Would it be the impulsive chef who makes a virtue of never planning anything, the guy who indulges in sweary tirades, boisterous banter and public spats via the @StickyWalnut Twitter account? Or the hard-working chef-patron (a title that he shies away from incidentally) who’s building up a mini-empire of bistros across the North West?
First came Chester’s Sticky Walnut in 2011, then Heswall’s Burnt Truffle in 2015 after a £100,000 Kickstarter campaign. And now we have Hispi on School Lane in Didsbury Village, a £350,000 bistro part-funded by another Kickstarter campaign that raised almost £60,000.
Serious about food
In the event, I’m struck by how serious Usher is about what he’s doing. Sure there’s a liberal smattering of swear words, but this is clearly a man who takes genuine interest in the food produced by his kitchens, the team that makes it happen, and the customers that keep returning to eat it.
No dish is allowed on one of his menus until Usher approves it first.
It’s an approach that seems to be working. Sticky Walnut was given a rave review by Marina O’Loughlin in The Guardian, as was Burnt Truffle by Jay Rayner in The Observer and Lisa Markwell in The Independent on Sunday, and Hispi recently secured a five-star write-up from Simon Binns in CityLife.
Sticky Walnut also won Menu of the Year at the 2013 Catey Awards and AA Restaurant of the Year for England in 2014, and Hispi picked up two AA rosettes just weeks after its opening on 7 October 2016.
“Business is good,” he told me, “Sticky, Burnt and Hispi all make money. In particular, Hispi has got off to a fucking amazing start.
“We’re only a couple of months old but Hispi’s opening couldn’t have gone better. It’s been so well received.
“Getting two rosettes straight away in the kitchen after what fucking eight weeks, they’ve nailed it here, they’ve fucking nailed it here in my opinion. And then also, regardless of my opinion, financially they’re doing well. The place is making money, it was making money straight away.
“And Sticky’s a little machine, it just looks after itself. Burnt makes money as well, it’s still on the up.”
I spy an excellent bistro
I was already a fan of Sticky Walnut having paid a visit to Chester on the strength of friends’ recommendations alone, but I finally made it along to Hispi a couple of weeks ago (unannounced and paid for in full). I was bowled over by the quality of the place.
The homemade bread (£3) is worthy of any bakery it really is, and the hugely popular Braised Featherblade (£18.50) is hands down one of the tastiest dishes I’ve had in Manchester – melt in the mouth just doesn’t do justice to this perfectly cooked hunk of meat:
If I was looking for faults, the desserts didn’t quite live up to the same high standards. Both the Barley Malt Beignets (£6) and Poached Yorkshire Rhubarb with Whipped Fromage Blanc (£6.50) felt unbalanced to me, oversized and slightly out of keeping with the finesse of the rest of the menu.
But that’s a minor quibble, it’s still one of the best restaurants in the steadily improving foodie destination that is south Manchester (alongside Greens, Chorlton Green Brasserie, Gray’s Larder, Bar San Juan and Thai Spice since you ask).
Wasn’t Hispi supposed to be in Chorlton?
The main problem with Hispi for many – the elephant in the room – is its location. It was never supposed to be in Didsbury.
Usher’s original plan was to open Hispi at a site near Oddest on Wilbraham Road in Chorlton. He launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £50,000 towards the opening costs, and ended up receiving pledges of £58,650 from no fewer than 718 backers on Kickstarter.
But then disaster struck – he was unable to secure the Chorlton premises that he’d crowdfunded for due to problems around the ownership of the site. He looked at more than 20 other sites around Chorlton and put in several offers but couldn’t get anything over the line – until somebody suggested he check out the former Jem & I site in Didsbury Village.
“What happened with us, we did a project for an area, a specific area and a specific site,” he said. “It fell through after we achieved our goal, after we’d successfully crowdfunded our £50,000 target the site fell through. There was nothing I could do, it was completely out of my hands.
“When we told the crowdfunders that we had to move it, a lot of them were justifiably really unhappy that we couldn’t then open in that area. It was only a few miles away but still it wasn’t what we’d told them.”
The age-old Chorlton/Didsbury rivalry
At this point, I really feel for Usher. For a time he was public enemy number one on the Chorlton Facebook group – a Chester chef unwittingly wading into the age-old Chorlton/Didsbury rivalry – and it’s clear that the criticism he received back then still stings.
He apologised to those who pledged money to launch Hispi in Chorlton. More than that, in fact, he offered to reimburse any backers who didn’t want to support Hispi opening in Didsbury – around £700 of pledges were duly returned.
“Some people were really unhappy that it wasn’t in the original area that we’d crowdfunded,” he explained. “So I said anybody that’s really pissed off, we’ll give the money back. It was probably quite a dangerous thing to do because if £20,000 of pledges had to go back, we’d have been fucked.
“It made me feel really down because I thought I’d let everyone down. The thing about crowdfunding is that it’s such a positive thing and it’s supposed to be positive.
“It’s a group of people that you don’t even fucking know who are coming together to make something happen. For that to be overshadowed by people wanting their money back, it just made me feel quite down about it.”
Champagne bar anyone?
But time moves on, Hispi’s now up and running, and Usher’s already looking ahead to the next challenge.
At this point his body language transforms and he’s full of enthusiasm again. It’s obvious that he has big dreams for Elite Bistros of the World (the parent company for Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle and Hispi whose self-important name was meant “as a pisstake”). Turning dreams into reality is clearly a big part of what motivates him.
One idea in the works involves transforming Hispi’s flat roof fronting School Lane into a terraced area, creating a champagne bar of sorts.
“At some point there’s going to be a terrace, we’re possibly going to do it this year,” he revealed. “We’d have it mainly for lunchtimes and summer dining. It’d be lovely if someone could have a couple of glasses of champagne before their dinner.
“Hispi’s making money. We’re only a couple of months in but we’ll have a look at the terrace idea and, if it works, we’ll do it this summer.”
Ushering in a new restaurant
There’s also the small matter of a fourth restaurant on the horizon, provisionally called Wreckfish, which is earmarked for a former watchmakers’ building just off Bold Street in Liverpool city centre.
If it comes off, the site would be by far Usher’s biggest restaurant to date. Sticky Walnut has 45 covers, Burnt Truffle has 60 covers with another 30 on an outdoor terrace and Hispi has 80 covers, but Wreckfish has capacity for a whopping 200 covers.
Making this happen requires still more money so he’s going back to crowdfunding again. Usher’s just getting started with his latest campaign to raise an eye-watering £200,000 for the Liverpool restaurant (the crowdfunding page is due to go live soon).
It’s still early days, of course, and he’s not the sort of chef to wax lyrical about any high-minded concept for Liverpool other than to confirm that it’ll stick with the same ethos as Sticky, Burnt and Hispi.
In his words, “neighbourhood bistros, unfussy food, all prepared by us, in a relaxed environment”. Sounds like a plan to me.