Cateys 2021: Restaurateur of the Year – Independent: Gary Usher, Elite Bistros
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Chef Gary Usher has proven a true innovator, having harnessed the power of social media and crowdfunding to build a business arguably better than anyone else in hospitality.
Usher cooked at restaurants including Chez Bruce and York & Albany in London before heading north to open his first solo restaurant, Sticky Walnut, in Chester, on a shoestring budget. The team's bistro-style cooking and Usher's outspoken Twitter account, which included tirades against TripAdvisor and rude customers, grew its reputation and caught the attention of The Guardian's then food critic Marina O'Loughlin, who declared after visiting: "If I could clone Sticky Walnut, I would."
In 2014 Usher turned to crowdfunding for his second restaurant, Burnt Truffle, in Heswall, in the Wirral, and hit the £100,000 target in 30 days. He also crowdfunded the remaining sites in his Elite Bistros group, including Hispi in Didsbury in 2016, Wreckfish in Liverpool in 2017, Pinion in Prescot, Merseyside, in 2018 and Kala in Manchester in 2019. His bid to open Pinion, Prescot's first new restaurant in 30 years, and his attempts to convert sceptical locals to the joys of deep-fried pig's head croquettes and steak tartare were featured in TV documentary The Rebel Chef in 2019.
Before the pandemic struck, Elite Bistros was already cooking 30 to 40 meals a month to feed the homeless and vulnerable. In March 2020, Usher offered his help to Chester-based charity Soul Kitchen. Despite the impact of lockdown, he kept the commitment to charity and ensured food was donated regularly.
Elite Bistros was hit hard by the pandemic, and Usher admits he almost lost hope that it could survive before the team convinced him to start its Elite Bistros at Home offer. This saw hearty bistro-style dishes delivered nationwide in recyclable or biodegradable containers.
It proved such a success that Usher has returned to crowdfunding again this year, raising £172,000 to set up a standalone Elite Bistros Events to offer at-home dining and to cater for events such as weddings across the country. Elite Bistros' future now looks bright thanks to the fleet-footed response of its team in creating a successful new business arm.
Usher remains an inspiration to other chefs in building a restaurant group without ever having to shake hands with the local bank manager. However, none of it would be possible without his team's ability to sustain a loyal group of customers and investors over several years. It's a testament to the quality and consistency of Elite Bistros' offer.
What the judges said
"In the year of the pandemic and its impact on the restaurant sector, the winner must show exceptional leadership, and Gary has done just that. Coupled with the standards he has set over the years, his performance over the past year makes him a worthy winner of this year's award." - Peter Backman
"An eccentric, a rock'n'roll maverick, but with such a massive passion for restaurants that he has stolen our hearts, An example to us all that it's impossible to remove hospitality from your veins if you love the business, as Usher clearly does." - Russell Norman
- Tommy Banks, the Black Swan, Roots York and Made in Oldstead, Yorkshire
- Jonathan Howe, Lumière, Cheltenham
- Glynn Purnell, Purnell's, Birmingham
- Gary Usher, Elite Bistros
- Peter Backman, founder, Peter Backman
- Sam Hart, owner, Harts Group
- Tom Kerridge, chef-proprietor, the Hand & Flowers
- Russell Norman, founder, Polpo
- Bill Toner, chief executive, CH&Co