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Simon Martin is Manchester’s best chef. Is he its worst boss?
Mana promised to win the city’s first Michelin star for several decades by creating a kinder kitchen culture. Staff remember it differently.
By Jack Dulhanty
“People always want to take down the top dog,” Simon Martin tells me, just minutes after I’ve sat down with him in his restaurant, Mana. We’re at a table that will soon be occupied by diners paying £185 per head for a Nordic-inspired tasting menu. Martin’s staff bustle around, preparing for lunch.
Before his guests arrive, the 31-year-old chef who brought a Michelin star to Manchester wants to clear up some things I’ve been hearing about the culture at Mana. “There's people that have left here on bad terms or been fired for stealing wine, or not turning up for work,” he says.
Days later, Martin will tell my editor in an email that he didn’t regard our meeting as an interview. He will say that having two journalists sitting in his restaurant taking notes for almost two hours represented an informal chat, and that he does not wish for anything to be published “which so much as suggests you had spoken to me”.
He will also say that the 16 former members of his staff I interviewed for this story are unreliable sources — disgruntled ex-employees who are colluding to bring him down, calling their motives “childish, delusional, and quite frankly, pathetic”.
Not long after, I will hear that Martin has put a call in to the boss of one of my sources. It works. The source is worried about speaking to me again, fearing they will lose their job.
When Simon Martin arrived in Manchester four years ago, it was like a member of an alien race had run out of fuel as they were flying over Ancoats. He came from Noma, the three Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen, widely considered to be the best in the world. And he promised to introduce Manchester to a new form of cooking: locally-sourced, sustainable, minimal to the eye but maximal on the tongue.
“It’s brilliant, it’s absolutely brilliant,” says an industry insider about Mana, which won its first Michelin star within a year of opening on Blossom Street, just behind Cutting Room Square. “The food is immensely technical — the layers of research, technique, the complexity. The almost intellectual thought that goes into those dishes is frankly pretty staggering.”
The critics have tended to agree. “Mana is the sound of Manchester turning a corner,” wrote Grace Dent in the Guardian. “Holy cow, can he cook,” said Marina O'Loughlin in the Sunday Times. “This isn’t a good restaurant by Manchester standards,” she concluded, “this is a good restaurant by world standards.”
On entering Mana, the first thing you notice is the set up: the food is cooked in the same room it’s eaten in. This translates to a dining experience that transforms the restaurant into a sort of theatre: yes, you’re there to enjoy Langoustine tail and cured egg yolk on sprigs of spruce. But you’re just as much there to watch the preparation of the next eccentric dish on the 16-course tasting menu.
If the restaurant is a show, Martin is its undisputed star. He has fiery hair, broad shoulders and the air of a capricious prince surrounded by dutiful courtiers. "His team appear to be devoted to him,” wrote O'Loughlin in her review, “there's a kind of mesmerised acolyte vibe going on in the kitchen.”
Martin also had very specific ambitions about how staff would be treated when he opened Mana. He set out to create world-class food without the toxic work culture that so often goes into producing it. During the launch period in 2018, Mana sent out a press release which was structured like an interview with Martin, written as if he were answering questions from a journalist.
“It’s now well-known that drug and alcohol addictions are widespread within the catering industry, and that’s down to the environments and conditions people are working in,” he said, acknowledging the industry’s “watershed moment in terms of working conditions”.
The macho bullying culture espoused by some celebrity chefs had fallen dramatically out of fashion in a world that took mental health seriously. “Nobody should have to go into the environments that I worked in,” Martin said in his press release. “The industry hasn’t been behaving professionally, and the new kids coming through now, they’re aware of that. They won’t put up with working in shitty kitchens — and it’s our duty to make sure they never have to.”
The day after Mana won its Michelin star in late 2019, reporters lined its glass-walled corner of Ancoats. Camera equipment swamped the dining room floor; the restaurant’s booking system crashed; Tom Kerridge sent flowers.
A few months later, I wrote about Mana for my food blog. I chatted to chefs as they roasted hazelnuts and pried open fresh deliveries. Mine was just the latest in a long line of gushing pieces about the restaurant. Describing the staff, I wrote: “What draws them here is a passion for the craft, the creativity and the ingredients.”
Then, in September last year, Martin was shortlisted for Chef of the Year at the Manchester Food & Drink Festival Awards, and Mana was up for Best Restaurant. But when the name of the restaurant was called out, boos rang out in the room. When I saw someone mention it on social media, I started reaching out to ex-staff members. Then, ex-staff members started reaching out to me.
Why would people boo Manchester’s most successful restaurant? “It's more to do with Simon,” said one former chef. Martin’s reputation among journalists and diners was not shared by the tight-knit networks of Manchester hospitality workers, I was told. Many staff had left, reporting that they were badly treated. (A spokesperson for Mana said these characterisations of Martin are “baseless allegations” and disputed our account of the awards, saying “we do clearly remember a round of applause from the floor on the night.”)
The ex-staff put me in touch with former colleagues. “The epitome of a narcissist,” is how one source described their former boss, while one former chef remembers thinking: "I'm working my arse off for the biggest cunt I've ever met in my life".
To the outside world, Mana had waltzed its way to extraordinary acclaim and success. Manchester had waited 42 years since its last Michelin star, and Martin had achieved it in less than 12 months. But the former staff members I’ve spoken to in the past five months, plus the detailed account given to us by Martin himself when we sat down with him, paint a picture of a chaotic and abusive restaurant — one that appears to work in exactly the way its founder said it wouldn’t.
Martin was born in Warrington and grew up in Shropshire. Before becoming a chef, he aspired to be a motocross racer, then toyed with the idea of joining the marines after a knee injury cut those ambitions short. His first job in hospitality was at the Chester Grosvenor Hotel, where he started out making sandwiches for afternoon tea and was eventually offered a position in the hotel’s Michelin star kitchen.
But it was his time at Noma in Copenhagen that has defined Martin and created buzz around his launch. “We used my background and CV to market Mana,” Martin admitted in our interview. But there are some discrepancies between his account of his stint at Noma and what the restaurant itself says.
Noma is so famous that chefs from around the world queue up to do stages there (short unpaid stints, from the French word for trainee, stagiaire) just so they can put it on their CV. “Everyone wants to work a stage at Noma, even if it’s peeling spuds,” says an industry figure. “But Simon was actually one of the top guys there.”
Martin told us (and has told previous interviewers) he worked at Noma for three years, rising to the level of sous chef, which is essentially a kitchen’s second in command. In fact, a spokesperson for Noma says he was hired in August 2016, after a few months as a trainee. Ten months later, he left. Adding together the unpaid traineeship and the time as staff, Martin was there for a year. “We are not sure why it would be reported that he was with us for three,” the Noma spokesperson told The Mill.
And what about his claim — oft-repeated to his staff — that he rose to be a sous chef? “We are not entirely sure where the information comes from that he was a sous chef,” says the Noma spokesperson. “He was hired as a chef de partie,” (the second-most junior rank of cook).
A spokesperson for Mana declined to comment on these claims. They also declined to comment when we asked about Martin’s past claims that he worked for Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (we’re still waiting to hear back from Ramsay’s restaurant group).
Simon Martin assembled a mostly young and inexperienced staff and got to work fashioning a myth about Mana that bound them together: that they were doing something completely new and important. “He really makes you believe that,” says one chef, “He would focus on that as a thing – everyone is going to be treated with respect, everyone is going to be equal. At the time, I thought I had struck gold.”
Some of the sources we spoke to said they deeply admired the Mana founder’s intelligence and unusual creativity. "Simon would come up with something, you'd taste it, and it'd be so brilliant you'd be annoyed,” says a former chef. Another describes him as the most talented chef in the country. One ex-staff member spoke so glowingly about Martin’s abilities and charisma that I had to ask them on the call whether they still idolised his former boss. "Oh, yeah. 100%,” the source replied.
Martin can come across as socially awkward. “I think he’s painfully shy and I think that comes across quite badly,” says one person who has met him a few times. When he was accepting his Michelin star, someone who was in the room likened Martin’s awkwardness to a “kid at school”. Some former staff sensed that the bullying he had received in kitchens as a teenager had damaged him, creating behaviours he himself recognised as unhealthy. “Don’t be like me,” he apparently told one chef after promoting them to a senior position.
For ex-staff, talking about working with Martin sometimes felt like recounting the scarcely believable details of a dream. They remember Mana falling behind on payments and suppliers stopping sending produce. Eventually, Martin was forced to drive an old Post Office van he had bought from an auction to farms and markets each morning to buy vegetables himself.
They also remember the day the restaurant was sent live eels by mistake after a mix up from a supplier, and instead of killing them the humane way, Martin picked up an axe meant for bashing up oyster shells. Swinging the axe over his head, he decapitated one eel as the creatures writhed all over the floor “like fast, gigantic worms” with blood spewing everywhere.
But the weirdness of working at Mana existed alongside a sense that something wasn’t quite right in the restaurant. The chef who talked about feeling like part of something bigger said that within months of Mana’s founding, “I started to realise it wasn’t true.”
Multiple ex-staff remember feeling deeply uncomfortable about Martin’s casual use of racist terms. They claim that when black guests were dining in the restaurant Martin would sometimes approach members of his team and say:
“Don’t say it”.
A company spokesperson told The Mill: “We categorically refute these allegations. While these alleged incidents did not occur, if anyone does raise an issue around race, we would take it extremely seriously and immediately look into it as a matter of the utmost priority.”
“We believe that diversity in our business makes us stronger. We do not and never will discriminate against any colleague based on their age, race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, sexuality, disability, nationality or social origin.”
Early on, the team at Mana realised that their boss got a kick out of humiliating them, often picking on one person at a time. “There was always an underdog who was getting abuse,” says a chef who worked there for more than a year. “And that would spur everyone else on, in a sick kind of way. You were doing well, and they were taking shit.” (A spokesperson for Mana told us: “These unsubstantiated allegations are categorically untrue.”)
One chef remembers coming in at 7am one day, having finished their last shift five hours earlier, and realising that he was going to be Martin’s target for the day. After a minor disagreement between the two about washing pots, the chef got his preparation work done in time for tasting and Martin said it was good and they were ready to go.
But as guests began to arrive, the chef claims he saw Martin pick up his prep work — broad beans he had prepared to be barbecued and served with goat’s curd — and drop it all into the bin with a smile. “I said: ‘what's wrong with those?’ And he said: ‘nothing’”. The chef was responsible for starters, so he recalls running around the kitchen trying to make up for the lost food. “But it was impossible,” says another chef who witnessed the incident: “He'd done it on purpose, so the chef broke down.”
A spokesperson for Mana said the story was untrue. “As a world-class restaurant, the team at Mana strives for perfection,” they told The Mill. “This, of course, means that every single item of food prepared in the kitchen doesn’t make it on to the plate of customers 100% of the time, as per other world-class restaurants. But the team has no recollection of this allegation around what was said in the kitchen.” They also said they were proud of not making any redundancies during the pandemic and that they topped up the staff’s pay by 100% of their salary during the lockdown periods. “We are proud of our track record of creating jobs and training and development of colleagues.”
According to staff we’ve spoken to, Martin was a mercurial leader. He would happily sabotage a chef’s work or scream in the face of someone asking for help, but then treat that staff member to dinner or tell them they could be promoted.
At other times, he would debase a member of staff in front of their colleagues only to post a photo of them on Mana’s Instagram that same evening, hailing them as an integral member of the team. "It's addicting in a sense, you're willing to be treated like shit,” remembers one chef, “because when things went well, it was really rewarding."
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But the most obvious way in which Martin allegedly deviated from his pre-launch ideals was his physical violence. In the press release, he had talked about the experience of working in kitchens alongside violent chefs, saying: “Nobody should have to go into the environments that I worked in.” But according to his former staff, that kind of behaviour soon cropped up at Mana.
Several ex-staff recall Martin punching an experienced chef in the ribs when he made a mistake with his work. At one point, Martin also allegedly burned a female chef by pouring liquid nitrogen down the back of her chef’s whites. Minutes later, one of the sources we spoke to for this story noticed blood on her jacket. When someone confronted Martin about the incident, “He just laughed hysterically, like a mad man,” says one source. “It’s unbelievable.”
When The Mill contacted Mana about this story, a spokesperson said:
Mana does not recognise the false and unsubstantiated allegations put to us. Since it first opened, Mana has always sought to create an inclusive working environment where all colleagues feel respected, listened to and given the freedom to achieve excellence. We also have a culture that celebrates diversity, which we fundamentally believe makes us stronger as a business.
Furthermore, we have a track record of developing and training talented colleagues, which helps us to continue providing our fantastic offer to customers. When colleagues do raise concerns or issues, we take them very seriously and look into them as a matter of the utmost priority.
Since we opened in 2018, Mana has become a world-class restaurant of which Manchester can be extremely proud. We have achieved this by creating a creative and collaborative environment and giving everyone time to rest and reflect. We do this by opening for just four days each week and closing every quarter for ten days, including over Christmas and New Year, to give our colleagues precious time with their families over the festive period.
In late November, about two months after the award ceremony booing and my first conversations with ex-staff at Mana, I received a private message on Instagram from Simon Martin. Someone had told him that I was working on a piece, which he said amounted to “a bunch of stories from disgruntled staff.” He was worried we were going to “fabricate” something from unreliable sources. “I’d like an explanation please,” he wrote.
We agreed to meet in person, and when I entered Mana with my editor two days later, Martin was sitting alone at one of the restaurant’s eight tables with a laptop in front of him. "Without sounding arrogant, there is quite a gap between us and the next best restaurant in Manchester,” he said.
Martin would later say that his Instagram messages amounted to an agreement not to quote him and that he understood our meeting to be an informal chat. The journalistic convention of “off the record” dictates that journalists won’t quote someone with their name attached if there is an explicit agreement to do so. In this case, no such agreement was made.
"In the early days, there were a lot of times where things weren't to my standards, and I had no one to fall back on,” he told us, explaining that when he was getting Mana off the ground, he struggled to find staff who were good enough. "I went from cooking with world-class chefs at Noma to basically working with what I could get,” he said.
Martin says he isn’t a particularly shouty chef, but he says some staff were undermining his work. "I'm not going to sit here and bullshit and say I didn't get upset when people were either genuinely trying to avoid doing certain things which were very clearly expected of them.”
Since those early months, he says things have improved markedly. “At the end of the day, I feel like no one has ever been mistreated here,” he says. "What's happened is very much in the past,” he adds. “We’re talking about a different restaurant, that has matured."
Cutting corners is one thing, but Martin felt it was something more serious than that – a feeling that some of his staff were sabotaging Mana. "If I pour my heart and soul into something, and then someone purposefully wants to diminish my efforts, whilst I'm paying them to do a job, that hurts,” he says. Does he really mean staff were intentionally damaging the restaurant? "We had a couple of quite manipulative people who wanted to make the restaurant the way they wanted it to be.”
What did that entail? “We had a few wronguns,” he says. “Being deceitful, telling lies, creating drama. Some people are just like that."
On the evening of March 23rd 2020, when Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown, the staff of Mana were having a pre-service dinner. When the announcement came, they realised they would be in the restaurant all night, taking everything out of the fridge and preparing for at least a month of hibernation. “At this point, we are all bracing ourselves for eight or nine hours of deep clean,” recalls one staff member, who claims: “And then Simon said he was going to buy drugs and alcohol.”
By the time the deep clean was done, Martin was apparently incoherent. “He couldn’t even speak properly, he was falling all over the place,” says the source. “We had worked so hard, and it was the last time we were going to see each other for at least a month. And by 3am he couldn’t even stand up and say anything.” The staff member remembers thinking to themselves: “We have just worked flat out to get your restaurant in a condition to close, and you can’t even stay sober for five hours.”
Of the 16 sources we spoke to for this story, 15 talked about Martin’s tendency to drink and take drugs during working hours at Mana, and most of them described it as one of the biggest problems of working there. More than half a dozen of them raised it with me unprompted. Martin tended to get drunk in his office at the back of the restaurant, they said, emerging intermittently to get more alcohol. In an email to Martin about why they were leaving Mana, one chef wrote: “coming into work intoxicated is not okay.”
Sources say that when Martin was drinking, he became harder to predict and unpleasant to work with. “It created a really horrible working environment,” remembered one member of staff. “Horrible for the guests as well. He'd get loud and he'd get obnoxious, he'd go and sit with people that didn't want to be sat with.” Another chef remembers seeing guests who were visibly uncomfortable speaking to Martin and describes an occasion when Martin was so incoherent during a service that the restaurant manager asked him to go home. “It was embarrassing for the team when that was happening,” they told us.
At one point, two senior staff members had a private meeting with Mana’s main financial backers — Joel Adams and Michael Holden, co-founders of a financial planning company called LIFT, who both own a sizeable stake in the restaurant. The pair invested in Mana privately but the meeting was held in LIFT’s boardroom in Altrincham, and it lasted over an hour, much of which was taken up by Adams and Holden outlining their aspirations for Mana.
The staff members listened, but they had their own ideas. First, they proposed a stock management system to keep better track of food and drink in the restaurant. Then – according to both restaurant workers who were present — they offered another proposal: removing Martin from his own restaurant during service times. They suggested that, given his behaviour, it would be better if he wasn’t in Mana interacting with guests. But, he could carry on designing the menu and being the face of the operation. The proposal went nowhere.
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A Mana spokesperson said: “This is definitely not an accurate reflection of the content of this very brief meeting. The current team at Mana are best-in-class, which is how we have been able to build such a fantastic restaurant ‒ of which we are extremely proud.”
"What I find hilarious is that somebody thinks they can get me fired,” says Martin during our interview. “That just shows you the type of people I've had to deal with in the past, they think they can overthrow me, and what? Become a business partner in the restaurant?"
We ask him about the accounts of his drinking and taking drugs at work. "I'm absolutely happy to answer that,” he replies. “First of all, I know where the drugs rumour comes from, and it's not true." He goes on: "I know we've had some undesirable people in here, who have done drugs while on shift. But they're no longer here."
What about the stories we’ve heard about him drinking during service times? "I don't get drunk in the restaurant,” he replies. “I get drunk with my mates, outside of the restaurant, if I'm going to get drunk.” (Later, a company spokesperson told The Mill that all allegations about drinking and taking drugs are false).
He looks incredulous and smiles. "You can't stand there, charging people — at the time — £105, I can't stand there drinking wine and running a kitchen. It's just ridiculous."
He thinks the stories have been invented by people who want to discredit him or that the anecdotes have been mixed up with times that he had a drink in his office after guests had left the restaurant. "A couple of times, I've had a few late nights,” he says. “Elon Musk sleeps in his fucking factory at Tesla."
The staff at Mana used to be told by their boss that René Redzepi, the legendary head chef and co-owner of Noma, was going to visit. Mana’s menu was heavily influenced by the Danish restaurant, and Martin derived the bulk of his credibility from working there. In the end, the visit never came, not even when Redzepi was in the country promoting his book.
One night, however, when six or seven Mana staff were drinking with Martin after a service on Saturday night, Martin got a call from Redzepi. Martin was drunk, but the call went on for almost an hour and it seemed like the two were chatting like old friends. After a while, though, one of the staff members noticed that Martin’s phone was showing its home screen. Not only was Martin not speaking to the greatest chef in the world — he wasn’t speaking to anyone.
If one story can be said to encapsulate Martin – his capacity for dishonesty; his strangeness – it’s probably this one. “Stuff like this happened frequently,” one of the staff present for the fake Rene Redzepi call told me. “Like — insane things that are unbelievable.”
The more I’ve thought about Mana, the more I’ve come to realise the audacious conceit at the heart of it. The man who promised a kinder restaurant was apparently delivering exactly the opposite kind of culture in plain sight — offered up on the stage of his public kitchen. “I always wondered whether guests could pick up the tensions in the kitchen,” one chef told me. One food blog, published in October last year, noted that Martin openly berated staff during service and "created an awkward atmosphere for diners."
When he launched Mana, Martin told the MEN: "If you don't have happy staff you're not going to get happy guests — especially here where the chefs have so much interaction." That was a false equation, as Mana’s success has proved. The guests were happy, but the staff were not.
Manchester’s hospitality industry is one of the city’s fastest growing sectors and biggest selling points. And yet we rarely hear from its staff, tens of thousands of people — many of whom are young, many of whom earn low and insecure wages — whose labour makes it all possible. I wonder out loud while chatting to another staff member if it was worth it for their career, working at Mana, despite the emotional toll. Yeah, they say, that’s what depresses them. “It shouldn’t be, but it was. It breaks my heart that that's the case."
“The emotional abuse has scarred,” says one chef. “He treated me horrendously. We did create some cool things. But the cost of that is that people are genuinely damaged by it.”
Martin says Mana has changed — that he has learned lessons from the chaos of his kitchen and is a better manager now. He points out that the first six months for any business would be difficult, much less the most ambitious restaurant Manchester has ever seen. According to Martin, New Mana is almost unrecognisable from Old Mana, and staff are paid and treated well.
Ultimately, like all elite chefs, he knows he is the sine qua non of his restaurant – the element without which it cannot exist. It is his name on the website, his name on the door.
"At the end of the day,” he says, “the only person who's always going to be here is me.”
Part two: Why did Simon Martin leave Noma?
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Jack Dulhanty is a staff writer at The Mill (firstname.lastname@example.org). This story was edited by Joshi Herrmann, Sophie Atkinson and Harry Shukman.