Five minutes with… Aiden Byrne

Aiden Byrne is chef director of D&D London’s new Manchester restaurant 20 Stories, which opens on 1 March.   The chef, who owns The Church Green in Lymm, Cheshire, was the youngest chef to gain a Michelin star aged 22 at Adlards in Norwich. He went on to work at The Commons Restaurant, Tom Aikens Restaurant and Danesfield House before joining The Dorchester in 2006 to head up The Grill restaurant.  In 2008 he left The Dorchester to open The Church Green and in 2013 he opened Manchester House for Living Ventures. He talks to Hospitality & Catering News about his excitement at joining D&D London and why the kitchen is a better place than when he started out as a chef.

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Aiden Byrne

Tell us about new restaurant 20 Stories and your role there:

It’s a stunning setting in Spinningfields, looking out over Manchester.  My role is to set up 20 Stories as two restaurants under one roof – the fine-dining restaurant and the Grill. I’ll open it like it’s my own restaurant, pouring everything into it until it gets to the position where I can look at other things within D&D. I’ll be in there 24/7 until it’s right.

The important thing will be to put both restaurants on a level playing field. Some in my position might put someone in the Grill and let it run itself with the hope that the fine-dining restaurant will get all the glory, but I don’t want to do that. I’ve got passion for and experience in running a grill and I love my pub and my pub food. No matter what level the restaurant is at I love walking out onto the floor and seeing the buzz and listening to people enjoying themselves regardless of what the product is that’s being delivered.  The Grill won’t play second fiddle to the restaurant, they will both be given the same level of detail and attention. I could stand on the other side of the pass and watch the food coming out – to the left there might be a cottage pie or a burger and to the right a plate of scallops, but they will both look as good at each other. They might have different price points and different levels of intricacy, but will share the same ethos and integrity. It is just that one is for people who want casual and the other for something more formal. That is the biggest challenge, but also the thing I’m most excited about.

What made you decide to leave Manchester House and work with D&D London?

Living Ventures is a great company to work for, but it started out as a bar operator, whereas D&D London is a restaurant operator and they deliver so many great restaurants.  When we opened at Manchester House I think we took the dining scene in Manchester – with the help of Simon (Rogan) at The French – to another level. I really enjoyed that time and completely immersed myself in it, but Manchester has changed so much, it keeps on pushing forward. The city’s getting bigger and more people are coming in from outside Manchester, so the dining scene needs to stay on top of its game, because demands get higher and higher.

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I got quite giddy and excited about D&D coming to Manchester. I think 20 Stories will bring a level of service that will match the food we were doing at Manchester House and I’m excited to be able to deliver our product at the level it deserves to be delivered at.

For me, it’s about a new challenge too. I came out of Manchester House about four months prior to leaving to get involved with the multi-site operating and having an influence on all the other restaurants. That was my ambition, but it just didn’t pan out for some reason. There was an issue in Australasia and I felt I’d been put back 10 years and it wasn’t what I wanted. I had an interview with D&D about three years prior to coming to work for them and Tim Bacon (chairman and co-founder of Living Ventures) was still alive then and the ambition was still there, but since Tim’s passing I just thought it was time to move on to a new challenge and this is it.

You were keen to gain a Michelin star at Manchester House, is that something you’re aiming for at 20 Stories?

I’m not going to say ‘no’ but we’re just going to do what we’re going to do and if a star comes then it does, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. It’s not a conversation that has been had with Des (Gunewardena) and Dave (Loewi), it’s not something they’ve brought me on board for. I’m here because I know Manchester and they know I’m passionate about what I do.  I will deliver the product as best as I can and if a Michelin star comes then it will be more a credit to the guys in the kitchen than me, because they’ll be in there all the time. I’ve got a fantastic team around me and so the ambition is there, but it’s not what we’ll be getting out of bed for every morning. Our aim is to try and make a great restaurant.

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You still own your gastropub The Church Green – how are things going there?

It’s going really well. I worked in there Saturday night. I try and work there once a week or once every two weeks to cover.  Not every night, because there are only so many times a 45-year-old man can jump on the stove on a Saturday night –  it’s back-breaking stuff, especially when you’ve been doing it for 30 years. Sometimes it might be for staffing issues, but I do actually enjoy working there and getting stuck in, taking me back 10 years. Doing that and 20 Stories has put a bit of excitement back into what I do. I’m really loving life. I’m extremely content.

What are the biggest issue in the industry and how can we solve it?

Staffing, I think. What we’ve tried to do to combat the problem at 20 Stories is to allow anyone who’s not at management level to work a three-and-a-half-day week. They’ll still do the 48 hours, but we’ll compact them into three-and-half days.  Or we might offer them a full seven days on then a full seven days off.

We need 34 chefs and with other restaurants opening – the Ivy is opening up next door – we need to be competitive. And rightly so. When I was 20 I worked 100 hours a week. I wasn’t being forced to do it, it was just what everyone did. It was the industry norm. Today no-one wants to go to be a chef and work an 80 hour week for £20k a year when they can earn the same for half the hours elsewhere and who can blame them? We have to change the working environment and as a 45-year-old man who runs restaurants I’m in a much happier place and can live with myself without taking the piss out of young kids.

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Everyone at 20 Stories is just so excited. The whole team is champing at the bit to go and that’s great. There will be casualties – some will find it too hard –  but as a whole everyone is excited and motivated and wants to do it.  That’s my job, to keep everyone motivated and let them know it belongs to them, not me. I’m done now. My team are at the beginning of their journey and, if they decide to move on in two years’ time or so, I want them to walk away with their heads held high saying they’ve enjoyed it. That’s my responsibility now to make sure that happens.

Where do you enjoy eating out on your days off?

The last place I took my family to was El Gato Negro in Manchester. It’s a really nice tapas place and Simon’s (Shaw) done some really amazing stuff in there. It’s one of those really nice,relaxed places where you know you’ll get some bloody good food. The time with my family is quite precious, so I try and do stuff that they like to do too. We go to Altrincham Market House which has a food hall and the kids love it, because we give them a tenner and they can go and get what they want to eat.

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Who or what do you admire most in the industry?

The one person who had a massive impact on my career is Tom Aikens. We’ve known each other many years and still talk to each other on a regular basis. He is not in a restaurant as such at the moment, he’s off doing other things. It’s nice to see someone who was so driven and obsessed about Michelin stars enjoying life. That obsession almost ate him up. He’s got two little girls now and he’s busy travelling around the world enjoying his life. That’s an inspiration in itself.

What does the future hold for you?

One of the great things with D&D is that my role will develop as time goes on. I’ll set 20 Stories up then go over and spend some time in Leeds at the restaurants there and hopefully instil a bit of me there. We’re also looking at opening other sites in the north – maybe Liverpool, and Scotland too. It’s just nice for me to be involved with a company that wants to expand and are looking for people to grow with at this point in my career. I’m really excited about this next chapter.

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