Wagamama’s restaurants might be closed to sit-down diners currently, but that doesn’t mean Steve Mangleshot hasn’t been busy developing new innovations for its menus throughout the pandemic. He tells Andrew Seymour why he’s looking forward to evolving its kitchens once the industry gets the green light to open again.
The events of last March — when restaurant operators were ordered to shut their doors with no real idea of when they would be allowed to reopen again — will be etched on the mind of Steve Mangleshot forever. As the significance of what Boris Johnson was asking the country to do began to sink in, the experienced executive chef found his team looking to him for support and words of assurance.
“They were some dark times for me and my chefs,” he says, thinking back to those early days of the lockdown when hospitality operators were forced to close with minimal warning. “Those first few weeks were a lot of phone calls of ‘boys, this is going to get better’ — and me saying it to them but thinking ‘is it?’”
Almost a year on, Mangleshot is speaking to FEJ with the country under curfew again and no precise date of when restrictions might be relaxed. It’s a scenario he desperately hoped would never be repeated, but the anxiety that accompanied the first lockdown appears to have lifted somewhat.
Vaccines mean there is at last a way out — light at the end of the tunnel. And, just as crucially, Mangleshot and his team are another year older and significantly more wiser.
The business has found ways of ramping up delivery and expanding its dark kitchen infrastructure — something it was in the process of doing before the pandemic — and Mangleshot himself has helped win over a whole new legion of Wagamama fans with his Wok From Home series.
Recorded in his own home and designed to show customers missing its food how they could rustle up their favourite Wagamama dishes, his first episode in April last year has now racked up more than half a million views on YouTube. When its 150 outlets do open for good again, there is likely to be plenty of new Wagamama converts at the front of the line.
Then there was Veganuary, which the company took part in last month. In a move that reiterates the extensive menu development work that Mangleshot’s role involves, Wagamama announced that 50% of its main menu would be meat-free by the end of 2021. For a company revered for its katsu curry and terriyaki chicken, that’s a big statement, isn’t it?
“It is a big statement but I think it’s a good statement,” he says. “It’s about having balance on our menu and working out what great ingredients we can use to move the food movement forward — it’s not us trying to be better than anyone else. I think we’re just trying to say, ‘look, this can be done, it doesn’t mean food can be boring or should be done certain ways, but we feel that actually, in the current climate, we can do 50% meat-free. We’re not going to be an all-vegan restaurant because we want to try and cater for as many palettes and tastes as we can going forward.”
Mangleshot still enjoys nothing more than discovering “really cool ingredients” to put on the menu and relishes the challenge of adding flavours and textures to pea proteins, soya proteins and seitans with the aim of “blowing customers’ minds”.
“We’ve seen vegan ribs out there in the market place and the things that other people have done, so we’ve tried to push that boundary and make it even better. Vegan chilli squid — who would have thought it! We want the meat-eaters to think ‘wow that’s actually pretty close, that’s actually not bad — I’d have that’.”
There is also another major menu goal on Wagamama’s agenda this year. Noodle Lab — its test kitchen restaurant located on Dean Street for many years and now on Old Street — plans to ditch red meat from the menu in 2021 as part of a bold experiment.
Our kit needs to be multifunctional — it doesn’t do just one thing, it does a variety of things”
“We’re taking a bit of the choice away to see what the reaction is and how people find it,” explains Mangleshot. “It’s also about us then testing ourselves to see what we can put on the menu to still draw people in and give them that different choice, but maybe not a red meat choice. It’s more about how we can twist that and say, ‘look if we didn’t have red meat on, what would it do?’
“I’m not saying that’s the future and that’s how it’s always going to be, but it’s worth a trial and it’s why we built Noodle Lab in the first place. We want the customers to come and tell us what they think and give us genuine feedback. That then gives me, the chefs and the food development team the playground to say, ‘right, what are we going to do for those people that love their meat and love their beef which will hopefully melt their brain and get them thinking about balanced diets and balanced foods’.”
This shift in the direction of more plant-based menu items has been taking place for some time now. Some might wonder whether it necessitates any changes back-of-house, in the type and variety of equipment that Wagamama uses?
“Not really, because we’ve been quite clever about the way we set our kitchens up,” answers Mangleshot. “We have a nice long line, usually anywhere between six to eight metres, and we have kit in there that allows us to do a variety of stuff. I think what we’ve learned, and what we’ve had to be very strict about, is how we segregate and ensure that we don’t cross-contaminate, so in that respect it does become an issue of whether you have a little bit more kit in there specifically for vegan food.
“I know that’s not necessarily an allergy thing, it’s more about people’s choice, but if you’re a vegan you still don’t want to see chicken or fish in your food because that’s your choice. We’ve had to be very careful about how we put in the fryer suite, for instance. We have a specific vegan fryer and griddle plate that we use.
“It’s also about giving the chefs the right environment so they are not getting stressed out by having an overloaded menu that they can’t deliver. Our kitchens haven’t changed dramatically, we’re just very much stricter on how we set them up to make sure that we don’t have that cross-contamination and the segregation rule doesn’t get broken.”
Equipment from brands such as Rational and Henny Penny are a staple part of Wagamama’s infrastructure and Mangleshot insists that working with state-of-the-art kit is central to its thinking. “We’re lucky to work with equipment partners that understand where we’re coming from, understand what our needs are and are always innovating themselves to the point that they’ll say, ‘look, what do you think of this? Does this help you?’ Our kit needs to be multifunctional — it doesn’t do just one thing, it does a variety of things and we need it to be able to flex under the weight it faces.”
Mangleshot fully expects suppliers to be banging on his door again once the company’s restaurants are back open, eager to alert him to new technology and systems they have developed during the lockdowns. He knows he will be shown improvements in efficiency and cost savings, which in time will come to benefit Wagamama’s kitchens.
“With the year we’ve just had — we’ve literally opened restaurants, shut restaurants, opened restaurants, shut restaurants — we have just gone along with [the equipment] we’ve got at the moment. I think next year will be the year when we start seeing people move towards the greener equipment because we know it’s all there. It’s going to take a little bit of time for it to start coming through but it is out there and it is always on our radar to try and find the best kit.”
Do we get rid of more gas? Do we go more induction? They were good conversations before this all kicked off and now we’re going to have to pick them up and look at them again”
Versatility is crucial to the decisions it makes around equipment, so higher value is placed on individual items of kit that can do several jobs. This, says Mangleshot, allows the chain to innovate the menu in the knowledge that new dishes and concepts can more than likely be executed.
“We’ve got plenty of kit in our kitchens —convection, steaming, boiling —that we can be really versatile with a menu. And we will work with our suppliers to understand the new innovations in the market now and where we are with those. Do we get rid of more gas? Do we go more induction? They were good conversations before this all kicked off and now we’re going to have to pick them up and look at them again.”
When it does happen, sitting down with suppliers to discuss the future of its kitchens will at least represent another step towards normality after the turbulence of the past year.