Ones to watch: Rich Sharples

Ones to watch: Richard Sharples

by Pete Dreyer 01 February 2020

Richard Sharples is executive chef of Gary Usher’s Elite Bistros collection of restaurants, and has helped Gary expand one of the most exciting hospitality groups in the country. We caught up with the Burnley-born chef to see what else is on the horizon.

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Pete is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

As executive chef of Gary Usher’s Elite Bistros of the World restaurant group, Rich Sharples has his work cut out looking after an ever-expanding portfolio of top-quality restaurants in the north of England. When Gary opened Sticky Walnut in Chester in 2011, he had to choose between having a combi-oven in the kitchen or having decent tables and chairs in the dining room. Nine years later, Elite Bistros is one of the UKs most admirable restaurant groups, boasting six superb restaurants amongst its ranks. Rich has been a key part of that expansion – having joined in 2016 to take the helm at Hispi, he subsequently became Gary’s right-hand man and helped open Wreckfish in Liverpool, Pinion in Prescot and most recently Kala in Manchester City Centre.

So far as cheffing careers go, Rich started his relatively late – the Burnley-born chef grew up on a steady diet of home-cooked meals, but he never envisioned a career as a chef. ‘I’d been to catering college aged 17 but didn’t really begin to apply myself until 20,’ he explains. ‘I was half decent at cooking so it seemed like the right thing to do, but I never really applied myself to it.’ A couple of jobs in gastropubs followed, but it wasn’t until Rich worked for Darren Rowe at The Bay Horse in Roughlee that he discovered a deeper enjoyment of cooking. ‘Darren had worked in some really good restaurants – he’d been at The Langham in London and The Belfry before he took on the kitchen at The Bay Horse,’ says Rich. ‘He’s a great chef. It was the first time I really started learning things in the kitchen and that’s really when I caught the bug for it.’

The Bay Horse was only open a year, but it was long enough for Rich to be hooked. He headed down to the Cotswolds and found himself in his first head chef role at just twenty-two years of age. ‘A baptism by fire’, he calls it jokingly. He spent two more years with Darren at the Abbey House Hotel near Barrow-in-Furness, then jetted out to a chalet in Austria to work a ski-season with his girlfriend, now wife.

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Richard worked at Sticky Walnut for three weeks before Gary made him head chef of Hispi
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As executive chef of Elite Bistros, Richard has opened a number of new restaurants, including Wreckfish in Liverpool, pictured above

When the pair returned, they settled in Manchester and Rich started working with Mary-Ellen McTague, who was then making waves at Aumbry in Prestwich. ‘I’d worked in a fair number of places by then, but Aumbry was the first time I’d worked in a high end restaurant,’ says Rich. The tiny twenty-eight-cover restaurant – situated in a converted cottage – was a huge hit in the north west; it was twice named Restaurant of the Year at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival Awards and Mary-Ellen appeared on Great British Menu in 2013 and 2014.

It was a great loss to the Manchester food scene when Aumbry closed in 2014, but Mary-Ellen and Rich continued their work at 4244 – a pop-up in Manchester’s Northern Quarter that followed a similar vibe to Aumbry. There were a few quirkier projects too – like a High Tea in Wonderland exhibition at Manchester International Festival, where guests were guided through an Alice in Wonderland-inspired exhibit via a menu inspired by the high tea from the book. Plans emerged for Mary-Ellen to open a new restaurant in Manchester city centre, but Rich missed the buzz of a busy kitchen. ‘We went for dinner at Sticky Walnut around the same time and I thought it was great,’ he says. ‘That was the first time I met Gary – I was a bit bored at the time to be honest, so I started working in the kitchen at Sticky to keep my hand in.’ As Mary-Ellen’s restaurant failed to materialise, Rich’s temporary stint in the kitchen at Sticky Walnut became permanent. ‘Four weeks turned into four years, and counting,’ he laughs.

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Every restaurant in the group serves a variation on the above – a braised featherblade steak with rich sauce, Parmesan chips and mushroom ketchup
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The Elite Bistros group has a reputation for superb cooking that doesn't over-complicate things

Happy accidents like this seem to happen often in the food industry. After finding his feet at Sticky Walnut, Gary made Rich head chef of the newly-opened Hispi in Didsbury and tasked him with looking after the opening. Shortly after that, Rich became executive head chef of Gary’s Elite Bistros restaurant group, overseeing all the restaurant openings that followed and helping to develop staff in each site. ‘Richard joined me at Sticky Walnut as a chef de partie,’ says Gary. ‘Three weeks later I asked him to be the head chef in our next restaurant. Six months after that I asked him to take over every aspect of the food across the whole of Elite Bistros. Richard has not only been an integral part of the positive change in Elite Bistros food, he has been an integral part of changing our whole kitchen culture for the better.’

The Elite Bistros expansion has been nothing short of incredible – the group has grown from one to six restaurants in just a few years. Some like to attribute that expansion to greed on behalf of Gary and his team, but the reality is rather the opposite. Aside from the desire to bring good food to people, Gary expands his business in order to provide careers for his staff. ‘The restaurants create careers,’ he explained to us in a 2018 interview. ‘They’re all good little businesses on their own, we provide a good product and it means we can promote from within and maintain the growth of our people.’ I mention this to Rich and he grins. ‘I think I’m the best example of that,’ he says. ‘I started at Sticky Walnut as a chef de partie, and within 18 months I was executive head chef.’

There’s a less-is-more approach to food in Gary’s restaurants that defines them. We’re leaving an era of unnecessary frills in the rear view mirror and the food at Elite Bistros is a prime example of that. Many of the dishes are made up of just three or four elements – venison loin, blackberry ketchup, beef fat potato and confit shallot, or chicken liver pâté, farmhouse chutney, toasted brioche, for example – but everything is perfectly cooked and well thought out. ‘When I first came to Sticky, I felt like I had an arsenal of tricks and tools at my disposal and I wanted to use them all on every dish,’ Rich explains. ‘One of the things I have learnt from Gary is restraint – removing things from a plate unless they were really important.’

Rich’s role is more about overseeing these days – he looks after the big picture. ‘I said to Gary the other day, I actually really miss being in the kitchen,’ he says, ‘I’ll help the head chefs with some recipe development but we let them get on with it for the most part.’ The idea is that each restaurant in the group develops its own personality – one that reflects the team that work there every day. In the meantime, Rich and Gary are always on the lookout for new sites. ‘I can’t tell you anything specific, obviously,’ he laughs. ‘But I’m sure 2020 is going to be another busy year.’