Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

“There’s a difference between being controversial and being honest,”

Michael O’Hare tells me. He’s the Michelin-starred chef off of the telly, the one with the big hair and the Northeast accent that makes me feel right at home. He’s also chef-patron at The Man Behind The Curtain, the most highly rated restaurant in Leeds. “I think people are too scared to say what they actually think and say things just to please people,” he continues.

Let’s summarise O’Hare’s life so far in a nutshell, because it’s what he’s doing right now, in Morzine, that we’re most interested in. Born in 1981 in Middleborough, he studied classical and modern ballet between the ages of 11 and 18 before moving to London to begin a degree in aerospace engineering. An interest in cooking with fresh produce was born, but university wasn’t for him and he returned to the northeast to work in a call centre in Stockton-on-Tees. O’Hare cut his teeth in some of the North’s finest hotel and restaurant kitchens before heading to Noma in Copenhagen then opening his own restaurant, The Blind Swine in York. In 2014, with a tiny budget of just £30,000, he opened The Man Behind The Curtain, a 40-cover fine dining restaurant in the centre of Leeds with an avant guarde style and an exclusive tasting menu.

“My team and I, and all the chefs that came over, buzzed off Morzine.”

We first saw O’Hare on our TV screens back in 2015, when his dish ‘Emancipation’ (cod loin, cod dashi, squid ink powder, scorched gem lettuce and gold shoots, just to jog your memory) won him the fish course on The Great British Menu. In October of the same year, O’Hare was awarded a Michelin star, a staggering achievement for such a young restaurant opened on such a small budget. He appeared as a guest judge on MasterChef in 2016 and he’s been a regular on The Great British Menu ever since.

And then he’s in Morzine. “In 2017 I stayed in Morzine for a week with Treeline Chalets. I went out riding for a couple of days with Duncan from Treeline and we got chatting about what might be possible. Morzine was perfectly accessible. When I got back to Leeds I spoke to the guys and it went from there.” The end result? Shred and Butters, two three-night dining experiences at Treeline’s Chalet Doyen in January 2019, hosted by Michael and his best chef mates, each taking it in turns to prepare dinner. The whole event sold out quickly, and I’m sure that by the time you’re reading this interview, ‘Morzine 2.0’ in January 2020 will be long sold out too.

“My team and I, and all the chefs that came over, buzzed off Morzine. It’s big enough that something is always happening, but small enough not to get lost. There’s always a sense of community,” Michael tells me. “We ate at
Hideout Hostel and a few French restaurants. The Hideout guys were really accommodating and the food was delicious.”

With his eye-catching hair and his big personality, it’s perhaps not surprising that O’Hare has caught the attention of the UK media. They call him the ‘enfant terrible’ of British dining and I wonder how that sits? “Sounds cool, but it doesn’t mean anything really. Being an enfant terrible in fine dining is like being the enfant terrible of the library. It’s better than being known as the smelly c**t of British dining I suppose.” Indeed. But in a world where restaurants are launching and failing every day, what’s better for business? Appearing on the telly, or achieving a Michelin star? “In the short term, appearing on telly. There are loads of TV chefs who have successful restaurants but are nowhere near to achieving a Michelin star. If you look at the Jamie Oliver situation it shows that this can also backfire; it’s not bullet proof. I think having a star when you’re a fine dining restaurant is essential and allows you to justify the prices you need to charge to serve the products you want to serve.”

“It’s better than being known as the smelly c**t of British dining I suppose.”

Modern day Morzine is home to some really clever chefs; career chefs who’ve managed to combine their love for food with their love for mountain pursuits. I wonder how O’Hare keeps himself balanced, what with all the TV appearances, restaurant waiting lists, and all. “The big thing is that work needs to be enjoyable and it needs to be a vocation,” he explains. “Having people around you who are your friends takes the sting from the long hours.” But what about holidays? “Making sure that you do things that you love, like our Morzine trip, make it seem like it’s not work. It’s important to have the right priorities; the restaurant is important but nowhere as important as my son. If he’s happy then I’m happy.”

“Before I had Hedi (Michael’s two year old son), I was focused on making the restaurant a success for me,” he continues. “Since having him it’s about making sure it’s a success so I can give him the life I want to. I don’t know if my attitude has changed, but my direction has.” And what if that direction were an outpost of The Man Behind The Curtain in Morzine? As each new winter season approaches we read about ‘celebrity’ chefs opening swanky new restaurants in fancy resorts across the Alps. Two-starred chef Phil Howard in La Plagne for example, or Tom Kerridge’s annual popup in Courmayeur. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, surely? “Never say never, but I live in England and I’d never spend too much time away from my son or my restaurant. To open a restaurant abroad would need full commitment and attention and I’d be uncomfortable not monitoring that constantly.” Personally, I think O’Hare would fit right in. “A restaurant within a hotel or something like that, where’s it more controlled would be more possible.” And the food? “I’d do small plates of classic mountain food and French dishes. Mountain food is so delicious, but it’s so heavy and enormous!”

Aside from the incredible plates of food popping up all over our Insta feed during ‘Morzine 2.0’ in January 2020, our valley will become home to a plethora of Michelin-starred chefs over a two-week period. From 5 January O’Hare will share the Chalet Doyen kitchen with chefs Gareth Ward, Tom Halpin and Matt Orlando. On 8 January he’ll be joined by chefs Brad Carter and Tom Brown and from the 12 by Peter Sanchez and Michael Wignall. Chefs Tom Sellers and Gary Usher complete Morzine 2.0 with a collective eight Michelin stars between them. Surely that’s the most concentrated collection of top rate chefs ever assembled in a ski resort?

“We were really honoured to host such legendary and inspiring chefs in Chalet Doyen and to welcome them all to Morzine,” Treeline Chalets‘ Duncan Ross told Morzine Source Magazine. “It was unreal to see their work in person in such an intimate environment and awesome to go riding with them too!” You certainly wouldn’t be late back to the chalet after après if one of these chefs were cooking dinner! “I can’t think of a better holiday; some of the world’s best chefs cooking for you, whilst you ride some of the best mountains in the world!”

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