Colleagues told him he would be mad to leave London, but Gary Usher's roaring success with his first restaurant, Sticky Walnut, has vindicated his gamble to relocate to Chester. Tom Vaughan reports
When chef Gary Usher opened his first restaurant, Sticky Walnut, in Chester in January 2010 tight finances made it a straight choice between a Rational combi-oven and new tables and chairs. It came down to whether punters would be pulled in by the look of the site or the precision of the cooking. The combi-oven won, and Usher has never looked back.
Brought up in St Albans, 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. While Jamie's Italian taught him about high-volume numbers and gross profit in the run-up to opening his own site, it was Bruce Poole's cooking that formed the most indelible mark on his culinary attitude. "Chez Bruce instilled in me what it means to eat out and to enjoy food. It taught me about how important portion size is, how not too much is just as important as not too little, and how brilliant simplicity is."
By the time Usher moved to Chester to fulfil the dream of opening his own restaurant, it was this simple, more rustic approach to cooking that formed his culinary DNA. As a result, the rest of the two-storey 40-seat restaurant is in keeping with this - all stripped-back wood and bare tables across the former townhouse.
That rusticity is visible from the off on Sticky Walnut's home-printed daily changing menu. Witness a lamb's tongue starter (£5), which is braised, the skin removed, panéed in Japanese breadcrumbs and served with broad beans mixed with pesto and hummus. Likewise, no more than three elements go into a popular salmon starter (£6.50). The kitchen butterflies and clingfilms into ballotines a salmon, then cooks it at 40°C for 50 minutes in an improvised water bath on top of the stove. It is served with salsa verde and a breadcrumbed deep-fried egg.
Among the mains, the pork belly (£13.50) never leaves the menu. "Not only do I love eating it and cooking it, but it comes in at 85% GP," he says. The belly is stuffed with onion, sage, amaretto and plump French raisins. It is roasted at 250°C for 30 minutes to get the crackling, before being left to slow-cook overnight at 86°C for eight hours. The result is a fantastic jus that Usher mixes into the bacon and lentil accompaniment.
Gross profit is a continuous consideration for a restaurant that tries to keep all mains below £15. Blessed with a fantastic fishmonger and game dealer around the corner, Usher is keen to use as much seasonal game as possible, but was struggling to fit a grouse dish into his GP even when the birds were down to £6.50 each. The answer was bringing in venison as well, using the offcuts to make a sausage and serving one roasted breast of grouse with a venison sausage, Savoy cabbage and blackberries (£16).
Desserts showcase the sophisticated rusticity that runs through the menu. Take, for example, the kitchen's seasonal fruit tart (£5). The team make a daily frangipane tart with whichever fruit is in season - apricots at present - and any slices remaining at the end of service are frozen and folded into a plain ice-cream base with raspberry jam to form a raspberry-ripple and fruit-tart ice-cream to accompany the dish.
In the 18 months since opening, Sticky Walnut has built up a roaring trade, with tables booked out at weekends and cover numbers of 400, vindicating Usher's decision to move north when, as he recalls, many people told him he would be mad to leave the capital.
Would he ever countenance opening up further south in the long term? "I do miss it, and maybe I will go back one day to open another business," he says. "But London was my route to getting my first restaurant, it was just not the place to do it."
11 Charles Street, Hoole, Chester CH2 3AZ
Sample dishes from the menu
Beef tartare, polenta chips and Gem hearts £7
Pea, goats' curd and pickled vegetable salad £5
Oven-roasted beets, fresh ricotta, sticky walnuts and spicy pumpkin seeds £6
Pea and broad bean risotto, toasted walnuts £11
Pan-fried skate, San Marzano tomatoes and capers £16
Lamb's liver, wet polenta, olives and green beans £13
Châteaubriand for two, whole roast carrots, cocotte potatoes, green beans and béarnaise sauce £25 (per person)
Hot chocolate pudding, vanilla ice-cream £6
Praline semifreddo £4.50
Poached pear and elderflower ice-cream, chopped pistachio £5