TV cookery show MasterChef can be a life-changing experience for contestants. It certainly has for the north west’s only winner, Simon Wood.
Simon’s culinary passion began at eight years old, when he won a competition to be anything for a day and he chose to be a chef. Over thirty years later, with his hit restaurant Wood Manchester about to celebrate its first birthday, he has fulfilled his dream.
Wood Manchester has had an astounding first year by any standards. It was awarded two AA rosettes for culinary excellence and has picked up favourable reviews in national newspapers including the Guardian and the Telegraph, where reviewer Michael Deacon described Simon’s tutti-frutti dessert as “pure swooning delirium. Magnificent.”
It’s even more impressive since Simon only started cooking professionally relatively recently. Before he won MasterChef in 2015, Simon spent a decade working in IT and data science at the university on Oxford Road. “But I always cooked,” he says. “As far back as I can remember.”
Simon filled out the application form while at work. “It’s something I always wanted to do,” he says. “I was having a bad morning at work, and it was there on Facebook. It said ‘apply now’. So I did.”
After a lengthy process involving a written application, three rounds of telephone interviews and auditions on camera, Simon didn’t hear anything for weeks. But then he got a call to say he was one of the 40 contestants who had been successful.
“MasterChef is far more nerve-wracking than what you see on telly,” he admits. “My first day I made chicken and chorizo tortellini with arrabiata sauce, pancetta crisp and pea shoots. That’s a lot to do in a short space of time. I had to do interviews with John and Gregg on camera while cooking and I burnt my pancetta crisp three times.
“Then the producer came over to ask more questions because I hadn’t said the right thing. I was nervous. The cameras moved onto the next contestant, and I put the blender on for my sauce. The producers said I couldn’t do that because it was making too much noise.
“You don’t get any of that time back. I learnt as I went along to only make dishes I knew I could do in 60 minutes rather than the 75 I was given.”
As well as learning about timing, MasterChef was also Simon’s first experience of working in a professional restaurant kitchen. He was sent to Theo Randall at the Intercontinental, a restaurant he returned to as a chef after winning the show.
“You always think you can do it, cooking in a professional kitchen,” he says. “But you don’t know until you get there.
“That’s the moment you know whether you’re in it to win it. It’s the tipping point. You know at that moment whether this is what you want for a professional career. You either go to pieces or you rise above it and never want to go back to work again.”
Simon knew at that stage that being a chef was his calling. But he wasn’t prepared for the media attention that came with appearing on the show.
“You’ve got no media training, and suddenly you’re on the TV breakfast sofa and in magazines and on the news,” he says. “You’re just not prepared for all those things.
“It’s quite daunting to think 7.7 million people watched me on TV. To go from being a bloke in computer science to suddenly people stopping me in the street and seeing my face in the papers. It’s a lot to contend with.”
He wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the experience to others, though. “I’d do it again tomorrow,” he says. “The only thing I regret is not taking it all in at the time, because it’s so frantic and you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t really appreciate it until afterwards.”
After winning the show, Simon worked at Theo Randall’s and the Marcus Wareing group in London, and at Greens, Simon Rimmer‘s vegetarian restaurant in Didsbury, before becoming executive chef at Oldham Athletic Football Club. He covered high-end dining in the restaurant, but also ran the catering on match days.
“There were only three of us working in the kitchen and we had to do 600 covers,” he says. “Kick-off is kick-off. There’s no scope for error. It’s all about speed and accuracy. You see that in MasterChef when they have to do a mass catering challenge. It’s absolute carnage, because they’ve never done anything like it before.”
For Simon, having his own restaurant with his own signature dishes has always been the endgame. “In all the places I went to, I never could’ve got my food on the menu,” he says. “And that’s what you really want as a chef.”
As well as attracting loyal regular customers, Wood Manchester has many famous fans. “The Manchester United lads, Juan Mata, Bryan Robson, Roy Evans, The Courteeners, the Corrie cast, they’ve all been in,” reveals Simon. “Gregg Wallace brought his daughter for her 21st birthday, and then she came again last week for her graduation party.
“They come because they like the food. It’s nice to know people like your food, no matter who it is. People travel to come here, too. On Saturday alone we had people from Shropshire, Edinburgh and Southampton.”
The restaurant has also made a name for its ‘Tomahawk Tuesdays’, offering a special weekly deal on the mammoth cut of steak for two to share.
“Tuesday night this week we did 113 covers, and we sold 26 tomahawks,” he says. “We initially got told not to do it, which is the last thing you should say to me. The butcher said we wouldn’t sell that many. But we do. We sell more than he’s ever sold anywhere.
“People might say it’s old hat. And some people have said that recently about tasting menus. But the fact is, people enjoy it. We offer an à la carte menu and a theatre menu, and we offer the tasting menu for those luxurious Saturday nights out.”
Simon is proud to have his restaurant in the First Street development, an area which he thinks needs shouting about.
“We looked all over Manchester for this first restaurant,” he says. “First Street is good. It’s new, it’s up-and-coming. This area needs to make a name for itself now. It’s equal to Spinningfields.
“You can play golf, have chicken wings and pizza, coffee, fine dining, tomahawk steaks, beers next door. You can have health food, go to the cinema or theatre, go to the gym, and stay over at the hotel. There is nothing you can’t do here.”
The area looks to grow even more soon, as a new hotel and office blocks of up to 17 storeys have recently been earmarked for the next phase of the First Street neighbourhood along with new shops and leisure activities.
Simon is opening his second Wood restaurant in Chester next year, and also has “a couple of slightly different ideas in the works,” which he’s keeping under his hat for now. Watch this space.
He travels across the country to visit other restaurants and to get inspiration from his idols. “I went to Sat Bains last week for my birthday, which was great,” he says. “I’m a big fan of Adam Handling at The Frog in London. Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsay, Michael Caines, Daniel Clifford. There’s loads. You never stop learning with food.”
But despite all his travels, Manchester is where his heart is.
“Manchester is my home city and I love everything about it,” he says. “The football, the vibe, the Northern Quarter, the gigs and concerts, I like everything. It’s the best city in the country. It’s the friendliest, it’s the warmest.
“Manchester’s just better than anywhere else, isn’t it?”
To celebrate Wood Manchester’s first birthday, Simon is offering every pre-booked table dining in August the chance to win prizes. Diners will be given a Willy Wonka-style golden ticket with the chance to win a free glass of fizz, a cheese board, drinks masterclass or even a free private dining room for up to 16 guests.