Chef Academy students get a taste of things to come

TUESDAY 16th July was a landmark day for six of the Whites Chef Academy’s first-ever cohort of learners, as they were given the five-star treatment by Principal Patron and celebrity chef Aiden Byrne at his new, upmarket Restaurant MCR in Manchester City Centre’s fashionable Spinningfields district.

This informal, introductory event started al fresco with drinks on the restaurant’s outdoor terrace, where Aiden gave the six Macclesfield College students in attendance – Joshua Beard, Hannah Reeves, Annie Carter, Harry Webb, Bradley Williamson and Dylan Massey – their collective brief for the inaugural Whites Chef Academy taster event at the specially-opened Restaurant MCR (normally closed from last service on Saturday evening until Tuesday evening).

Commencing in September 2019, the Whites Chef Academy at Macclesfield College is a pioneering concept for East Cheshire that will revolutionise culinary skills training for 16 to 18 year-olds, whilst renewing their appetite for learning in a real-time, professional kitchen and training environment. Students enrolled at the new Whites Chef Academy will study a full-time, Level 2 course in Professional Cookery. On completion of their course, they will then progress to a guaranteed apprenticeship with some of the region’s top companies including the Marriott Hotel Group, DeVere Hotels, Renaissance Hotels, Evuna, the Alderley Edge Hotel, the Windmill, Sodexo and, of course, Restaurant MCR.

During the briefing period, Aiden – who also runs the award-winning Church Green gastro pub in Lymm with his wife Sarah – discussed his rich and varied industry background, shared his experiences of working in different cities with different dining scenes and outlined his vision for the future of fine-dining here in Manchester. “You could say that Restaurant MCR is the product of my life to date as a professional chef,” states Aiden. A total of £3 million has been invested into the full re-furbishment of the restaurant. “It had to be done right,” he elaborates, “and that’s why £1 million of this money was spent on creating my dream kitchen.

“For practically all of the early part of my career, I never had the opportunity to go out into the restaurant itself and meet the clients I was cooking for, working as I did at the time in large hotels where the kitchens were predominantly large and often noisy, industrial-scale affairs in basements. Here at Restaurant MCR, we have invested a great deal of time, imagination and, of course, money into creating a fully exposed, open-plan cooking and preparation environment that is fully visible to our diners, and one that is truly efficient, ergonomic and cutting-edge in every aspect of its design and installation.

“Not only is it a relaxed and inspiring place in which to work every day,” Aiden continues, “it’s also cool, ultra-clean and quiet. We only use induction hobs. There’s no gas, so therefore vastly reduced heat for our chefs whilst working and, subsequently, much less noise from the kitchen, as it doesn’t require extractor fans and is fully air-conditioned, thus optimising the dining experience and sense of occasion for our customers.”

The six Whites Chef Academy students who attended the taster event were given a tour of the restaurant and kitchen, which even boasts an indoor barbecue and a host of unusual preparation equipment, including sous-vide machines that can prepare food at accurately regulated temperatures. “There are eight chefs in total working in the kitchen,” said Whites student Annie Carter, “with front-of-house staff also here busy getting the restaurant ready for the evening’s service. Yet everything around us is amazingly calm, tranquil and so under-control. It is nothing like I had expected. It would be my ultimate dream to work in an environment like this.”

“Everything, everywhere is spotlessly clean, meticulously laundered, methodically polished and totally conducive to relaxed, modern fine dining,” confirms the College’s Chef Academy Account Executive, Amanda Breward. “Restaurant MCR benefits from a unique atmosphere with everything quietly and carefully planned and prepared to the very last detail… even the background music which serves to add to the overall ambience. It is a truly fabulous place, and we are most fortunate to have someone of Aiden’s undoubted calibre on board with us, as we launch our new Whites Chef Academy.”

In the kitchen, Aiden had sous and commis chefs preparing meat and fish, starters, canapés and pastry, as well as baking fresh bread - Restaurant MCR bakes it own bread every day on the premises. This really showed the students the benefits and efficiencies of working together as a team. Every member of staff at Restaurant MCR evidently knows exactly what they are doing, and they work with unerring professionalism to ensure that everything flows seamlessly to create the ultimate eating experience that is already making waves in the burgeoning Mancunian fine-dining scene.

Following the tour of Restaurant MCR, Aiden started to talk about running a restaurant as a profitable business. This included where he gets his fresh supplies from, and how he personally selects every single ingredient himself (the restaurant gets the vast majority of its locally sourced produce from its own farm in Daresbury, Cheshire). This hands-on approach helps to ensure he knows exactly where every single ingredient on the plate comes from and, when it comes to creating the actual menu, he can guarantee that everything is based on freshly sourced, local ingredients wherever possible. “We do a range of taster menus, which are becoming very popular with our customers. Basically, we do these to showcase the very best local, seasonal ingredients – what’s fresh and at its very best, on that particular day. Furthermore, we make use of absolutely everything. We even make our own charcuterie… nothing is ever wasted.”

As a well-seasoned restauranteur and highly successful businessman, Aiden knows his overheads and in-costs to the penny and, most importantly, what his profit margins need to be at all times. “Any mistakes in the kitchen or front-of-house will adversely affect our bottom line,” he told the Whites Chef Academy students, “so total concentration and dedication to the task, at all times, is absolutely vital for each and every member of the Restaurant MCR family. It’s a 24-hour job,” elaborates Aiden. “I’m never switched off from the restaurant and am always prepping and planning for the next day in the kitchen.”

Aiden’s philosophy – built up from over 20 years of experience at the sharp end of professional cooking and running restaurants – is to take tried-and-tested recipes and give them his own individual twist. To illustrate this, he gave the students a live preparation demonstration, which also highlighted the cost of ingredients, how to work out portion sizes and, ultimately, the all-important cost per plate to customers.

On the morning of the taster event, Aiden had bought a locally-sourced, line-caught sea bass. The live demonstration involved Aiden showing the Academy’s students how to professionally debone and fillet the fish and work out how many portions to divide it into, in order to maximise his returns on the cost price. He also demonstrated how to cook a fish of this quality… how to sear the skin correctly without it curling at the edges, how to cook the flesh to perfection by basting it gently in the pan with fresh thyme and butter – before assembling the final dish, which he did with seasonally fresh turnips from Daresbury, grilled and finished with slivers of fried Duck’s tongue! This was to show the students how ingredients you may not think of as being compatible at first, can actually complement each other perfectly. “My approach to food is to gently push back boundaries, without ever risking the extreme,” Aiden confirms.

Aiden then moved on to talk about his clientele at Restaurant MCR. “All you can ever do as a restauranteur is use the freshest ingredients, cook them well and present them beautifully on the plate. You can’t please everyone all of the time, but it seems we do a pretty good job of keeping our core clientele happy, and adding to it.”

The students were then treated to Restaurant MCR’s six-course tasting menu for the day. This comprised chicken-infused mashed potatoes with mushrooms, sourdough bread with onion-infused butter, pigs-head croquettes with smoked apple purée, smoked ham and pine-infused melon, braised short-rib of beef with pickled seasonal vegetables and a de-constructed Black Forest gâteau.

“All the different tastes to the palette were amazing and each taster dish complemented the other perfectly,” commented Whites Chef Academy student, Bradley Williamson. “To be able to cook at this level day in, day out is something I really aspire to, and I can’t wait for September to come around. I’m chomping at the bit to get started and be mentored by someone of Aiden’s stature.”

Fellow Academy student, Joshua Beard added: “The food was absolutely brilliant and so well thought-out. I feel totally inspired and, being honest, I could eat it all again.” Harry Webb, who also recently enrolled onto the new Whites Chef Academy programme commencing at Macclesfield College in September, was equally effusive in his praise for the dessert course:  “Everything was balanced perfectly. The richness of the chocolate. The sourness of the cherries. The standard was just exceptional and I hope that, one day, I will be able to prepare a dessert like that in my own restaurant.”

Hannah Reeves, who is a vegan and was treated to alternative taster options by Aiden and the Restaurant MCR team, commented on the freshly-baked sourdough bread, which is a bit of an in-house speciality: “The bread had a perfect texture and was so unbelievably tasty, particularly with the olive oil dip. Aiden was great and today has really whetted my appetite for the course.”

The centrepiece of the six-course taster menu was the short-rib fillet of beef, which was succulently tender and complemented beautifully by locally sourced pickled vegetables. “I asked Aiden how long it took to cook a cut of beef so it could be that tender,” said new Academy student, Dylan Massey, “and he took me through the entire process. 12 hours to cook overnight. To hear about that level of planning and preparation has really hammered home the message about teamwork in the kitchen, and I’m raring to go and learn my chosen career under the wing of Aiden. I just feel extremely fortunate and massively inspired.”

Whites Chef Academy Account Executive, Amanda Breward said: “On behalf of everyone at Macclesfield College, I would like to thank Aiden for putting on this tremendous event at Restaurant MCR. He is the consummate professional, and totally the best person we could possibly have to be the Principal Patron of our new Academy. The students presented Aiden with a ‘Thank You’ card and it is so wonderful to see young hearts and minds being won by such an experienced and inspirational figure. After today, I think the sky could very well be the limit for these fabulous young people.”