as a result of that, that’s brilliant - I’m not saying that’s off the cards. But it’s not the goal.
“I want to come in here and have great food with my friends, eat as much and drink as much as we want, and for them to enjoy being here - and not pat me on the back for it.”
Last chance to eat at The Man Behind The Curtain
The Man Behind The Curtain is still taking bookings for its current menu until December 31, when it will close for a short refurbishment. Ahead of the rebrand, the restaurant is offering gift vouchers and weekly special events, including guest chef nights and a cookery school led by Michael himself.
Michael added: “I want to be a busy, full restaurant, serving the right amount of food to the right people and the people who want it. We have the ability to do that, but I want to make it special, I want to make it amazing.
“We can change the menu tomorrow, it doesn’t cost anything to change the menu and change the format. But I want to make a space that’s amazing to be in.
“It’s not a crowdfunder, it doesn’t matter if we don’t take anything from this - but what I’d like is to make as much as possible so that we can put as much back into it as we possibly can, to make the space as good as we possibly can.
“I’ve got a ridiculous imagination in how I see this working and I’d love to see that come into fruition. Then Leeds gets a restaurant that not only is a top end restaurant, but you can go time and time again.”
‘It’s a great time to be a chef in Leeds’
Michael said the Leeds restaurant scene is “booming” - two of his personal favourites are Empire Cafe and Ox Club.
He said: “Even things like the Ivy Asia, being here - that’s massive. That gets people out of the house and into restaurants.”
“I don’t think there’s ever been a better time [to become a chef],” Michael added.
“We’re way more aware than we were. The kitchen brigade system came from militant ideas, it was a military system that came into civilian workplaces.
“That’s why it was so hard, it was so demanding, it was so intense. Everything has changed for the better. Hours are better than ever, people are nicer to you than ever.
“The days of what I tolerated, what I put up with…don’t exist anymore. People are nicer to you and there’s a staff shortage, so you can pretty much work wherever you want.
“All you have to do is apply yourself - if you can put your head down and work hard, be a sponge and learn as much as possible, you’ve got an opportunity where there’s not a queue of people waiting to get a job somewhere.”