In awe for the Man Behind The Curtain

A perfect journey of 11 dishes by Michael O'Hare, artist and rising star of the new British cuisine

by Federica Carr
Milk chocolate, honey and violet by Michael O'

Milk chocolate, honey and violet by Michael O'Hare, chef and owner at The Man Behind The Curtain in Leeds, England, one Michelin star

Despite being the third largest city in the UK, Leeds isn’t exactly a tourist destination, as the capital or the university centres of Oxford and Cambridge or the historic Bath. Until recently in fact, we actually did not really have a reason to visit, despite it being only 2.5 hours from London. A couple of years ago however Michael O’Hare, owner of a restaurant called the Man Behind the Curtain, appeared on the BBC programme "Great British Menu", where up and coming chefs battle it out to gain the opportunity to cook a course at a final banquet, usually a national event (from the Queen’s Jubilee to Wimbledon’s anniversary).

O’Hare immediately made an impression, not just for his striking appearance: tall, with jet black long hair like a metal head straight out of the 80s, dressed in black even in the kitchen, with leather apron and punk boots, and plenty of tattoos. It was however his dishes that really captured people’s attention, works of art with impressive flavours.  He got to the banquet with a creation inspired by the classic fish & chips. An artist, who uses ingredients as if they were colours on a palette, and it’s not a figure of speech, his plates really resemble modern paintings masterpieces. Thus, after watching the show, we couldn’t wait to see for ourselves and taste his food. A visit to Leeds had become a necessity!

Michael O'Hare, 36 years old

Michael O'Hare, 36 years old

After finally bagging ourselves a table for lunch (one must book with at least a couple of months’ advance), we planned our trip to Leeds.

Entering from a clothes’ store (hence the name of the place itself), the room is vaste, bright and airy (even though soon they will move to the larger basement), with white walls tagged in black and reds amongst canvases in the same duotone, and pieces of contemporary themed art, such as a series of skateboards with Michael’s signature on them and a number of black 3d hands with the rock’n’roll sign that could have been left there by Salvador Dalí.

The staff are friendly and professional, elegant in black and white (and some footwear in line with the boss’ style, from DMs to cowboy boots); they escort us to a black marble table, wide and comfortable; then we begin. No a la carte, there is only a tasting menu of a number of courses, all chosen from a ‘Permanent Collection’ (the full list is available to diners); the pick is based on what gets delivered to the kitchen in the morning and what Michael feels like cooking each day.

The menu is one and multiple, but changes in variations and options, eclectic as much as the chef himself. The amuse-bouche open what will become a memorable, exhilarating meal with moments of pure genius. They land on our table on three, beautiful mini plates: a red heart, a black shiny bolt and a splatter of white paint. On them, little morsels of intense flavours, from the raviolo with fake crab and egg yolk to the octopus in Asian spices. What follows is a soup of almond, ajo blanco and olive oil with tomato snow, served on a smooth, mountain-like bowl; we run the risk of picking up those bowls and licking them clean, such is the intensity of the flavours than run after each other on the palate, ending in a burst of rich tomato that to the two Italians in the group reminds of summer bruschetta.

Iberico pork, garlic, almond

Iberico pork, garlic, almond

In the end, we count 11 courses. If the white soup astonished us, the signature dish who won him the banquet place is incredible, starting from the presentation: black on black, from the plate to the garnish. We sniff it, then we savour it, because if we close our eyes we can smell the Friday nights, the take aways after a few pints at the pub with workmates, the sour vinegar on the chips, the fried batter. Yet Michael’s cod is one of the more delicate ever tasted, perfectly cooked, light and intense in its ink coating.

The colours resurface in the Iberico pork course, served with a fake, edible eggshell containing a rich, oozing real egg yolk, with mock coal texture, anchovy saltiness and dashes of ajo blanco, a bunch of different origin proteins that go hand in hand beautifully.

The dessert scream chromatism like a Munch’ painting: the chocolate is a silver shard, the puffed cereals have sprays of red, the ice cream is bright purple due to the Parma violet that gives it its aroma, the plate itself reminds us of Jupiter’s waves, a cacophony of colours as if to scream ‘ the meal is over!’. But it’s not quite over yet. With the melt in your mouth, eat the whole thing petit four (dark chocolate with Italian merengue and passion fruit heart in edible wrap), coffees and teas are served in funky cups shaped as human heads, which make us feel a bit Indiana Jones.

As we stroll through a lively Leeds on a Saturday afternoon, we’re still buzzing from the fun we’ve had. We walk towards the station, passing elegant regency buildings and the stunning Victoria shopping gallery dating back to 1900s, and we wonder why it took us so long to come here.

The Man Behind The Curtain
68-78 Vicar Lane
Top floor Flannels
Great Britain
Closed on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday at lunch, Wedensday at lunch