Aiden Byrne is an award winning chef and owner of Manchester House, a luxurious eatery situated in the heart of Spinningfields, Manchester. Raised in Merseyside, Aiden is no stranger to Michelin stars, having worked previously in sophisticated establishments including Adlards, Tom Aikens, Pied a Terre and The Commons. Throughout his 30 years in the catering industry, Aiden has built a career around traditionalism and staying true to classical marriages with his flavour combinations, albeit delivering meals in unique and quirky ways.
On the eve of his appearance on BBC One’s ‘Yes Chef‘, a culinary challenge which sees 16 Michelin star awarded chefs mentor amateur home cooks to victory in the kitchen, while giving the amateurs the chance to work alongside some of the best in the business, Aiden took some time out of his schedule, likened to that of a ‘military operation‘, to treat us to a culinary conversation about all things flavoursome, and what we can expect from Yes Chef.
THE FOXLEY DOCKET (TFD): What attracted you to the culinary industry?
AIDEN BYRNE (AB): It’s a bit of a strange one! When I was a young lad, about 12 or 13, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do – I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my career, or the rest of my life. I think everybody has that dilemma at that age, and now that I have a 12 or 13-year-old, I’m seeing that from their point of view.
I was very fortunate that I chose one particular subject in school, which was catering. As soon as I walked into that classroom, I was completely comfortable, that this was where I wanted to be. The unusual thing was, back then, it wasn’t very trendy to be in the kitchen, so I was the only lad in the class for the whole year; it was me and 29 other girls. They weren’t called aprons back then either, they were called ‘pinnies’, so there was a certain amount of bullying that was going on, because I was in a cookery class, from children of my own age. As soon as I walked in the classroom, I thought, ‘this is where I want to be.’
TFD: How did you become involved in Yes Chef?
AB: It was a slightly different concept to begin with. The idea was just going to be four chefs that were going to be on the programme the whole time. Basically, after we’d done the pilot – it was myself and three other chefs at the time – it was an absolute rip-roaring success! ITV made it for BBC, who were absolutely over the moon with it. ITV sent Pierre Kauffman, who’s the main mentor, an email asking him if he’d be interested in being the main judge, and surprisingly enough because he never does any TV, he said yes. I think that completely changed the whole idea of the programme. How I got involved with it was right at the beginning, they asked if I’d help make the pilot, and that’s how I ended up on the programme. It was really, really good fun!
When they got Pierre Kauffman involved, they almost said to themselves, ‘we can make this a little bit bigger, let’s ask a lot more other chefs’. Because they’d got Pierre Kauffman, the likelihood is all the other name chefs – because he’s a part of the project – will say yes. They did that and it worked, so respectively, six weeks, I think it is, where there’s four different chefs on every week, is absolutely insane. One of the good things about it is that there are four home cooks on – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – sixteen home cooks being whittled down to just four to cook in front of the culinary master that is Pierre Kauffman, so it’s good fun.
TFD: What effect is your epiphany moment of stepping into the classroom and realising ‘this is what I want to do’ going to have on your approach to mentoring in the show? How are you going to infuse your background into moulding people’s ability to impress a three star Michelin chef?
AB: The first task in Yes Chef that you’re challenged to give to the home cooks is something called a ‘masterclass’. The production team said to me, ‘do me a favour; don’t make a Hollandaise and don’t poach eggs’ because that’s what everybody else is doing so it seems like a bit of an automatic go-to when you have to do a masterclass because of the complexity of making a Hollandaise or poaching an egg. So I suggested a masterclass on seasoning – it’s something a lot of people take for granted, but it can make or break a meal. I made a very simple soup; a smoked eel and apple soup. I told the contestants ‘you’re gonna make the soup, we’re not going to season it with anything at all.’
Everybody’s palate are very, very different – they’re all very individual – your palate is unique, nobody else has the same. I let them all make the same soup, which was very, very simple, and then I gave them the seasoning tools. These were salt, lemon for the acidity, and some sugar for the sweetness. They had to try and find a way to balance that salt and sweetness and acidity. It was very interesting – there were four completely different soups, but no real winner because that’s their personal taste profile. I think it was almost allowing them to have their own sense of individuality. If I said ‘the soup HAS to taste like this’, then they’re not going to have that individuality, but if you tell them ‘you season it how you like it’ then its entirely their own individual approach. That’s one thing that I’ve been taught throughout my whole career, that taste is very personal – you season food to how you personally like it.
TFD: In your professional opinion, taking your own experience into consideration, what makes a ‘good cook’?
AB: Somebody who focuses on flavours over presentation. Both of them should go hand in hand, but the main priority is somebody who focuses on making that plate of food taste nice, before it’s off being too complicated and too complex.
TFD: The final dishes are going to be judged by Pierre Koffman, a three-star Michelin chef. How confident are you that you can mould somebody else’s ability to impress such professional palate?
AB: It’s difficult. It is quite nerve racking, especially when it’s somebody who isn’t a professional chef. I think the guy that I’ve got is a computer analyst, so his time in the kitchen is scarce – he may not understand kitchen terminology. If he’s a sensible man and he takes things onboard, then I’m pretty confident that we’ll be able to impress Mr Kauffman, but if he’s over-flamboyant and overcomplicated, then it’s going to get quite difficult.
TFD: To conclude, you’re the owner of Manchester House in Spinningfields. Who would be your ideal diner, and what would you cook for them?
AB: My ideal diner would be somebody who’s imaginative, somebody who’s adventurous, but also somebody who appreciates all the efforts and the hard work that goes into something that is quite simple. There are twenty chefs in the kitchen in Manchester House, and we service 60 customers; so the amount of work that goes into that is unbelievable.
I think I’d probably cook them our signature dish, which we call a ‘cheese and onion soup’ – it sounds simple but it’s actually a little bit more complicated than that. The work that goes into it is unbelievable, but it’s not something that can be just thrown together, it takes days and days to make.
TFD: Speaking of creative and adventurous diners, I noticed a place you like to eat is The Fat Duck, owned by Heston Blumenthal. Would you say his approach to cooking and how he considers food as more of an art form than just something to eat has shaped your cooking style?
AB: My inspiration in cooking came long before Heston was being as adventurous as he’s being now. I just admire him, I’m very proud of the fact that he cooks and owns restaurants on our shores. I think most of the people should appreciate that and respect that, really.
TFD: What’s your approach to British cooking and British dining?
AB: I’ve been around cooking in the industry for nearly 30 years, and when I first started cooking 25 years ago, it was purely French dominated. There was Pierre Kauffman, Michel Roux, Raymond Blanc; they were all big on the scene when I first started cooking and they were the cookbooks that I bought. I guess to a certain extent, I’m a byproduct of how far Great British food has come on, really. I think having someone such as Heston fly the flag for Britain – not just Heston, the likes of Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay – they are British chefs, through and through. It makes me very proud to be cooking on these shores and have restaurants not dissimilar to theirs.
TFD: How much ‘Britishness’ do you incorporate into your cooking? Do you try and source British ingredients where you can?
AB: Yes, absolutely. I would say probably 85% of the produce that we buy, we buy as close to as we physically can. Obviously there are certain products that we struggle to get over here, but the majority does come from our shores.
Filmed on location at Cheshire Cookery School in Altrincham, ‘Yes Chef’ is on BBC One at 3.45pm Monday to Friday.