Kingdom of Cooks: Mary-Ellen McTague
Andy Lynes - July 10th, 2014
A converted cottage down a side street in the north Manchester suburb of Prestwich is the unlikely location of Aumbry, one of Britain's most exciting and distinctive modernist restaurants. In the modestly proportioned kitchen, recently extended into what was the garage, Mary-Ellen McTague and her brigade of three cooks put out dazzling multicourse tasting menus that draw heavily on her research into the history of British cooking, work that she first undertook for Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Bray. Since opening in 2009, the restaurant has won national critical acclaim—The Telegraph described the food as “mind blowing”—and McTague has garnered Chef of the Year titles at the influential Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards.
Despite being born into a large food-loving Irish family in Bury, Lancashire, the 35 year old chef says she never planned to have a career in restaurants. “I was at university in Manchester in the late 1990s, studying languages and working behind the bar at a music venue called the Roadhouse. I was hating it and bored out of my mind. Then they said they were looking for someone to cook for a band, so I just said, ‘I like cooking, I can do that.’”
While catering for the likes of rock band Muse, McTague realized she was enjoying the kitchen more than her studies. After reading several restaurant guides cover to cover, she wrote to five of the top-rated restaurants, including The Fat Duck. “I got a phone call from Heston, which was nice and surprising, and he said come down for lunch. We chatted for ages, which was amazing. He said, ‘We don’t take on people with no experience, so you need to go away and get some experience and then come back,’ so that’s what I did.”
McTague’s first professional kitchen was the highly regarded Sharrow Bay hotel in the Lake District, famously the birthplace of sticky toffee pudding. “They had girls in the bakehouse and the pastry section, but no woman had ever worked in the main kitchen. It was rural, and I think both head chefs, who had been there for 30 years, were a bit horrified. They just didn’t speak to me. But after they got their heads around it, they were all right. I learned knife skills, sauce bases, stocks, roasting, confiting—it was a really good solid grounding in cooking, better than going to college for three years. I was very lucky I started there.”
McTague stayed two years at the hotel, during which time she met future husband Laurence Tottingham. “He got a placement through his college at the Big Cedar Lodge resort in Missouri, and I followed him. I was out there for about nine months, and it was really good fun. It wasn’t fine dining, but it was good cooking skills, making Southern food like catfish, steaks, hams, biscuits and gravy, and all that stuff. I did all sorts of different things. I learned how to do 500 covers a night, how to run a grill section, run a pizza oven, and do ice carving. I even learned how to carve a duck out of a melon!”
When the call came from The Fat Duck in October 2002, McTague was more than ready for the challenge. During her four year stint, she climbed the ranks from chef de partie to sous chef and worked alongside the likes of head pastry chef James (Jocky) Petrie, who went on to become head of creative development at The Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen and is now Head of Development for Brett Graham at the Michelin two-starred The Ledbury in Notting Hill; Matt Orlando who headed up the kitchens at Noma and is now chef/owner of Amass in Copenhagen, and James Lowe, a former member of the groundbreaking London chef collective The Young Turks and now head chef of Lyle's in Hackney.
“The head chef was Garrey Dylan Dawson, who’s now front-of-the-house for Paul Cunningham at Henne Kirkeby Kro in Denmark, and the sous chef was Ashley Palmer Watts, who was just Ashley Watts at the time, and is now head chef at Dinner—loads of really brilliant, talented, amazing, dedicated nut cases,” says McTague. “It was a tiny kitchen, but super organized, and what I loved about that place was, the kitchen was a nightmare, but it was populated by people who gave so much of a shit about what they were doing that they made it work, and not only made it work, but made it better all the time.”
McTague says that, despite Blumenthal being “the busiest person you ever saw,” he was, in the early days at least, a constant presence in the kitchen. “He's just an enthusiast, so you would casually mention something, and he'd be grabbing a bit of kitchen paper and drawing a diagram, really getting into how stuff works, like cooking times and temperatures. If you were interested, you'd get such a detailed response.”
On one occasion, however, McTague would have preferred that Blumenthal wasn't around. “You couldn’t have a bad day ever. It wouldn’t ever go unnoticed. The standard had to be there. I mucked up a parfait once in the middle of service. If I hadn’t looked like I wanted to die, I would have been absolutely bollocked, but I think they thought I would cry. In the end, Heston didn’t speak to me—it was Ashley, and he was just like, ‘Shall we move on?’ It was an awful service, and it was all my fault, and it’s the worst when you work for someone you have so much respect for.”
McTague describes her time at The Fat Duck as “inspirational,” but it was perhaps the work she undertook for Blumenthal outside of the kitchen that was to have the most profound effect on her approach to cooking. “Food history is a particular area of interest for me. It was the last job I did for Heston. I met loads of food historians and had access to all these amazing manuscripts, and I learnt so much. Growing up in the '80s, the cooking and cuisine of the U.K. was just the laughing-stock of the world, so learning that it wasn’t always that way and there was a time when the French sent their chefs over to learn how to roast beef and that's how we became known as ‘le rosbif,’ because we were the best at it, and not because we were idiots was a real eye-opener.”
The late food historian and writer Jane Grigson is a particular influence on McTague, who serves a version of Grigson’s oyster pudding on her current menu to accompany roasted Dover sole. “She was just the most fabulous writer—so erudite, so knowledgeable,” says McTague. “Grigson’s original version is an oyster and mussel steamed roly poly pudding. That involves taking oysters and mussels and cooking them in suet for an hour. I’m sure it's delicious, but you do end up with very overcooked seafood.”
At Aumbry, McTague encases raw oysters in fish stock, cream, and lapsang souchong sauce in a raw suet crust and freezes the puddings, which are then cooked to order from the frozen state for 20 minutes, ensuring that everything is cooked to perfection. “The pastry has to be an exact thickness. It’s quite technical. When it goes wrong, it’s a nightmare. It’s one of those things that just has to be right.”
McTague’s dedication to British ingredients (“everything except sugar, coffee, tea, and olive oil”) and wonderfully Northern British touches, like homemade sourdough bread served with drippings and gravy (rendered beef fat infused with fried beef rib trim and reduced stock made with more trim and beef bones) and a refined take on the traditional Bury dish of black peas and vinegar (a puree of the braised black peas flavored with peppermint essential oil and served with battered and deep-fried cubes of malt vinegar jelly), has brought her cooking to the attention of the media, and she’s appeared on the long running BBC TV series Great British Menu for the past two years.
“If I didn’t have my own business and I didn’t have staff and suppliers to worry about, it’s not something I'd be interested in at all. I don’t enjoy the process. It’s a means to an end, definitely. Not only does it bring customers in, it broadens opportunities. So, for example, I think the writing work I've done for The Guardian newspaper has possibly come about because of appearing on the show.”
Despite all the attention, there is one publication McTague is still trying to catch the eye of. “Do I want a Michelin star? Yes. You don’t cook in order to get awards, but I do feel that what we have currently is not representative of what we do. In previous years, there were ups and downs. There were times when, yes, we fully deserved to have a star and probably moments when we didn’t. But I definitely felt from just over a year ago, we absolutely deserve one. I’ve given up worrying about it. If you're doing what you believe in and what you love, then eventually people will notice.”
In the meantime, McTague is keeping herself busy, not just with Aumbry (which she owns with husband, Laurence, and business partner Kate Mountain, with whom she worked at Roadhouse) and her media commitments, but raising two young children and getting involved with other projects, including the Prest Bake baking cooperative, a community-based initiative to bring locally baked bread back to the area.
“I want a pub, I want a fish and chip shop, and I’d like to do something in Manchester city center,” says McTague, who says working in restaurants has changed her from being a thinker to a doer. “I’m not naturally a practical person, but I think, through sheer force of will, I’ve managed to get over that and learned to survive and constantly try to learn stuff and get faster and more efficient. When you’re working 80 to 90 hours a week, there’s just not a lot of time to reflect. You’re never sitting around thinking. You’re just doing all the time.”