The Man Behind Manchester's First Michelin Star In 42 Years

After ending decades of 'exclusion' from the infamous food awards, Simon Martin sat down with us to chat about what it meant to win, what’s next for Mana, and how he thinks the food scene is set to change in the city.

By Ben Brown | Last updated 20 December 2019

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One of the burning questions that most people want to ask is just why it took over 40 years for Manchester to get a star, and Simon’s answer is refreshingly straight and honest;

“It’s not a negative outlook on any of the other restaurants in Manchester but it’s just that [Michelin] have very specific criteria and we’ve met them and other people haven’t. I think that’s all it really comes down to.”

Any mention of agendas or Manchester being ‘overlooked’ for so many years is quickly quashed –

“Anyone who thinks there’s any sort of political agenda against the city, I’m almost certain that they’re wrong.”

So it’s clear from the get-go that Simon feels his approach to the whole menu is a key driving force in Mana’s success. A menu and concept that stems from the idea of keeping things simple.

All the way back in April we were lucky enough to review Simon’s gargantuan 19-course menu, and what impressed us most was how he managed to deliver a dining experience that was both high-concept and contemporary, but also homely at the same time.

Chatting about our experience, Simon explains how, “sometimes I actually laugh at what we did when we first opened,” and that he has, “probably learnt the most in this first year than at any time during [his] career.”

The early structure and concept of Mana was based heavily on working with the four seasons, but this quickly dropped off as it was too restrictive for the restaurant and indeed the customer.

Restrictive because the staff would be “making the same dishes every day for three months, and for guests because they’d feel that they couldn’t come back for another three months.”

“So now it’s just a naturally evolving menu in terms of the seasons,” creating a much more fluid experience and ensuring that ingredients are at their very best. Simon proclaims that “the amount of improvement in this first year has been massive” – something that certainly impressed the judges at Michelin.

In the aftermath of such success, Simon is keen to highlight that this improvement is set to continue, without the obvious pressures of operating a restaurant in its first year. With a more established concept and a strong team behind him, he promises there will be much more time for him to experiment, allowing him to enter into a “creative space” where more magic can happen.

So, how does it look for Mana going into the new year? Well, first of all there’s a brand new menu, one that has improved the flow and hopefully “creates more of an experience for the customer.”

The flipside of this is that the menu price has also increased, although Simon is keen to stress that this is in no way a “reaction to any sort of success.”

The simple truth is that to provide a better menu, with more luxurious ingredients – the price will have to increase and indeed it’s still true that Mana is “nowhere near the most expensive one-star menu in the country” – not by a long shot.

A look at the impressive new menu confirms this, with a myriad of gastronomic delights like wild trout roe, oysters poached in chicken fat, monkfish liver and a caviar and sea urchin chawanmushi, which after a quick Google is a kind of Japanese egg custard dish.

“I’m a stickler for luxury ingredients,” Simon explains, “because that’s what I like and that’s what I want to cook. I want everybody here to work with the very best ingredients.”

So 2020 looks set to be a period of continuous improvement for Mana, but how is this success and recognition set to change the food and drink landscape in the city as a whole? How is the food scene set to change in light of such a momentous jolt to the system?

“I definitely think it’s a very positive thing for Manchester,” if not for the existing venues but also for new ones that may be more inclined to head to the city. “Those operators and chefs who actually (wrongly) believed there was a political agenda from Michelin, and so strayed away from Manchester, will be more inclined to move up and set up here.”

In addition, the back end of 2019 will see Tom Kerridge open up The Bull & Bear in the new Stock Exchange Hotel, and Simon is excited to see what he can do. “From what I know it’s a similar concept to The Coach in Marlow (Tom’s one-star gastropub), so with a strong team and a tried and tested formula, hopefully we’ll be joined by another restaurant next year.”

And current operators in the city? Well, of course there are still many people out there who believe that we still don’t need Michelin to tell us what makes a good restaurant or not. And, the argument that has raged for years still stands – does the city even need recognition from Michelin?

Obviously the recognition has many benefits for the city, but could it have changed the restaurant scene entirely? Are restaurateurs now solely going to concentrate on trying to appeal to the powers at Michelin instead of providing something for a city that has traditionally rejected the concept of high-end dining and more formal experiences?

With many outstanding restaurants in and around the city; The French, Wolf At The Door, Erst, Enxaneta, Where the Light Gets In (Stockport), The Creameries (Chorlton) – have the doors now been swung open for the city to get more recognition next year or are they still stopping short?

Only time will tell. In a post-Mana + Michelin landscape it’s difficult to ascertain where things are going and how the industry will react.

Simon is keen to highlight just how much the city has changed in recent years; “It’s a very different city… people want a progressive and ever-changing food scene here,” and with Mana they’ve got that. Can the city’s other operators step up to the mark and provide the same? Only time will tell.

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Mana, 42 Blossom Street, Manchester, M4 6BF
0161 392 7294