After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Burnt Truffle has finally opened its doors. Janie Manzoori-Stamford speaks to Gary Usher about the pressures of opening restaurant number two
The Caterer’s interview with Gary Usher was rather appropriately arranged via direct message on Twitter, arguably the chef’s favourite method of communication. Dates were negotiated, train tickets from London to Chester were booked and Usher offered to cook for me ahead of our chat.
The interview that followed lasted more than an hour and a half, but it was only as the conversation drew to a close that he thought to ask what it was all for.
Had it really not occurred to Usher that the hotly anticipated opening of his crowdfunded second restaurant Burnt Truffle might be the perfect excuse for a catch-up? Genuinely not, it would seem.
One might imagine that such a character might carry himself with swagger. But while Usher is undoubtedly charming, his manner when we meet is surprisingly self-deprecating. Any assumption that he might be a shining beacon of confidence, which some might suggest is a hair’s breadth away from arrogance, is undoubtedly mistaken.
The bravado masks misplaced insecurities in his talents as a business-savvy chef. Where Usher insists that he is reckless, others myself included would argue that, though humble to the core, he possesses an invaluable sense of instinct. If he could bottle and sell it, he’d be minted.
Usher opened Sticky Walnut in Hoole, Chester, in January 2011. He did so following a one week “get in” and on a budget so tight that he, now famously, had to choose between a combi-oven and new tables and chairs.
The toss-up between whether diners would be drawn to the décor or the precision of the cooking was won by the latter and the cash was spent on a Rational oven. That he made the right decision is in no doubt. A Menuwatch write-up in The Caterer in 2012 led Sticky Walnut to the Cateys the following summer, where Usher and his team picked up the Menu of the Year award the first in a long line of well-earned accolades for this unassuming bistro.
The Guardian restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin further thrust Usher’s first solo venture into the spotlight with a rave review in Spring 2014, despite the chef publicly instructing her not to visit. “Please don’t travel to eat here,” he tweeted. “It’s just a bistro,” and “we are not worth 400-mile trip” [sic].
But Usher’s food dishes such as crumbed crispy lamb’s tongue served with smoky chickpea puree, soothing goats curd, and green chermoula, which was on the menu that O’Loughlin described as “exactly the sort of thing you’d like to eat any day of the week, any time of the day” paired with his starkly honest and frankly hilarious Twitter timeline, helped earn the restaurant a loyal following and in September Sticky Walnut was named the AA Restaurant of the Year for England 2014.
Last October, Usher announced and launched his plan to finance his second restaurant via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter (see panel), having had very little support from banks. A month later he had secured more than £100,000 thanks to 891 backers who between them made pledges of £10 to £5,000.
“I felt really shocked. And I felt a lot of pressure,” says Usher. “It was quite scary to be honest. All of a sudden a load people you don’t know have given you a hundred grand. And you’re like, fucking hell, Jesus, we’d better open this restaurant.”
The fear wasn’t unreasonable. To follow the success of a hit restaurant like Sticky Walnut – well, it had “difficult second album” written all over it. But the pressure was made more pronounced by having high-profile peers such as chefs Ashley Palmer-Watts, Jesse Dunford Wood and Neil Rankin among the list of backers, though Usher makes it clear that he values his lesser-known supporters just as much.
The £100,000 figure was chosen after Usher played around with the idea of how much the lease would be and the likely cost of fitting out the kitchen. But in truth the new venture has cost him closer to £300,000, with the extra capital coming from revenue at Sticky Walnut, a finance deal with equipment supplier C&C Catering for the kitchen, and credit cards. “A scrape of this, a scrape of that,” says Usher, who admits that his second experience of launching a restaurant has matched his first.
What’s in a name?
“Everyone was shouting out names and someone said I should put something luxurious with something shit. I thought it was a great idea and retweeted it and everyone was saying Shit Caviar etc,” says Usher. “Then someone suggested Burnt Truffle. I retweeted it and asked what people thought. I thought it was well cool. I love it because it’s shit!”
One idea that was never a contender was Restaurant Gary Usher, which was among the staple ideas put forward when he was readying to open Sticky Walnut (a name that was suggested by his sister after she read the phrase on the menu). “Restaurant Gary Usher?” he asks, incredulously, his voice rising. “Restaurant Gary Usher? No chance!”
The new restaurant can accommodate 60 covers inside, as well as a further 40 on the terrace, and in style it shares a lot of characteristics with its 40-cover Sticky sister. The dining room is understated, comprising simple oak furniture and exposed walls. But like the restaurant’s undeniably shy owner and his well-inked arms, Burnt Truffle’s interiors have elements of flashiness, with an elegant chandelier on each of its two floors. It’s a look that works, in no small part due to the focus it encourages on the food, described by Simon Young, executive chef at London’s Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel, during the Cateys judging, as “cheffy, but without any pretensions”.
More than doubling the number of covers served comes with challenges unique to Burnt Truffle, due to 40% of the dining space being outside and the UK’s typically unpredictable weather. For that reason, the tables outside will be left for walk-ins. “It will be a case of guests being more than welcome to sit outside, but if it does rain and we’re full inside, there’s not a lot we can do about it,” says Usher.
A handful of dishes from Sticky will feature on Burnt Truffle’s menu (see menu below) quite simply because, in Usher’s view, they can’t be beat: “Our pâté recipeŠ I love it. I wouldn’t change it. There’s no point. I’m not about doing quenelles of pâté with little salads. It’s a slice of pâté from a terrine. That’s our style and it will stay the same [at Burnt Truffle].”
L-R: Michael Cotter, Rob Howe, Danny Wallace, Gary Usher, Michael Wong and Emma Underwood
Emma Underwood will manage Burnt Truffle working alongside Michael ‘Wongo’ Wong who will head up the kitchen, while Luke Richardson remains in charge at Sticky Walnut. Usher will divide his time between the two restaurants, while focusing on the new venture.
“The way that I see it and I’m not sure it’s going to work like this is we’re definitely going to be closed Mondays and Tuesdays at Burnt Truffle for the first few months. I want to make sure that we get everything right. It’s going to be a group of people that haven’t worked with each other before, so I want to give them the time to all work together for the five days that we’re open and they can all have the same time off,” he explains. “I’ll do every service there I’ve said for a year, but for as long as it takes and then Mondays and Tuesdays I’ll do at Sticky Walnut.”
Given that Usher didn’t take a day off at Sticky for the first two years, which he says was about how long it took for the restaurant to start turning a profit, this bold work ethic has precedent. However, determining the time it will take for Burnt Truffle to break even is made somewhat trickier by all the pledges that will need to be honoured, and the enthusiasm among backers to redeem their meal vouchers has been immense.
Cash flow challenge
Some took up an offer to enjoy a meal at Sticky Walnut instead, but plenty were still eagerly awaiting the chance to try out the new restaurant, which will undoubtedly make managing cash flow a challenge during the restaurant’s infancy. What if everyone wants to redeem their vouchers at the same time?
“You don’t get anything back for it,” says Usher. “I’ve spent the money, it’s all gone! But without those £100 vouchers, we wouldn’t have a restaurant. We’re going to try and limit the number of voucher bookings per night. We’ve got the people that have got the restaurant booked out as well the ones who’ve paid £2,000 and £5,000.”
The most financially satisfying reward that Usher offered on Kickstarter was the chance to bag one of 50 Sticky Walnut branded butchers’ aprons for a cool £50 a pop. He explains: “That’s what you dream of in a crowdfunding situation. Putting something like an apron on at £50 means you’re getting most of the cash and that really is giving you the opportunity to open a restaurant from nothing. The food and that kind of stuff end up being pretty even.”
Usher’s first foray into crowdfunding was undeniably triumphant; but is it a route to finance that he would consider again for restaurant number three? Absolutely, but he admits that there are those that don’t necessarily agree with this idea. “To do a third site, I know I wouldn’t have money in the restaurants to be able to do it,” he explains.
“A lot of people think that it’s crazy that we’ve been given 100 grand and that we didn’t deserve it because we’ve got a busy restaurant already. Why would I need to crowdfund a restaurant when this one is successful? We do well at Sticky, but we spend all the money we make back on the business. Last year we spent 70 grand on refurbishing the kitchen, which might not sound like much to a lot of people, but to me that’s everything we had.”
But while Usher might already be thinking about where a third restaurant might be, he’s firm about the need to see how he manages with two first. “You just don’t know whether Sticky has done well because we’ve been lucky,” he suggests with typical humility. “I need to see whether the second one works. If we have got a recipe here that can be replicated somewhere else, then I think number three will be quite easy in comparison to number two.”
Crowdfunding: all or nothing at all
Gary Usher outlined his ambition to raise £100,000 through crowdfunding site Kickstarter in a humorous video, created by graphic designer Dan Burns, on 2 October 2014.
The all-or-nothing nature of the campaign meant the target had to be met in order to get any of the cash. Within 24 hours of launch, the Kickstarter page had received £24,000. “It felt like I’d just pressed the button [to make the page go live] and someone pledged. Straightaway,” Usher says. “And then everyone started doing it. People were sticking £100 in and I couldn’t believe it.”
The support for the campaign was incredible. Usher’s circa 10,000 Twitter followers picked up the baton and ran with it and every time the campaign approached a milestone they would imploringly call for more pledges. Usher, however, only once asked for money.
He explains: “Although on video I’m asking for £100,000, I didn’t want to ask anyone for money. Out of every single tweet I did in the 28 days, I just asked for retweets; for people to spread the word. I think that’s important; a lot of people wouldn’t have given money if I’d asked for it directly.”
There were a few lulls in the pace of the pledges, a common phenomenon when it comes to crowdfunding. But when it hit £80,000, with three days to go, it shot up, largely down to it being payday for many people. “I didn’t know this, but it’s something to consider for future crowdfunding,” he says.
“It started going crazy and my old boss Angela [Hartnett] put £500 in, then her partner Neil [Borthwick] put £500 in and it started going up and up. I went to sleep that Friday night and it was on nearly £90,000. I woke up the next morning and it was on £91,000.”
Usher tweeted a picture of the latest figure with a simple “morning!” greeting, and Twitter once again sprang into action, determined to smash the target by lunchtime. It succeeded and the final tally reached £103,915.
Burnt Truffle: dishes to expect
L-R: Gary Usher and Michael Wong
Sourdough, truffle and walnut butter £3
Chicken and pigs’ head terrine, apple puree and deep-fried pickles £8
Razor clam, samphire, fennel, coriander dressing and pink grapefruit £9
Poached pear, chicory, beetroot, horseradish, mustard dressing and pain d’epice £7
Ox heart, braised celery, skordalia and blackberries £16
Spinach and ricotta tortelli, sage and pine nut noisette £14
Chargrilled lamb rump, fennel, lettuce and fresh peas £18
Black forest gâteau and cassis sorbet £7
Banana parfait, chocolate and peanut brittle, caramel ice cream £6
Sticky toffee pudding, toffee sauce and walnut semifreddo £5
Blu Basque, Alchester Sloe, Gouda and Valençay, fig chutney and cheese biscuits £8
Brought up in St Albans, Gary Usher kicked off his career at the Chester Grosvenor before moving on to Chapter One and spending formative stints at Chez Bruce, York & Albany and Jamie’s Italian. But Usher is at pains to point out that it wasn’t just the headline names that have influenced his career.
“Actually, the majority of what I’ve done is not that,” he says. “Some of the things that stick in my head have come from bosses that just worked in pubs. There was one boss who said something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Usher had offered to serve up the staff meals and, having brought in three sirloin steaks, he offered to cook one each for the pub owner and the head chef. “I put the steaks in a pan and started them off with a bit of oil. Then I put my fingers into a load of butter, put the butter in the pan and started cooking it. My boss asked me what the hell I was doing. I said, I’m just cooking the steaks. He said: ‘I know you’re cooking the steaks; why the hell are you using my butter? That’s my bloody money!’ I was using it on the sirloin steaks that I’d paid for!”
Usher, aged 20 at the time, thought about what had happened for the rest of the afternoon, which led his boss to ask him if he was still sulking about the incident. “I said I was because it was a bit harsh, but he explained [about controlling costs]. It’s always stuck with me because it’s really true.”