He’s the brains behind one of Leeds’ most exciting restaurants and with Michael O’Hare on the Great British Menu. He talks to Neil Hudson.
For someone who has - so far at least - shunned publicity, chef Michael O’Hare, the man behind The Man Behind the Curtain, the slightly risque, slightly bonkers fine dining restaurant in the centre of Leeds, has a lot to say.
But when I meet him around 10am on the top floor of the building which has Flannels clothing shop at its base, he’s staggeringly reticent to begin with. At times, the silence is deafening. That’s not helped by the minimalistic dining area, which is all stripped back wooden beams and slick black furniture with broad vistas across the heart of the city - some would marvel at the views but not him - “it doesn’t have great views, it just has views,” he deadpans.
His restrained demeanor belies his ethos, because when he started The Man Behind the Curtain (a quote from the Wizard of Oz) just over a year ago, he had a definite plan in mind.
“I didn’t want it to be about me,” explains the 34-year-old, who was formerly head chef at The Blind Swine in York. “We opened here without a name, it definitely wasn’t the Michael O’Hare restaurant but that’s kind of backfired. I get a lot of people asking me if I’m the man behind the curtain. I take a lot of recognition for it, whereas the chefs I work with don’t. You can’t stop it, but you can mock it.”
So despite his best efforts, it has become about him and later this month, you’re likely to be hearing his name a lot more, not least because he will be taking part in the BBC’s Great British Menu, with his episodes screened in September.
Unfortunately, he’s not allowed to talk about the experience and will only say: “It’s not really my cup of tea… you are asked to do O’Hare is something of an enigma. He grew up in Middlesbrough and between the ages of 11 to 18 studied ballet, even enrolling for a college course in modern dance.
His parents were both from working class backgrounds, his mother running a florists which has been in the family for five generations, his father a welder.
“My parents were quite happy for me to move away from contemporary ballet,” he says, beginning to open up. So, what did he substitute that with?
“I used to love the film Top Gun, so I went and did aerospace engineering and got a diploma with distinction.”
He enrolled in a university course at Kingston College, London but dropped out within a few months. It was his first time away from home, the first time cooking for himself and the experience came as an epiphany.
“I knew the course wasn’t right for me. I had a good think about things and decided cooking was something I really wanted to do. I was 19 when that happened. Before then I’d never bought my own produce, but I was doing it on a daily basis.
“I used to buy fresh fish and things. I spoke to a local restaurant and asked advice on what to do and he said you can either go to college and start again or you can start working in restaurants. I chose the latter.”
But before all that, he went off and trained and qualified as a pilot, moving to live in Dayton, Florida for three months when he was 20. Then he threw himself into chefing.
He did a stint at Judges Country House Hotel, Yarm, before moving to Harrogate to work with former royal chef Graham Newbould and later John Burton-Race in London.
He was also the driving force behind The Blind Swine in York, a venture he left in 2014 following an unfavourable rent rise.
Since opening in Leeds, O’Hare has managed to turn more than a few heads and generally, reviews have ranged somewhere between awestruck and revelatory.
A quick look at the 14-course tasting menu gives some insight into his unconventional style. Dishes include “The insecurity of postmen in Oakley sunglasses”, comprising pork pressa, mandarin spices, consommé of beet hot and sour and daikon and basque foie gras. Then there’s “Inception of a spacecat in black”, featuring monkfish with Amalfi lemon and acorn fed Iberico ham.
By now, O’Hare is on a roll.
“Food is undervalued massively. If the guys in the kitchen work 14-hour days, that’s 14 hours of labour
that’s gone into that meal,
but you cannot charge for that.“I think 99 per cent of restaurants undercharge.
“No-one will bat an eyelid for paying £300 for a T-shirt downstairs but if we charged that for dinner, they would think it extortionate.”
He pauses to shout an order to one of his chefs to make sure to order “Forty scallops and a box of langos”, then turns back and continues: “I don’t care about things being local – what we’re trying to do is serve food at its absolute pinnacle. So if the best chicken comes from France, I’ll fly it over.
“You see on a menu which farm things came from – why do you care? How do you know the quality of that? Line caught, as opposed to what? Punched?
“Actually, line caught is important…”
Whatever his predilection for the provenance of food, he’s certainly flying the flag for fine dining in Leeds. “Anthony Flinn was in Leeds for 10 years, when he first started I was working in Durham and the word was out, he was stand-alone Unfortunately, he never got the [Michelin] star – maybe that would have changed things.” Would that change things for O’Hare?
“I’m going to hope for it, I think we are at the level, but it’s not my opinion that counts.
“I’m confident we’re at that calibre, I think we’re at a one star level.
“As far as expanding goes, if it goes our way with Michelin, it would be nice to build something purpose- built so we had a stand alone restaurant, rather than being on a floor.
“It would be a great if we got a Michelin star but I’d like to set the bar a little higher – I’d like two Michelin stars.
“I’ve eaten at two stars and I don’t think we’re a million miles off it.
“It’s years since Leeds had a star – it would be good for the city and restaurants in Leeds, it would be great if a few more fine dining restaurants opened but the market has to allow it to happen.”