Wagamama’s executive chef Steven Mangleshot has been at the forefront of innovation in the casual-dining sector. Here he talks to Food Spark’s Tom Lee about what’s going on in his Noodle Lab

Steven Mangleshot joined Wagamama as a head chef when there were just five locations in the portfolio. Now there are 180, spread across 23 countries, from America to the Middle East. And Mangleshot has grown with the company. In 17 years, he’s gone from running the kitchen in a single branch to overseeing the 3,000 chefs that work for the modern Asian chain.

Aside from jet-setting around the world to tweak menus – particularly in the brand’s American outlets – and finding inspiration for the future, he spends most of his time in the new Noodle Lab. Opened last October, the site on Dean Street, in London’s Soho, is where Wagamama has been trialling fresh ideas on willing customer guinea pigs, a concept that’s gaining traction, with both Wahaca and Bill’s following suit.

He talked to Food Spark about vegan- ism, healthy eating and back-of-house innovation.

Noodle Lab is something we’ve been playing with for the past eight or nine months, trying to get it right and trying to make sure that we’re doing something that’s really cool. As well as that, we actually are genuinely innovating something that is going to end up on our menus.

People in Soho, they’re going to give you loads of feedback, which is a brilliant thing. And it’s been great watching the rest of the industry sort of start saying, actually, that’s a really good idea; actually we should do that. The people that win are the customers, because they’re telling us what tastes good, what looks good, what we should think about expanding on. It just gives me a great playground to play in and cook loads of different food that is hopefully going to blow people away and make them smile.

The vegan menu has gone absolutely stunningly. It’s been good fun to do that – and not just take the meat protein out of it and say, oh, it’s vegan. Actually work on it properly and try to bring some really cool things up; actually try to make some great new flavours and work with some great new ingredients.

We’ve been playing a lot with the seitan stuff, in particular with the House of Seitan, as well as talking to loads of our staff who are vegans. We’ve used [seitan] in Noodle Lab to create the vegatsu, which is our take on a vegan chicken katsu.

We’ve been working with Cook Daily out of Shoreditch, people like King Cook, and actually collaborating on a dish that we’ve had on the menu for the past couple of months now, which is the udon noodles with a curry base, lots of veg and things like coconut bacon. Just pulling stuff out of the ordinary and working with someone like [King Cook] who’s a real vegan, who does lots of great stuff down in Shoreditch, and actually trying to bring some of his ideas and my ideas together to create a really cool dish. It’s been fun non-stop.

I try and eat vegan once a week now. But actually I try and not eat meat every day of the week. I suppose it’s not hard, it’s not getting into a routine, it’s just finding other stuff to eat. And with the Noodle Lab, I’ve got loads of dishes down there that I can eat whenever I want. You sort of feel like you’re doing the right thing by leaving a little bit of meat out now and again.

I think the world’s on a big health kick about sugars, salts, fats, and I think everyone’s been drawing from that. I think [the food industry] is going to be quite parrot-y around health.

We’ve had some of the cool kids and now we’ve got to look at some of the other chefs that we can use. It’s not going to be just about doing vegan all the time, it’s going to be about doing some other collaborations – it might be a ramen chef, it might be someone in the world who does teppanyaki or tatakis. Whatever we’re going to do, we’ll choose someone who is doing something cool that loves Wagamama.

At the moment we’re trying to do new bits of menus for the US, incorporating some new flavours and some vegan menu stuff for our five restaurants out there.

Where maybe 10 years ago we felt we were a bit behind New York, and New York was the pinnacle of food, I think London is on a par with it. I’m very proud of what we can do in London and all the great stuff we have in London. I think it is on quite an even footing with New York. But I’m sure a load of people disagree with me!

I remember when we launched our ramen section, just before the Tonkotsus and Shoryus of this world had all entered London. I think we launched some great ramens when we started to change the flavours we were using, the proteins we were using, to try and make them our own. Putting a short rib of beef in a ramen with the bone poking out of the broth – for me, it was genius, because it just made people’s minds think: ‘Oh my god, it looks amazing.’

All we ever want to do is make sure that people think we’re going a bit mad and I’m going a bit mental – as long as they taste it and then go, yeah, but I get it, I really get it, I get why they’ve done that. I’m always on the lookout for that new piece of fish that people possibly might not have tried. Because everyone’s done bass and bream and trout and cod and pollock and all that stuff.

We’ve got 60-odd dishes on our menu, so getting our guys to make sure they’re doing all of them right can be a challenge.

Adding more complexity into our kitchens, sometimes it’s not the right way to do it. Sometimes it’s about making our menus a bit simpler, rather than adding loads of new stuff. It’s all part of the development process.

Back-of-house innovation now is more about energy efficiency, how easy [equipment] is to clean, how sustainable it is for the planet, what the benefits that it gives you are. We’re looking at things that can regenerate fryer oil, for instance, to make it last a bit longer so you haven’t got to use as much.

At the end of the day, a wok is a wok, and people just want to know they can cook on that wok. So you’ve got to be very careful that you’re not trying to innovate too quickly, that it’s not becoming harder to use.


Glenn Evans, Las Iguanas, on Food Spark

Article originally published on foodspark.com, a digital subscription service designed to inspire and inform innovation across the food industry.

For anyone needing to stay ahead of the culinary curve, Food Spark will offer immediate access to the emerging trends, ingredients, personalities and headwinds defining the future of food. Explore more content by visiting Food Spark or by requesting a demo: joinus@foodspark.com or 01293 610371.