The Masterchef champion talks tomahawks, golden envelopes and press-ups in the kitchen
Following months of painstaking preparation, Masterchef 2015 winner, Simon Wood, opened his debut solo restaurant in Manchester almost exactly one year ago.
The Chadderton-born chef, former data science manager and dad of four was ready to make the move from impressing a panel of TV judges with a great plate of food, to owning an 80-cover restaurant featuring a mezzanine, lounge-bar, chef's table and private dining room.
But although Manchester is a notoriously difficult place to open a restaurant, Wood seems to be thriving. Confidential caught up with him to find out how it’s going so far.
Now we’ve got to the first anniversary, with some good reviews, the GPs are good, we’re making money and we’re full.
Simon, how are things at Wood right now?
Simon Wood: “It’s going really well actually, but it’s been a rollercoaster, as you’d expect from opening a new restaurant in Manchester city centre - the toughest nut to crack in the country. We’ve got good numbers and we’re getting good feedback from customers, critics and in the guides."
What are the main changes that you’ve made over the past year?
SW: “We’ve spent more time finding our feet and working on the direction we want the food to go in and growing the team, adding more experience. Now we’ve got to the first anniversary, with some good reviews, the GPs are good, we’re making money and we’re full."
You’ve been running some special weekday offers to help business, such as your ‘Tomahawk Tuesday’, was that always part of the plan?
SW: “At the moment we’re doing around 130 covers on a Tuesday night, so it works. Sometimes we even take more than we do on a Friday. Some people might come in for steaks and then order something else. Same with the pre-theatre menu, it’s like a bridge to all the other dishes we offer.
“We’d always planned on doing Tomahawk Tuesday. I think it gives us an edge over offering just a tasting menu, or a la carte. It allows people to come in and enjoy a great big steak with a few beers or a bottle of wine and go home satisfied without all the extra artistry – or whatever you want to call it – that comes with having seven or eight different courses. That sort of thing keeps you accessible to a wider audience. Diners might come back and have a la carte, then return to try our tasting menu. We see that happening quite a lot."
Have you managed to stick to your signature style of cooking or have you had to compromise?
SW: “We are still fine dining - although the tomahawk doesn’t come under that umbrella, it’s still a good, tasty dinner. At first I was a bit averse to doing some offers, maybe I still am. But you have to take advice from your team, your customers and people who are there to guide you.”
Was it a risk taking a site on the new First Street development a year ago and how has the area grown over the past year?
SW: “I’ve seen a couple of bars come and go, which has surprised me. First Street is still one of the best open spaces to sit in the city. It’s got everything you need from shuffleboard to wings, to fine dining, steaks, ping pong, whatever you want, you can do it here – I’m just not sure it’s pushed as much as it could be.”
The last thing we need is another pizza with a kebab on it stuffed inside a burger with a Yorkshire pudding wrapped around it
What are your observations about the Manchester restaurant scene in general over the past year?
SW: “Manchester seems to be growing as a bit of a culinary hotspot. I welcome better restaurants in the city centre, the last thing we need is another pizza with a kebab on it stuffed inside a burger with a Yorkshire pudding wrapped around it. It’s about time we got known for grown up food.”
Do you think the Masterchef connection helps to bring people in to Wood?
SW: “That can work both ways. It can put you up there to be shot at as much as it can be an enticement. I’d like to think people are interested because of Masterchef, but that they come back because of our food. You’ve got to look at it as a positive, I wouldn’t be here without any of it.”
Do customers still come in and talk to you about it?
SW: “There are two things that a lot of people say to me when they come into the restaurant; ‘We eat at L’Enclume all the time’ (for whatever reason, that’s what they tell me), and ‘we watched you on Masterchef.’”
Do you think that because the programme has gone on so long (twelve years) that being a Masterchef champion might be losing the impact that it once had?
SW: “I don’t think so. What you do with the opportunity afterwards is far more important than anything else and I think I grasped the mettle with both hands. I’m pushing myself as far as I can with all the things I’m working on which shows in the recommendations and rosettes that we’ve been awarded. You can just go and write a book and do a few food demonstrations, but I want to be considered one of the best.”
You ran a business before opening the restaurant - has that helped?
SW: “I’ve had my own business since winning Masterchef and I’ve got a data science background, so I’m good with numbers and I’m good with detail and consistency. Whether it’s numbers, GPs, the size of the watermelon on the plate or the amount of stock that goes in, it all ties together.”
How’s your work life balance been over the past year?
SW: “I’m here a lot but customers let you know when you’re not in the restaurant. I’ve been away this week and someone sent me a message on Facebook saying ‘don’t you ever work?’ I just thought. ‘this is my first family holiday in over three years after doing regular ninety-hour weeks.’ Then I blocked him.”
How do you respond to criticism?
SW: “Some people are worth the response and some are not. I don’t read Tripadvisor, ever. Facebook seems to be quite nice, Twitter’s instantaneous and Tripadvisor is where people go to complain.”
Have you gathered a clutch of regulars now?
SW: “We’ve got good customer retention. You hope for it when you first open, but you don’t know what you’re going to get. We’re not just an occasion restaurant, we’re an every day restaurant. You can come just for a main course if you like, or the pre-theatre menu, or you can just come in for dessert, it doesn’t matter. People seem to like that.
"One of the things I think we’ve got right is our customer service. It’s just the right side of making people feel special, but it’s not over formal or wanky – I can’t think of a better way to put it.”
You’re looking pretty trim Simon, how do you manage to squeeze your fitness in to your busy schedule?
SW: “I run to work - not just for my body, but for my mind too. It’s not always that straight forward. Sometimes you’ve got paperwork to do, disciplinaries, managers meetings, hotel breakfast set-ups. I’ve actually bought a load of gym equipment, which we keep in the office for the staff to use on split shifts. We’ve got weights, skipping ropes, a stepper, exercise mats. We have team challenges in the kitchen where we get down and do twenty-five press ups every hour.”
What have you got planned to celebrate Wood restaurant one year on?
SW: “All the way through August, every pre-booked table will get a golden envelope. You could win all sorts of things from a day in the kitchen with me, use of the private dining room for you and sixteen friends, you can win meals at the chef's table, wine masterclasses with our sommelier, free cocktails on the night or a cheeseboard with a bottle of wine, your dinner tonight could be on me as a thank you and then spot discounts of 10%-50% off your meal straight away or for future visits. There are even tickets to dine on New Year’s Eve and the chance to win Christmas dinner for you and ten of your work colleagues. So it’s well worth booking to come and eat this month, just for the chance of winning all that.”
You’ve been asked to oversee the restaurant in a hotel in Chester. How did that come about?
SW: “A friend put us in touch with the Intercontinental Group who came for dinner one night and really liked what we do. We’re going to pretty much pick this restaurant up and put it in Chester, plus a really good breakfast and the addition of room service. It’s a great opportunity.”
How are you going to divide your time?
SW: “Anyone that works in Chester will work here for three months to learn how to do it my way. I’ll be over there at least two days per week, as it’s a seven day operation over there and this is only five. There are a couple of other bits in the pipeline as well. So there’s a lot going on.”
You’re getting involved with the upcoming Auction Against Hunger charity event. What’s the plan?
SW: “We are going to be cooking a dish from our tasting menu - Welsh rarebit using a really good Manchester beer, served with Henderson’s gel - a delicious cheese on toast for people who are having a drink.
Why did you get involved?
SW: “It’s a great cause. We were approached around this time last year, but we were just opening this restaurant and although we really wanted to get involved at the time, it just physically couldn’t be done. It’s well worth getting involved and the charity gets probably the highest percentage of proceeds that I’ve seen, so that’s a big draw for me too.”
Can you summarise in one sentence what it takes for anyone who is thinking of setting up a restaurant.
SW: "Be prepared to work harder than you’ve worked for anything in your entire life. But if it feels like work, perhaps it’s not the right career for you."