RD: Hi Ben, tell us about your early cooking experiences growing up in Skegness,- and if they have had any influence on your style of cooking today.
BT: To be honest, it is a bit of a culinary wasteland up there. It probably made me want to cook and eat better I suppose. Moreover my parents were not great cooks, which did not help me to appreciate food. However, my grandmother was a fantastic cook, she was very good with flavors. Everything she made was absolutely delicious, so I spent a lot of time with her. But as soon as I got the opportunity to get out and move to London, when I was 18, I did it. So I guess I got part of my influence definitely from my grandmother.
RD: A good source of influence, we would be lost without advice from our old gran. Had you always aimed to become a chef director of a restaurant/group like Salt Yard Group?
BT: No, not at all. The actual reason I moved to London was getting out of Skegness and being a chef was an easy avenue to do that. In addition, I had a couple of friends that were chefs who did the same. For the first two or three years in London, I did not really like it, I thought this was just a job and something else would come up. As it went on, I got into it a bit more and I ended up working in a restaurant called Coast. There were a lot of great chefs and I was working at the bottom of the latter. That’s the point where I got passionate about cooking food rather than just doing it. In terms of ambition it has been great so far and now we are at four restaurants. I was never really an ambitious person, but I guess it all happens because of a reason!
RD: It’s funny how things fall into place. We can’t believe it's 4 restaurants now - what do you think makes Salt Yard Group restaurants stand out against the others in the vibrant London dining scene?
BT: The main point of differentiation is that we offer a mix of Spanish and Italian flavours, which not many restaurants do. Moreover the balance between high-end food/service and a very accessible/relaxed environment makes our restaurants definitely feel special. There are restaurants who try to do the same now, but we have been striving this for the past 11 years and we have definitely achieved it.
RD: They definitely feel special - we are never going to get over Opera Tavern’s Foie Gras Burger! How do you manage to balance overseas influences, with the seasonality and the use of quality local ingredients?
BT: In terms of achieving consistency it’s about checking, checking, checking. Its also about having a great team of head chefs (amongst others), they have all been around for quite some time and strive for the same thing as me. It would be physically impossible to keep an eye on all of them, therefore you need a team that is driven by the same values to make sure the quality is there. They are also very much responsible in creating dishes that are seasonal and tick all the boxes in the parameters that I have set. There is a certain framework they need to follow in terms of price point, things must be seasonal and each dish must have a Spanish or Italian element/flavour to it. In fact, nothing goes on the menu without me checking it.
RD: Do all your vegetables really come from a school vegetable garden in Shepherd’s bush?
BT: Yes, we get basically everything from there! The way it works, is that each restaurant gets big boxes with mixed vegetables and fruits on a regular basis. There is asparagus, kale, many different types of salads, every type of herb you can think of, etc. I believe at the minute they are getting fresh strawberries and raspberries, summer squashes and loads of courgettes. You name it, they are growing absolutely everything down there.
RD: You are working those primary 7 pupils hard then! Haha! Tapas is all about sharing, but at ResDiary we are split down the middle between those who like to share and those who don’t - which side of the fence are you on?
BT: I definitely think the concept of sharing food and enjoying time together during a meal is at the centre of our restaurants so I guess I would need to say the sharing side of the fence.
RD: We do agree...but we probably aren’t going to ask for two spoons to share our dessert any time soon. Salt Yard Group has already been awarded with several Bib Gourmand awards. How important are these awards to you and the group as a recognition?
BT: I think they are very important for the chefs as a recognition, especially amongst their peers. There is a good amount of customers who also look at those awards, and Michelin is definitely one of the important ones. I believe it is crucial not to get wrapped too much in it, as your final goal is to get happy customers and not the awards. If you are focussing on consistency, getting the awards should be a natural process.
RD: Ember Yard, your most recent restaurant, featuring charcoal-smoked dishes cooked on a custom built basque-style grill is very popular amongst diners, but has not received any award from the Michelin Guide yet. Do you think it is perceived differently than your other venues?
BT: It’s true that we have not received any Michelin awards yet for Ember Yard. Maybe it is perceived differently on the face of it. Indeed it is simpler and the food is less elaborate, for the reason being that there are more proteins and its all about the grill and the flavours through the smoke. If you want to make a comparison to the AA Guide, where all of our restaurants (including Ember Yard) hold two rosettes, there is definitely potential for a Bib Gourmand at Ember Yard.
RD: We love your latest book Grill Smoke BBQ - we were delighted to finally have the recipe for your signature Ibérico Presa with Jamón Butter! Do you have a favourite dish in the book so we can all cook to Michelin standard?
BT: I really like the deserts within the book, especially the chocolate ones. You cook them on the barbeque with cream on the top, I cooked them several times at home for guests and they absolutely loved it. What I do like as well is a whole fish on the barbecue. The thing about the book is, whilst there are meat dishes in there, it’s only a very small part of it. People’s association of barbecue and meat is great, but there is so much more you can do, and flat/whole fish is definitely good option as well.
RD: If you hadn’t become a chef, what else do you think you would be doing now?
BT: Possibly something to do with fashion. That is definitely a passion of mine, I spend all my money on clothes!
RD: A very noble passion indeed. Thanks for chatting with us!
To celebrate the launch of La Sèlection - ResDiary's new website dedicated to helping discover and book at over 80 Michelin starred restaurants- we are giving you the chance to win a spectacular Dinner for two at Ember Yard, Soho - including wine chosen by their sommelier on our Facebook page.