Wednesday night, I found myself on 55th and 6th avenue, at the electrifying and grandiose opening of Wagamama’s newest location.
A little background on Wagamama, it originally opened in London in 1992. It is a successful chain with locations in London, Boston and New York City currently specializing in Asian cuisine mainly focusing on Japanese inspired dishes. From the second I walked in, it seemed like a hip restaurant you walk by on the street and imagine post-grad being able to eat there one day. Once you start talking to the staff, enjoying the food and the ambiance, it feels and for a lack of better word tastes like an authentic spot you don’t want to tell anyone about for fear of it getting too crowded.
I sipped on one of their signature cocktails while waiting for a friend and managed to be an observer of the staff and their energy while working that night, it was honestly delightful. I saw bartenders smiling and laughing with other patrons. Waiters were chatting happily with managers and customers. Chefs also came out to say hello to guests. It seemed every facet of the team that night made it a point to create the most welcoming and enjoyable atmosphere possible. I enjoyed the presentation of the food and it was delightful. Coming from a family of restaurant owners, I just was blown away at the fact that no one at Wagamama missed a single step; whether it was the ambiance, food, drinks, or just general merriment I truly could not have had a better experience. To top off this experience, I had the pleasure of meeting the extremely talented and gregarious executive chef Steve Mangleshot. Speaking to him really helped answer the question of how a restaurant can embody such sincere service and positivity.
The Knockturnal: So I was reading up on your test kitchen format, can you speak about that?
Steve Mangleshot: So basically in London we work in Soho, we got a great little kitchen called Noodle Lab, so what we do is we create great dishes, we create great food but instead of trying to put it in front of a board of directors and say what do you think, we put it in front of customers and say what do you think? So it’s basically the equivalent of doing it in a cool part of New York in a test kitchen and you’re testing food to say if you like it, should we put it on our menu? We get great feedback, and it lends itself to what the innovation is going to be moving forward. The people that have to pay for food are going to be honest with you and give you great feedback and that’s why we did it, so we test uniforms, we test new drinks, new till systems, so we treat it as a real innovation hub.
The Knockturnal: Why do you feel like more people aren’t doing this?
Steve Mangleshot: Because open is more open, towards a younger demographic, we’re getting new fans and showing them how good we are at innovation, and they’re the ones that are going to be buying week in and week out. It’s better to get honest real feedback because it shapes what we do in the future.
The Knockturnal: When you’re working with a restaurant like Wagamama that already has a set menu in a sense, do you feel like you have a lot of creativity to create what you want? Do you want to stay within what the menu entails or see how far you can go?
Steve Mangleshot: I love pushing boundaries, I think innovation should never stop. Just trying to be safe and work in a safe space, look we’re always going to have authentic food on the menu, but we’re also going to push the boundary with our food and create some really cool stuff and look we do a lot of vegan and plant-based, food should just be really good food, and customers and guests should never settle for second best. We shouldn’t just put things together and say “oh we did a vegan option” we should pour some authenticity and creativity into that food. All I ever want people to do is go “oh Wagamama! Great food I’m thinking of coming back!” And if they leave with a smile on their face well that’s all I ever want to achieve. A smile on their face that actually says to them this our brand and this is why they love it.
The Knockturnal: How do you want people to feel when they eat your food?
Steve Mangleshot: Again I go back to Wagamama food, I want them to leave here with a big smile on their face saying “ah i wish i could do that.” The food is stunning and fresh. It nourishes the soul and the mind, our favorite dish is the whole menu and what I’m developing in London. I like our food because it makes me feel good and that’s what I want to make, food that makes you feel good. I just want to enjoy food, I think food is in the heart of everything we do.
Steve truly spoke in such an expressive and forthright manner it made me at some points forget we were talking about just food and Wagamama. The way he eloquently can piece together a sentiment so warm about Donburi or his commitment to his craft, well I truly feel you can taste that in every bite of food you eat there. Growing up in a service-based industry, some arguably could call me critical or obsessive when it comes to a dining experience, albeit I never worked within or near an Asian or Japanese restaurant. If I did I can be sure I would not change one opinion about my experience. When Steven spoke of how he wanted to get his food in front of real people, and truly understand what his customers want, not only was it a testament to his amiable personality but to his altruistic and all-around successful advent towards revolutionizing how we look at conventional dining.