Mary-Ellen McTague, the chef/owner of Aumbry in Prestwich, Manchester, United Kingdom
Kingdom of Cooks: Mary-Ellen McTague
In the modestly proportioned kitchen, recently extended into what was the garage, Mary-Ellen McTague
brigade of three cooks put out dazzling multicourse tasting menus that draw heavily on her
research into the history of British cooking, work that she
first undertook for Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Bray.
Since opening in 2009, the restaurant has won national critical acclaim-The Telegraph described the food as "mind blowing"-and McTague
has garnered Chef of the Year titles at the influential Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards.
Despite being born into a large food-loving Irish family in Bury, Lancashire, the 35 year old chef says she never planned to have a career in restaurants.
"I was at university in Manchester in the late 1990s, studying languages and working behind the bar at a music venue called the Roadhouse
I was hating it and bored out of my mind.
Then they said they were looking for someone to cook for a band, so I just said, 'I like cooking, I can do that.'"
While catering for the likes of rock band Muse, McTague
was enjoying the kitchen more than her
After reading several restaurant guides cover to cover, she
wrote to five of the top-rated restaurants, including The Fat Duck.
When the call came from The Fat Duck in October 2002, McTague
was more than ready for the challenge.
four year stint, she
climbed the ranks from chef de partie to sous chef and worked alongside the likes of head pastry chef James (Jocky) Petrie, who went on to become head of creative development at The Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen
and is now Head of Development for Brett Graham at the Michelin two-starred The Ledbury in Notting Hill; Matt Orlando who headed up the kitchens at Noma and is now chef/owner of Amass
in Copenhagen, and James Lowe, a former member of the groundbreaking London chef collective The Young Turks and now head chef of Lyle's in Hackney.
"The head chef was Garrey Dylan Dawson, who's now front-of-the-house for Paul Cunningham at Henne Kirkeby Kro
in Denmark, and the sous chef was Ashley Palmer Watts, who was just Ashley Watts at the time, and is now head chef at Dinner-loads
of really brilliant, talented, amazing, dedicated nut cases," says McTague
says that, despite Blumenthal being "the busiest person you ever saw," he
was, in the early days at least, a constant presence in the kitchen.
just an enthusiast, so you would casually mention something, and he'd be grabbing a bit of kitchen paper and drawing a diagram, really getting into how stuff works, like cooking times and temperatures.
If you were interested, you'd get such a detailed response."
On one occasion, however, McTague
would have preferred that Blumenthal wasn't around.
time at The Fat Duck as "inspirational," but it was perhaps the work she
undertook for Blumenthal outside of the kitchen that was to have the most profound effect on her
approach to cooking.
"Food history is a particular area of interest for me.
It was the last job I did for Heston.
I met loads of food historians and had access to all these amazing manuscripts, and I learnt so much.
Growing up in the '80s, the cooking and cuisine of the U.K. was just the laughing-stock of the world, so learning that it wasn't always that way and there was a time when the French sent their chefs over to learn how to roast beef and that's how we became known as 'le rosbif,' because we were the best at it, and not because we were idiots was a real eye-opener."
The late food historian and writer Jane Grigson is a particular influence on McTague, who serves a version of Grigson's oyster pudding on her current menu to accompany roasted Dover sole.
was just the most fabulous writer-so erudite, so knowledgeable," says McTague
"Grigson's original version is an oyster and mussel steamed roly poly pudding.
That involves taking oysters and mussels and cooking them in suet for an hour.
I'm sure it's delicious, but you do end up with very overcooked seafood."
encases raw oysters in fish stock, cream, and lapsang souchong sauce in a raw suet crust and freezes the puddings, which are then cooked to order from the frozen state for 20 minutes, ensuring that everything is cooked to perfection.
In the meantime, McTague
is keeping herself busy, not just with Aumbry
(which she owns with husband, Laurence, and business partner Kate Mountain, with whom she worked at Roadhouse) and her
media commitments, but raising two young children and getting involved with other projects, including the Prest Bake baking cooperative, a community-based initiative to bring locally baked bread back to the area.
"I want a pub, I want a fish and chip shop, and I'd like to do something in Manchester city center," says McTague
, who says working in restaurants has changed her
from being a thinker to a doer.