On meeting Hilton Manchester Deansgate’s executive chef Dave Ashton, you can tell he’s a man full of ambition.
But after a brief chat overlooking Manchester in the Cloud 23 bar, it’s clear he’s not resting on his laurels.
He began life as a kitchen porter, working his way up the ranks in the kitchen to executive chef.
He has previous experience at The Lowry Hotel and working for several British hotelier chains including: Village, Devere and Q hotels.
We sat down with the executive chef to talk about his plans for the restaurants at the Hilton.
He said: “We want fine dining to be more affordable and accepted by people in Manchester. I think some people are a bit intimidated with pretentious menus, and what’s not what we’re looking for here.
“What I’m looking to do is to present familiar and loved foods in a way that’s surprising, modern and unique.
“Manchester’s known for it’s dirty food, and we all love it, who doesn’t?
“But we’re aiming for quality, a bit of finesse and some really bold punchy flavours.”
Asking about the highlights of their current menu, Dave said that the focus now is on the main elements of dishes, and the proteins they feature.
He continued: “We’ve had a few great highlights this year but at the moment we are focussing on the quality of our protein in the dishes.
“The main element, whether it be Creedy Carver duck, Herdwick lamb from Cumbria or Orkney scallops which arrive hand delivered fresh, still alive, it all has to be amazing quality.
“If you have a fantastic main ingredient, you can build around it by using seasonal accompaniments, it make things as good as you can be.
“The menu writes itself seasonally, with what’s available.”
Showcasing some of Manchester’s fine produce, the restaurant uses sourdough delivered on foot from from Holy Grain, delicious charcuterie from Northern Cure, Seven Bro7ers beer from Salford, and Cloudwater too.
And the new team at Podium and Cloud23 restaurants are already making waves in the industry.
This year, they took part in the Hilton’s annual Venture Beyond: Flavour and Flair competition, where international Hilton restaurants compete for bragging rights as top dog in the hotel chain.
They made short work of the UK, Ireland and Israel competition, as outright winners.
This meant the qualified for the EMEA finals, which include restaurants from all over Europe, Middle East and Africa. It represents one third of the Hilton’s worldwide offerings.
They were narrowly pipped to the number one spot by the Hilton in Barcelona, which has a Michelin star, losing out by just three points.
Dave said: “I think that made it worse really, losing out by just three points.
“They’ve got a Michelin star and have just been voted one of the best restaurants in Spain, so there’s no shame in that. The team we beat from Croatia also had a Michelin star, so it just shows how far we’ve come.
“It was great to meet chefs from around the world, a real experience.
“We’ve set some high standards this year already, with the two AA Rosettes, but I’m really looking to push us forward into the new year. To get another and get us up to three would be a real highlight and it’s something we’re looking at.”
As the industry dipped during Covid and things were quiet, Dave took over his role back in January.
But unusually, he explained how the lull in proceedings allowed him to carve his own niche and put his own stamp of authority on the restaurant’s direction looking forward.
“It has without doubt been a crazy year here to be honest. When I first arrived the whole of the banquet space was hired out to Manchester Crown Court – and that was a big portion of our business on hold.
“We were only open a few days a week up at The Cloud 23 and the restaurant was serving burgers, steak, and fish and chips.
“Things were slow, but in some respects, this was a blessing for me, getting my feet under the table.
“We figured out the process and what was needed in the journey we were about to set out on.
“We all thought, its been about two years now on and off, so let’s forget how we used to do everything and re-learn it all again in the right way.
“Luckily the bosses fully backed what we are trying to achieve here. I don’t think previously it’s ever been a place renowned for it’s food, but with the rosettes now and a desire to push things forward, we can make it a special place.
“Great food, and that view, it just sells itself.”
Looking to the future now, Podium will be putting out a five course taster Menu come March in a bid for their third AA rosette.
But Dave highlighted how he didn’t want to turn people off trying something a bit different.
“We’re going to be putting on special events and taster menus to push things in the new year.
“The taster menu will be a real chance to showcase what we can do here – but we want to make it affordable.
“There are some restaurants doing tasters in the city for about £150-160 a head and we don’t want to be doing that. Not in the current climate.
“I really like what they are doing at Six by Nico – six courses of different and varied food for £37. It’s a great business model and because the place is always rammed and people come away tasting a lot of things, it’s a great experience.
“We want people to have that opportunity to taste things and enjoy them and do something they wouldn’t normally do. But not put ourselves in a bracket where it becomes too stuffy, or is too unaffordable.
“I hate that aspect of dining. I want it to be casual and enjoy themselves and have a laugh.
“We want to take the pretentiousness out of it.
“People having the confidence and putting smiles on faces. That’s what we’re all about.”