Danny Wallace – Winner of Observer Food Monthly Awards 2019: Young Chef of the Year
Last year, 23-year-old British chef Danny Wallace won the Observer Food Monthly Awards 2019: Young Chef of the Year. Working then as chef de partie at Kala in Manchester, Northern England, with his mentor, the controversial and outspoken chef and restaurateur Gary Usher, Danny had previously spent time in the kitchens of the Grosvenor Hotel in Chester, the Square in Mayfair and Angela Hartnett’s restaurants, Merchants Tavern and Murano.
Before Danny found his feet in the kitchen, he had to overcome many obstacles. His father was an alcoholic, who died when Danny was three. His mother, who was in prison, committed suicide soon after. He was eventually fostered by a teacher, who retired early to look after Danny.
It was when he was an early teen that Danny began taking an interest in cooking. He was offered an apprenticeship at the Grosvenor, but turned to drink and drugs, and only stayed 9 months. He eventually contacted Gary Usher – who has opened up about his own troubled teenage years spent shoplifting and taking drugs, and how cooking saved him in a TV documentary The Rebel Chef – and Gary offered Danny a role at his Chester-based restaurant, Sticky Walnut. There the young chef honed his talents and found his own personal stability.
We chat to Danny about working through difficulty, winning the prestigious OFM award, and what he sees for the future.
So, Danny, how did you feel when you heard you had won the OFM award?
I was gobsmacked, it was an amazing honour, when they phoned me I thought it was someone having a laugh. I couldn’t believe it.
I think my story, what I’ve been though and getting over drink and drugs, and being able to bounce back and make something of my life, was really behind me winning the prize.
Well, your story is very inspiring, but I think you’re being too modest, you’re clearly a very good cook. So what first attracted you to kitchen?
From an early age I had an interest in cooking and then I did work experience when I was 15 through school. I really liked the environment, and everyone else there was weird and wonderful, so I fitted in. It was the first time anyone really said I’d done something well, I didn’t do well at school, but people were impressed with me in the kitchen.
You had a tough start in life, and have overcome many difficulties – has this influenced how you are in the kitchen?
I think so, yes. I’m thick skinned now, I have been through a lot. The kitchen environment is tough, and people can crack up under the pressure, when the chef is shouting at you, but it doesn’t get to me so much. So it I think it has helped in that way – kitchens can be very hard to work in.
How do you handle the stress of the kitchen?
It is stressful work, and while in previous years I would handle it by drinking heavily, now I go to the gym, and try to get out of the house. I do stuff to keep myself busy.
I might go out with the other cooks on a Saturday night and have a pint, but I’ll just stick to one pint and then head home. If I stay out any longer then I’ll be tempted to drink with the others. And then it’s just one more, and another one, and another one …
What would you say is the toughest part of being a chef?
For me, when I make mistake, I feel more bad about myself than anyone else could make me feel bad. The have been many times that I feel I won’t be good enough or I’ll never go forward and achieve. But you’ve just got to keep telling yourself that you will get better, and it does get easier. That’s the toughest part for me.
You’ve trained at some prestigious restaurants – what are some of the most important things you’ve learned?
I would say time keeping, and keep my section clean – your whites and everything have to look immaculate. I would also add resilience. There have been hard times at the restaurants, plenty of up and downs, but you have to keep going, keep pushing. With 16 or 17 hour days, and you’re exhausted and feeling like it’s too hard, you have to remember you are progressing, improving and learning.
Gary Usher has been a big part of your life, is that right?
I’ve known Gary since I was 16, and have worked for him on and off ever since. He was the one who got me my job trials in London. He’s been amazing, and we have a special bond. He’s done a lot for me, helped me when I’ve been down, even driven down to London from Manchester when I was in a bad place. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. He’s a friend now, as well as, sometimes my boss.
Gary is known for financing some of his successful restaurants through crowdfunding. What is your take on crowdfunding for restaurants?
I put in some money for the crowdfunding too, and I helped Gary open Burnt Truffle and Pinion Bistro, so I’ve been involved with crowdfunding, and getting the restaurant together before it opened, getting kitchens in and so on.
I think it’s excellent. You just need to get together the right pitch that will appeal to people, and it helps if you have a big following. If the bank won’t give you a loan, then it’s a great way of getting together the funding. Some people say it’s a lot of money to give away but it’s essentially paying for your lunch in advance, so I think it’s good for the guests as well as it was for Gary.
You’ve just moved to a new restaurant, the Easy Fish Co.
Yes, I’ve just started a new job. It’s a fish restaurant near where I live so I can just walk to work, which is handy. It’s nothing fancy, there’s a fishmongers at front, and we come up with different dishes according to what’s in stock. It’s simple, nice food, but cooked really well.
Would you say you’ve got to the stage of having a cooking style?
I’m getting there, but I wouldn’t say I’m quite there yet. I think my cooking is like something you’d find at a good pub, something like Tom Kerridge, in a relaxed atmosphere. In fancy restaurants, I always feel out of place. I often eat alone and in fancy places I feel like I shouldn’t be there. I like to cook in a place where people can be relaxed but where there’s very good food.
Do you particularly enjoy cooking with fish?
I definitely want to get better at it, I haven’t done that much with it, obviously a bit, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to expand my skills.
Which chef would you most like to cook with?
Tom Kerridge is one. His food is amazing, and I like his platform – it’s not snobby or too formal. I know some people like having dinner in a formal restaurant, but I don’t feel comfortable with white linen tablecloths. I like to be able to just come in jeans, and relax and have a good time. Sat Bains is another chef I admire and would like to work with.
Do you have any big plans for the future?
For now, I’m just cracking on with what I’m doing. Eventually, further down the line maybe in 5 or 6 years, I’d like to open my own place, but for now I’m just expanding my knowledge. Maybe I’ll travel for a while or possibly go back to London. But I’ve no immediate plans and am staying where I am for the time being. The BBC have asked me to do something for them, so I have other projects happening in the background.
What vision do you have for your future restaurant?
Very much a relaxed place, maybe a bistro or a pub, with nice ales and great food. Somewhere people can feel at ease and just enjoy the atmosphere and food.
Thank you, Danny, and we look forward to sitting down for a meal in your dream restaurant one day.
Try out one of Danny’s recipes here.
The Easy Fish Co. is an independent family-run business with 120 years’ experience in the fish trade. From our roots in the original Smithfield Market in the Northern Quarter, Manchester to our state-of-the-art shop in Heaton Moor, Stockport, we are fourth-generation fishmongers. We stock only the finest produce, hand-picked from Smithfield Market each morning or sourced directly from our trusted network of coastal suppliers, and it can all be prepared by our approachable and knowledgeable staff. As well as being a top quality fishmonger, we now also boast a fully-licensed fish restaurant. The Easy Fish Restaurant serves the best fish and finest seafood in a delicious and eye-catching way. From our signature seafood platter to a large selection of shellfish, we make every effort to be as seasonal and sustainable as possible.
For ambitious chefs, who, like Danny, want to improve their skills with cooking fish, get in touch with the Easy Fish Restaurant at https://theeasyfishco.com/