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Interview: why MasterChef winner Simon Wood chose First Street Manchester for his first restaurant

Player Kings

As I sit across from 2015 MasterChef winner Simon Wood – just metres away from the site of his new restaurant – one thing is clear. He doesn’t want to be here.

I don’t think it’s me. (I could be wrong). I think it’s more that he’s simply itching to get back. Get back into his new kitchen, get the sweeping brush back in his hand, and get back to work.

There’s an energy about him, an impatience, and given we’re just days away from the launch of his restaurant on First Street, it’s easy to understand why.

So we began right back to the point he left MasterChef – what has he been up to since he won in 2015?

“First of all, I went off to do some stages at different restaurants. Down in London with Marcus Wareing, then Theo Randall at the Intercontinental. After that I had to come home because I was living out of a suitcase on my agent’s sofa.

I went to do some training at Simon Rimmer’s Green’s in Didsbury. And then I took the executive chef role at Oldham Athletic because as great as it was working and learning at all those places, I was never going to get my food on the menu. I was just going to be another body – which is fine, but it wasn’t my ambition.

I took the role at the football club which gave me carte blanche over the menu. I had a fine dining restaurant there in The Boardroom and I’m still the executive chef there, but now the focus is the restaurant. I’ll still be there on match days, and then back here for lunch service – but I like it, I enjoy it. It got me used to the mass catering side of things, upping your speed.

With the football service you’ve got a deadline, you’ve got 500 people – and the game starts at 3pm. Service starts at 1:30pm, and there’s four of us to serve 500 people. That’s the way it works. It’s taught me how to get a push on basically.”

So, why First Street as the site for Wood Manchester?

“I looked all over Manchester. I looked for 12 months and I couldn’t find anywhere. It was all too expensive, or it didn’t fit with me. I just couldn’t find anywhere right. Whereas here, when I came, it’s new, it felt fresh.

You can see the footfall that comes through from HOME and the other brands on site already, and we complement each other.

I know there’s competition throughout the city, we’ve got some great restaurants, but we’re not on the same doorstep as everyone else and that could be advantageous. Who knows?

But in my view, my brand is completely different to what’s on offer here, so we can get a nice eclectic mix of people. I think it’s a really up-and-coming and growing area. I think First Street is the next destination in Manchester. It’ll thrive.

The way that the restaurant is going to work, we have the outside area, then we’ll have the sophisticated lounge, where we’ll have the bar, cocktails and we’ll do special offers. Everyone loves an offer – we know that Manchester certainly does. Some high end bar food at affordable prices.

Then we’ve got the a la carte menu in the restaurant, the chef’s table which is available on Fridays and Saturdays, and then a private dining space upstairs for 20 people. We’ve got a lot of bases covered, but we’re not all things to all people. I think it’s the best way to be.

I think the big open kitchen is something that’s a bit special. I know some other places have it, but we’ve got the service going on right in front of people’s eyes, and you can see that from anywhere in the restaurant. Wherever you are there’s no hiding place.”

So a Gordon Ramsey-eque moment could happen? 

“Those can’t be helped. It could happen.”

How does it feel to know the opening is so close?

“I’m nervous and excited. Most of that’s down to the building that’s going on, not the food. At the forefront of my mind is getting that first plate of food off the pass and in front of somebody.”

Aside from your MasterChef-winning dishes, what is your favourite dish on the menu?

“The beef fillet on the a la carte menu. It’s served with a Madeira sauce, chives, truffle. It’s a great-looking dish. It’s something I could eat every day and really enjoy.

A lot of people want to eat the MasterChef winner’s menu and a lot of the elements from the final are flavours that I like, and they’re already on the menu in different dishes, so it made a lot of sense to just pop that together and have people come and see what they think.”

I let Simon run – literally – back to the restaurant and refrained from double checking my perfume.

It’s definitely not me, Simon. Save me some of that beef?

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