City of Manchester Stadium chef - John Benson-Smith
PUBLISHED: 00:05 23 December 2009 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013
Whatever Manchester City achieves on the field, one of our top chefs will assure his kitchen team keeps hitting the target.<br/>Ray King reports PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS
WHEN Manchester City Football Club moved from their old Maine Road ground into the magnificent City of Manchester Stadium - built as the showpiece venue for the Commonwealth Games of 2002 - their ambition was to build a formidable Premier League reputation OFF the pitch as well as on it.
Now, five years later, the club's ambition to establish the stadium as one of the leading lights in the north west for hospitality - from major corporate events and conferences to weddings and functions of all sorts all year round - is fully realised.
Four contract catering companies operate there, handling everything from fans' needs on match days to drinks when the stadium is given over to huge pop concerts. The largest, the Lindley Group, looks after all the ground's executive areas employing 40 chefs and 500 staff in no less than 11 restaurants, rooms and suites.
On October 14 the City of Manchester Stadium will, for the second consecutive year, host Life Magazines' prestigious Food & Wine Awards, this time in its state-of-the-art Boardroom Suite located in a prime position in the West Stand.
The gala presentation evening will cater for the elite of Lancashire, Cheshire, the Lake District and North Wales and Manchester City's Consultant Executive Chef is assembling a menu to impress.
John Benson-Smith has filled the role at the stadium since the club made its move, originally charged with helping execute the transition from Maine Road - which already had, on a smaller scale, a fine reputation for the quality of its food - and now keeping the massive operation at the top of its game.
There are few people in the industry better qualified for the task, for aside from being a highly respected cook - he was Northern Chef of the Year in 1999 and was a regular judge on BBC TV's Masterchef when it was presented by Loyd Grossman - his experience in how the catering business works is vast and, in many respects, surprising.
John and his wife Alison, who run the Restaurant and Catering Consultancy from recently acquired offices in Deansgate, Manchester, reckon to have taken 90 flights a year over the last couple of years, flitting between top-notch clients at the Jersey Boathouse, St Aubin and the Santa Ponsa Country Club in Palma, Mallorca. The Hippodrome Birmingham and the Theatre, Edinburgh, are also clients.
Born in Sheffield, he doesn't consider himself anything like an archetypal Yorkshireman, though has been named, with Marco Pierre White, Brian Turner and James Martin, as one of the four most influential chefs to emerge from the county.
John trained in a number of hotels and restaurants in France and says: 'The best chef I ever worked with was Louis Outhier, who had L'Oasis in a tiny little village near Cannes called La Napoule. He had three Michelin stars for 25 years and was a huge influence on me.
'When I came back to England I worked at various places and eventually ended up at the Black Swan in Helmsley in the North Riding, at the time a regular haunt of celebrities, so moving over to the Victoria and Albert in Manchester seemed a logical step.'
In 1985 the V&A provided the high-class 'digs' for stars working across the road at Granada's television studios. Its Sherlock Holmes Restaurant was named after the made-in-Manchester series which became an acclaimed worldwide hit. The former Granada Studio Tour was in full swing and Manchester's culinary renaissance was just taking off.
'It was a wacky atmosphere and they encouraged me to be daft,' John recalls. 'We bought into each other.' Thus was born a series of daring signature dishes, not least his legendary three soups in a bowl, which he now candidly admits was 'a stupid idea.'
Though he loved working in Manchester and being involved in putting the city on the foodie map of Britain, John could never resist a challenge...and few challenges were as big as developing 1,000-year-old Hazlewood Castle, a former monastery near Tadcaster, into a luxury hotel.
'My brain must have been having a day off when I went there,' he jokes, 'because converting the castle, which had no electricity, gas, water or road, was a not just a challenge, it was a huge nightmare.
'My brother Matthew, who had been John Major's chef, came to work there and I became a director by default.'
Despite the initial difficulties, however, the castle became a highly successful business, combining luxury hotel, conference and banqueting centre, restaurant and a centre for cookery courses.
Soon into the new millennium John was engaged with the Jersey Boathouse and in a series of other projects including flavour development for Walkers' Sensations crisps, catering on GNER trains, rejoining Loyd Grossman in devising new NHS hospital menus and as consultant to the Arts Council and Arts Around Manchester.
He describes much of his consultancy works as 'look, see, tell' and admits that many chefs don't particularly like what he tells them, though the Spanish chefs whom he had to teach Mediterranean cooking at Santa Ponsa responded very well.
'I was doing ''Kitchen Nightmares'' ten years before Gordon Ramsay started - but I was concerned not just with menus, but the whole deal - from staffing, suppliers, recipes and financial aspects of catering.
'We came back to live in Manchester last March and I want to re-establish myself in the city,' he says.
Hold on to your aprons.