Animal instinct: under the skin of Soho restaurant Smoking Goat
Smoking Goat restaurateur Ben Chapman’s dedication to careful sourcing means success not only for him, but his suppliers too
Ben Chapman is a special kind of restaurant owner. If his name isn't familiar to you, then Smoking Goat, the Thai restaurant he co-owns in Soho – which often serves 200 covers a night – might be. If you've caught wind of Kiln, a new restaurant coming to the area in mid-September, he's behind that, too.
Chapman is compelling because as well as being a straightforwardly decent bloke, with no history of working in food whatsoever, he is also committed to continually refreshing his approach in order to help suppliers produce the best stuff they possibly can so the rest of us can enjoy it.
No doubt you'll have heard the phrase "we work closely with our suppliers," used regularly during the last six or so years of London's restaurant boom. While some chefs use it loosely, there are others who live and breathe the connection between, say, the work done on a boat in Cornwall and the arrival of its catch on someone's plate in London; who genuinely care about how certain types of soil can lead to better garlic in a Thai curry. They don't settle for half measures.
Of these, Chapman, 31, is the latter. And if you haven't heard about him, it's not that he doesn't want to talk about his restaurants – he's just not in this business for the limelight.
"Ben's really special. He doesn't work like anyone else," says Matt Chatfield of The Cornwall Project, with whom Chapman works to source produce from the South West. "He's with his suppliers all the time, it's amazing. He's going to be one to watch."
So what exactly is it that sets Chapman apart from other restaurateurs?
Ben doesn't work like anyone else. He's with his supplier all the time, it's amazing
Not having worked in food before owning restaurants – Chapman grew up in Birmingham then studied art at the Courtauld before owning art galleries, DJing "weird psychadelic stuff", and running club nights – means he asks "a lot of questions".
"I don't have a traditional chef's background, so when I've been told "This is how it's done," I've always said, "Well, is there another way?" That's led us along the path that we're in. I get more pleasure from the supplier side – like finding a newer, better way of doing things with somebody – than I actually do from cooking, to be honest."
He works "very much around what the supplier has, rather than telling them what to get. That's the crucial difference, really. I think if you want to be involved, you need to understand the motives of farmers."
He orders whole animals – rather than only parts of them, or only identically shaped fish – and serves everything that comes in, meaning the supplier never has to worry that they will be left with half of their stock. It is the kitchen's job, Chapman believes, to sell the fish: "It's not the fisherman's job. His job is to get it out of the sea," he says. "So whatever comes in, the way it comes in, you have to sell all of it, all the time."
He works with the Kernowsashimi collective in Cornwall because of their "amazing quality of fish – little mackerel that are just absolutely perfect and so bright, like little bolts of silver." Meat-wise, he praises Philip Warren, a butcher in Cornwall (with whom he is in regular discussions about breeding certain types of pigs or cows), the "very wonderful farmer" at Taste Tradition in Yorkshire and the "fantastic things that the people at Swaledale Foods are doing."
He undertook a research trip to Thailand, where in the most rural areas he ate "some of the best Thai food I've ever eaten" a lot of which came "straight out of the field, or off the tree next to their houses". As such he has built the new menu at Kiln "solely around those things that the producers make. "It's a philosophy more than a stop-gap. It's like an infinite project," he says.
After we speak, he is off to Cornwall to see the pigs slaughtered; he'll also talk to Sean O'Neill – aka The Modern Salad Grower – about how the Thai herbs and vegetables he has begun growing for him are coming along. But perhaps most exciting of all, for the new Kiln site he plans to buy whole animals, have them immediately broken down by an in-house butcher, and given to the chefs to make dishes out of throughout the day – "We might have five lambs and three pigs. We'll start on the jowels, then the neck fillets, and so on..."
With this in mind, he has developed a lamb skewer made with finely sliced layers of fat and meat from the whole animal, which he trialled at this year's Soho Food Feast.
"We've got this hogget, and when you fatten it up you can hang it much longer. That means you can intensify the flavour, which means that, crucially, you can soften the texture. And what that means is that essentially you can grill the whole thing, including all those tougher cuts that you couldn't really use before. And as you've got to use all the fat, too, the perfect dish for it is these lamb skewers. This way we don't have to call the farmer half-way through and say we're stuck with something we can't use.
"I think if you're going to have things bred to your spec, you're responsible for the whole animal. I think this is a good example of how a bit more innovation and thinking at this end means you're pushing the farmer with you, rather than pushing on the farmer."
If it all sounds like a lot of hard work, Chapman isn't worried. "It's not as hard as people think it is, as long as you've got the philosophy and the right team – that's the best way. Then everyone gets behind it. Before we open Kiln, we'll take all our staff down to see the pigs."
He also loves cities, arguing that "to London's great credit, we have an audience for this type of thing, which is also benefitting the guys in Cornwall massively."
In this relentless pursuit of flavour, his "great inspiration" is the chef Tom Adams, co-founder of the British barbecue restaurant Pitt Cue and more recently the working farm and guesthouse, Coombeshead Farm, which Chapman reveals he thinks is "incredible. Tom won't compromise – he is just a genius really, in that sense that you can create a business that relies entirely on its quality of supply, and in doing that you're creating better supply at the same time. I think this mutual exchange is really exciting."
Meanwhile, the Cornwall Project's Matt Chatfield can't believe his luck: "I was joking with Sean O'Neill last year about creating the perfect chef-restaurateur, who would ultimately help make suppliers and restaurants work in perfect harmony. Having begun to work more closely with Ben, it no longer seems like a joke."