Gary Usher: The method behind the madness

Gary Usher: the method behind the madness

by Pete Dreyer 21 November 2017

Fourteen years old and seemingly out of options, Gary Usher took an apprenticeship at his local pub and washed dishes whilst his siblings went to university. Now he has four restaurants in the North West – and he’s only just getting started.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

‘I didn't have much choice in what I was doing. I wanted to do something academic but I didn't have that brain, so I left school early and washed dishes in a pub for a couple of years. I was about fourteen or so, and that was it – that's how I fell into it. There's definitely no bullshit romantic story. I didn't want to be a cook.’

I wasn’t expecting much in the way of romance from Gary Usher. I’d never met him before, but I’d read his withering, burn-tastic put downs of rude customers on TripAdvisor. I follow his straight-talking Twitter account. Throw in the tattoos and the relentless f-bombs (there’s more coming), and if I’m honest, I was prepared for a bit of an attitude. I’m sure I’m not the first person to make that mistake, nor will I be the last.

Gary has fast made a name for himself as a restaurateur in the North West, opening restaurants at an incredible rate. You may know him best as the man behind the superb Sticky Walnut – he opened that one in 2011, and followed up with Burnt Truffle in Heswall, Hispi in Didsbury and most recently Wreckfish – a two-storey bistro in Liverpool city centre. Gary’s northern empire is impressive, but the manner in which he built it is even more so. With all his savings invested in Sticky Walnut and the banks refusing to lend him any money, Gary took to Kickstarter to raise investment for each of the other three restaurants. This year, 1,522 people stumped up £208,956 to make Wreckfish a reality, and his fourth restaurant in seven years is by far the biggest so far… at least, in terms of space.

In just one month, Gary and team raised over £200,000 in funding on Kickstarter for Wreckfish. Less than five months later, the restaurant was open for business
Gary Usher's guide to Liverpool
Chefs like Daniel Clifford, Matt Gillan and Michael O'Hare all donated pledges to the Wreckfish campaign to help the restaurant hit its target

‘Covers-wise it's not actually that much bigger than Hispi,’ he admits, with an espresso in hand. ‘Wreckfish is a much bigger space, but I fucked up the measurements! I didn't realise how big the tables were going to be. I love how big they are, because it's a nice way to eat, but it’s fucked up the amount of covers.

‘It's quite a big fuck up to be honest,’ he laughs, ‘especially when you're working out projections. It's a fair few hundred thousand pounds a year!’

Still, Gary’s loss is our gain – the tables are lovely and Wreckfish is a beautiful space. The morning sun pours through double hung windows at the front of the building, allowing light to drift lazily through the restaurant into a comfortable lounge area at the back. The menu is typical of Gary’s restaurants – rustic and uncomplicated. There’s chicken liver pâté with apple and pear chutney and a toasted baguette, and a gorgeous warm marmalade sponge with vanilla ice cream for dessert. Every menu has a braise with chips and today’s is an incredible piece of feather blade that falls apart as soon as you waft a fork at it. Basically, there's no faffing around; just delicious food done extremely well.

Although this is his fourth restaurant, Wreckfish marks a fair number of firsts for Gary, and he admits he is still learning as he goes in the new space. ‘We don’t have a bar in any of the other places,’ he explains. ‘It’s the first time we’ve had a lounge area, first time we’ve had a private dining room, first time we’ve served breakfast… the whole operation is very different!’ He affectionately pats the table we’re sitting at. ‘Even this communal table, we haven’t had one of these before and it’s been amazing. We had four couples on here last night and people have really loved it. Chefs want to see a nice atmosphere in the restaurant – it makes you feel good about what you do – and this table has really encouraged that.’

Gary's restaurants are well known for their friendly, informal service and homely atmosphere
Wreckfish also has a private dining room – the first of Gary's restaurants to do so

It’s a completely different world to London, where strangers are to be avoided at all costs, whether they’re sharing your dinner table or your public transport. The twenty quid that gets you three courses at Wreckfish would barely cover your main in the capital. Though he loves London, Gary admits that he has no plans to ever open a restaurant there. ‘I’m nobody in London,’ he says (in spite of the three-hour journey I’ve made from Euston to see him). ‘You walk down a street in London and there's multiple Michelin star restaurants on the same road. There are some amazing restaurants up here but they're more sparse, so it’s easier for us to get noticed.’

Gary’s restaurants certainly have been noticed. The likes of Marina O’Loughlin and Jay Rayner have written glowing reviews of Sticky Walnut and Burnt Truffle respectively, and the former won AA Restaurant of the Year in 2014, beating a plethora of more expensive, Michelin-starred opposition in the process. Gary's restaurants have yet to win any Michelin stars of their own, but Gary is more than happy for it to stay that way. In fact, he wears the lack of stars as a badge of pride. ‘I don’t give a fuck about Michelin,’ he says bullishly. ‘Part of my career was spent in places that have that accolade, and I have nothing but respect for the chefs that work under those circumstances. I do appreciate Michelin, and I really respect them, but I think they’re pretentious bastards. I see the stuff they write on their social media accounts and I’m embarrassed to be associated with it, in terms of the industry. Restaurants shouldn’t be like that in my opinion.’

A desire to avoid the burning spotlight and snobbery of the capital is what brought him back to Chester in the first place. Gary started his career at the prestigious Chester Grosvenor and quickly progressed, before moving down to London to learn from the best. ‘I took notice when people started saying I was good at what I was doing,’ he says. ‘It sounds like such a stupid story now, but because I was quite shit at school, I never really got that. If someone told me to do a project or a maths problem, I physically couldn’t do it. But if someone told me to clean the floor then I could do that, and do a really fucking good job of it, because all I had to do was work hard. I remember my sous chef at the pub saying, ‘you do a really good job on the floor,’ and me thinking, ‘yeah, I do actually’. Then you get told that you’re good at making a salad. Then you go somewhere better and you get good at frying chicken livers. Eventually, you go to the best places and make the best things in the kitchen, and all of a sudden you’ve got a career.’

Braised beef feather blade, mushroom purée, truffle and Parmesan chips
Warm marmalade sponge, vanilla ice cream

Chez Bruce had just been voted one of the best restaurants in London when Gary arrived in the capital. He made a beeline for the Wandsworth institution, spending formative years with head chef Matt Christmas before being recommended to Angela Hartnett as she prepared to open the York and Albany in Camden. ‘I had coffee with her and I was blown away,’ he says. ‘Anyone you meet who knows Angela will tell you she’s just an amazing person. She wanted me to come on as a junior sous chef and I said, ‘chef, I really appreciate that you think that, but I’m not ready to come in at that level’.’ Adamant that he wasn’t ready for the job, Angela relented and brought him on board as a chef de partie. One week later he was a junior sous chef and shortly after Angela made him senior sous of the York and Albany. Years later when Gary had his sights set on his own restaurant, Angela tried to persuade him to stay in London, even offering to back him if he did. ‘As honoured as I was and proud to be spoken of in that light by someone like Angela, I was just too nervous to do it. I’ve never been a very confident chef. A friend called me and told me there was this little run-down place in Chester, and it was for sale for fuck all. I figured if I came up here and I was really shit, no one would notice. If you work for Angela and you're shit, everyone knows about it.’

Incidentally, that ‘little run-down place in Chester’ became Sticky Walnut, and the rest as they say, is history. When Gary wrote his original business plan for Sticky Walnut, it said that he would like to open ten restaurants. ‘That was just a big, round number that I'd picked out of my arse,’ he shrugs, and as that goal comes ever closer to becoming reality, it seems less and less likely that it’ll fulfill him.

In a painfully honest moment of the Wreckfish documentary – filmed around the pop-up that preceded the restaurant opening – Gary reflects on his own motivations. ‘Part of the reason I want to keep opening restaurants is because I’m fucking unhappy,’ he says. ‘If I open restaurants it means I’m that busy, I haven’t got time to think about how unhappy I am.’ With four fantastic restaurants and overwhelming support around the country, there’s plenty to be happy about on the surface, but there’s a defiance underneath – a determination to prove something to the people who wrote him off. With every new restaurant he opens, he provides new opportunities for others to grow and thrive. The documentary shifts to Josh Kitson, an old chef of Gary’s, who now works at 64 Degrees in Brighton with Michael Bremner. ‘Working with him made me realise I wanted to do better,’ says Josh of his old boss. ‘I went from Jamie’s Italian to Midsummer House, which is a joke step, but that was because of Gary. I’m sure I’m not the only one to say that I wouldn’t be where I was if it wasn’t for him. I’d be working at Nando’s or Pizza Express.’

Crispy lamb's tongue, pickled walnut, pear purée and parsley
Glazed chicken wing, aged feta, watermelon and honey

The metaphorical dust has barely settled around Wreckfish, but Gary already has his ear to the ground, listening for potential new restaurant sites. ‘Someone sent me an email last week from Birmingham, saying that there was a place in Digbeth,’ he says. ‘I read it and liked the look of it, so I put a load of tweets on social media saying, ‘right, would anyone like a restaurant in Digbeth?’ I’ve never been there, but if loads of people say yes, then we’d probably do it.’ Digbeth is not necessarily a plan, he says, it’s just one of many places that could work, given enough interest. ‘I haven’t got any money,’ he adds, ‘but that’s an afterthought.’ I ask if he can see a point where he’ll stop opening restaurants, and he cuts me off unequivocally. ‘No. I don’t want to stop opening. Actually, I want to keep going quite quickly. Each restaurant sustains itself – they’re all good businesses in the sense that they create and maintain careers, promote from within, we provide a good product and we’re all happy. As long as I can do it financially, whether that’s via Kickstarter or some other investment, then we just won’t stop.’

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then Gary's mission looks like a textbook case of madness. It's hard to know where the end lies for him, but one thing is for sure – he's going to keep opening restaurants until he gets there. ‘He won’t stop,’ says Josh. ‘I reckon he’ll die for it. Genuinely. Honestly.’ Would you bet against him? I wouldn’t.