Our visit came about when I joined 1,192 other backers to fund the Pinion... Potentially Kickstarter. My ‘reward’ was a voucher for a meal at any of Elite Bistros’ restaurants. But things had really kicked off long before that when I first ‘encountered’ Gary Usher and his brand (firebrand might be more appropriate) on social media. Follow that name link and you’ll find his most recent manifestation (since March 2019). Previous to that he prowled around the page for his first restaurant at ‘Sticky Walnut’ but has decided to let them run things their own way without interference from him (it might be worth checking in to see how sincere that decision was over the next few weeks!). Gary is offensively sweary and likely to react or over-react far too quickly to situations. He completely redeems himself by also giving constant signals of being a thoroughly fine, caring human being.
The Sticky crew did without Gary on our visit. He was very seriously otherwise engaged at his latest venture, KALA in Manchester (number six in his bistro family). Building an empire of restaurants is no light matter and Gary is keen to make sure that every one of them delivers his carefully worked out plan - to cook and offer food and service which makes people happy. There aren’t all that many places where you’re guaranteed to have the business’s headline chef cooking your dinner. Gary is not going to buck that trend. He spreads his bounty far and wide but ensures that the quality he can deliver is offered by all the rest of his team. He also stands out as one of those chefs with an impressive academic background. Along with Phil Howard graduating in Microbiology and George Blogg in Geology, Gary more than impresses with his own degree in Twitter (First-Class Honours).
Below you’ll find the original heart and soul of Elite Bistros proving that he is held in high regard by his peers. No-one is invited to offer a menu at Northcote Obsession unless they have serious cooking credentials.
All the same I’m guessing that Gary was bricking it ever so slightly on that night and was happy to step away from ‘fayn dayning’ and return to the expression of “honesty, integrity, passion and pride” at one of his own kitchens the following day.
Shouldn’t distract from the main point of this post any longer - the voucher meal we chose to take where it all started in Chester. The website proclaims “Award winning local bistro in the heart of Hoole, serving humble dishes using the best possible ingredients”. Easy to take that to mean the sourcing of quality foodstuff with a bit of ethical consideration for sustainability thrown in. Which would be half the story. And that particular half of the story can be found here.
The other half of the story - the bigger half if you don’t mind mucked up mathematics - is all about being looked after by the best possible people. Gary, the original heart and soul of this business, now has around 150 people in the North West who keep that heart beating and, in our experience, enrich its soul.
The important bit starts here
It wasn’t a particularly busy service. A seven-strong table of birthday celebrants added to the atmosphere but enjoyed their food far too much to set off any complaints from the Noise Abatement Society.
General Manager, Natalia, greeted us with a smile. Nothing flashy apart from that. New customers are an unknown quantity. Plenty of time to find out more about each other. Natalia has all the qualities you might expect from a seasoned member of the hospitality army. She is most definitely practised at the art of reception. I was so calmed by her quiet, friendly manner that I don’t think I said anything daft until at least another half hour had passed. She served us most of our dishes, explaining where necessary and responding to questions with that ease which reassures and builds successful relationships in any situation.
I can’t reference them all by name but the whole Sticky team contributed to our meal wonderfully well. I’ve started at the top of the seniority list with Natalia. Now for someone who had most recently joined the spread of talent on show.
Harry is one of those fine examples of youth who would grace any environment. University has grabbed him for now but fees and fun-filled frolics don’t get paid for without working for a spot of financial support. Sticky Walnut had taken on Harry for a two week placement and discovered a bit of a treasure. Intelligence is a fine attribute but Harry added an oh-so-important extra - his obvious delight in being where he was and doing what he did. He had brought the desserts to our table as Natalia was giving him experience at front of house. Adam (on the left below) was not in the kitchen that evening but, since all hands are visible in the picture, it’s obvious that proper happy smiles are infectious here and not the result of painfully pinched arse cheeks.
Calm, professional service was the order of the day. And when the business of eating was done and with just the account to settle we entered a relaxed phase which is sadly all too often missed in restaurants. Mrs Cheoff plunged into conversation with Natalia while I enjoyed the terrific company of Harry as he extolled the virtues of ‘working’ with such a fine outfit. It was lovely to discover that he had never heard of Raymond Blanc and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. But he could describe kitchen techniques and processes which far too few people, young or old, will ever understand or practise. Talk inevitably got round to the Bistro Behemoth himself. After just one week Harry had identified Gary Usher as the most driven but sympathetic and caring of employers. It’s quite possible that Harry will eventually graduate and pursue a profession other than hospitality. If so, I sincerely hope he finds a boss as generous as the one who has already shown him such a high standard.
Mrs Cheoff caught me up with her conversation as we walked back to our overnight accommodation. Natalia had also confirmed the influence of Gary Usher… predictably but reassuringly good. Our food was temporarily forgotten. We came away with a warm glow which had been generated by being in the company of a team who obviously work hard but who do so with a genuine love of what they do and a huge pride in what they achieve.
There. I’ve given you the supposed top (Natalia) and bottom (Harry) of the Sticky Walnut personnel when we visited. Which makes a nonsense of such supposition. Those two and all others in between were knitted together to give us a top quality experience. The shelf below contains yet one more award in addition to the ones we saw. But we now know that all of those accolades have been earned and are shared by a team who are fabulously qualified to give customers a warm, fuzzy feeling from door entry to wistful departure.
We loved it. We will be back for more.