The return of the rock 'n' roll chef
By Laura Martin
When a chef declares he's "done with formal, predictable and tedious cooking" and leaves a high-profile position at London restaurant under irreconcilable differences, he'd better have something decent up his white sleeve. Thankfully, Ben Spalding's often-quoted words paid off, and in 2012 he launched himself from 10 years spent in Michelin-starred restaurants like Fat Duck, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Per Se and L'Enclume to do something entirely unheard of. Nope, he didn't flounce off from John Salt to head up a showy restaurant in Dubai or Vegas. Instead he pitched up with two suitcases at a stall at the School Yard Market in Hackney and set forth his intentions with a concept called Stripped Back, serving a fancy four-course tasting menu to people sat on plastic stools.
This new approach luckily happened to be around the time when the street food scene was just kicking off and Stripped Back quickly picked up a cult following. Its success saw Ben, 28, go on to launch a range of exciting supperclubs such as No Rules (where his dinner guests bring ingredients they love and hate and he whipped up into a tasting menu), Decade Dining (food cooked from an according decade) and 2 Minutes (hearty, high quality dishes cooked in, yep, two minutes).
But after two years popping up all over the place from Palm Springs to Eastern Europe, Ben has decided to head back into an actual kitchen for a while. He's chosen The Laundry in Hackney as the place to rest his hat for the month of February, so we sat down with the rebel chef to chat about why not enough people are starting new trends, why he thinks seasonal food is "bullshit" and all about mixing it up in his kitchen again.
After two years going about it on your own, what finally tempted you back to an actual restaurant?
It's mainly about going back into an environment where I can be creative again, I've been running my own company for the past few years and I've had enough of it, if I'm honest with you. I got to the point now where I want to get back and get cooking and not worry about all the other stuff. I was bogged down in admin and everything else. I was doing 10 people's jobs, rather than focusing on doing one job brilliantly, like I've always done with my career, I've always given 110% in my cooking, where as it got to the point where I was trying to do everything.
You've worked on some pretty amazing events over the past few years, what was the most exciting?
Coachella, hands down. They contacted us and flew us over in business class like rockstars and they set us up in an amazing hotel. We had a stall in the VIP section of the festival – I did Stripped Back there, that was the concept they asked for. We did a really interesting menu like a naughty pig wrap – really nice pulled pork, sour cream, BBQ sauce, bits of grapefruit and we rolled the wrap up, then dipped it in gravy, then put crispy breadcrumbs on the top, it was deadly food. That was really cool – we did two weekends there, then we did a private dinner for Golden Voice, who are the organisers of Coachella and there we did a 23 course tasting menu for 50 people.
Did you have any celebrities stopping off for some food there? It's swarming with VIPs backstage.
We cooked for Jonathan Ross and Gwyneth Paltrow. Gwyneth came up all low-key with her glasses on, she had an iced tea and a watermelon and cucumber gazpacho.
All in, it was a really cool experience. I never really let things go to my head but that was the first time in my career I was like, “Wow, what an achievement.”
How did they hear about you?
They'd heard of Stripped Back, which had been running for about two and a half years. I started it off in London Fields primary school playground, I used to rent a pitch there and do a four-course taster menu. I'd just come from a job at Roganic, then was cooking in the middle of Hackney on a Saturday – people thought I was out of my mind. But it was what I wanted to do. I needed liberating.
Is it a kick back against the formal, old-school of cooking and dining?
It's about rebelling, I really did rebel against it all. Don't get me wrong, I had to learn at the Michelin starred restaurants – I had to get my arse kicked, work for very little money, I'd be broke every second day of the month and I had no social life to appreciate and get these opportunities now. Nothing was ever handed to me, and now I'm at the point of my career where I get the nice points and I see why I did those 100 hours a week on end.
You've been creating feasts all over the world for the past few years - where's the weirdest place you've cooked?
On a mountain in Hungary. That was pretty mad. That was for part of a food movement called Globalista Kitchen. We went out to a vineyard that was above altitude level and it was ridiculous, your ears were about to explode, it was so far up. We went halfway up this mountain and they created this little dining area in this cave, it was insane. The last two years have been amazing, it's been a great break, I didn't want to work for anyone anymore and that was my way of being creative.
Is the residency going to be just a month, or could it possibly be longer?
After about two weeks, we'll sit down and see if it can work for a little longer. The potential is massive for here.
Most of your recent work has all had a theme; Stripped Back, No Rules, Decade Dinners, Two Minutes - is there any particular concept you're going for at The Laundry?
I want to keep it in line with the people who work around here, so lunchtime will very chilled, but I'm going to push the standard up. If you order soup, you'll get soup, but half of it will be cold and half will be hot. Or half of it will be a mousse, or two different flavours. We'll do things like wraps as fajitas are one of my favourite things to eat. We're going to be doing a lot of stews, like Cumbrian lamb. Just tasty food with character. It's important to me that the food here has that sucker punch, so when someone comes in here and has an £8 stew, they're like, "Bloody hell!", then hopefully that will make them want to come back and spend £49 on a tasting menu on a Friday night.
So you're still going to be doing the tasting menus here?
Yes. Monday to Saturday will be a laid-back lunch offering, evenings Tuesday to Thursday will be a la carte, so five starters, mains and desserts, - you'll be able to eat a whole meal for £35. You'll see a lot of old Stripped Back dishes on there too. Then Friday and Saturday will be a tasting menu.
How would you describe the sort of food you're going to be cooking here?
There isn't any regional focus – I'll use any ingredient, from any supplier from anywhere in the world. I don't follow seasonality, I think it's bullshit. People are like, “Oh, I've got my lovely asparagus hand-rolled by virgins three doors away...” Who cares! Does it taste good? That's all I care about. That's at the forefront, so if I were to describe my food, I'd say it was all about the flavour.
Are you looking at this residency as a launch pad for your own restaurant?
I will do, it will be in time, now I've had a dabble in business, I understand how it all works, so I will do. But we're talking about 10 years down the line. I've got two young children so I've got to make sure I put them first for a while. But when as soon as I walked in here, I had a good feeling about the place. We'll see how it goes but I could see myself settling here for quite a while. It's ironic that I've come back full circle from where Stripped Back all started – literally metres away, in fact. It's really strange, but maybe there's a reason it's happened.
What's one dish or ingredient you're obsessed with at the moment?
I love maple syrup – in particular maple cream. My mates went to New York recently and they sent me a few things back and one of them was maple syrup cream. It looks like a pot of stuff you'd put in your hair. But it's so good, I've been eating that out of a tub recently, and we're going to have it on the menu here.
Are there any other chefs doing anything you find exciting at the moment?
I admire anyone working in this industry. For me it's really simple, you either give a shit or you don't. Food wise in London, there's nothing that really inspires me. Don't get me wrong, I love places like Bone Daddies, but I don't think there's anywhere that's really making the change.
What about the street food trend?
The whole street food thing has been bastardised, it's not what it used to be. When I started Stripped Back, it was cutting edge, it was madness, it was the time when food trucks were coming out, like 2011. That makes me sound arrogant, doesn't it! I just think there's a lot of people out there, doing stereotypical things but they don't do it well. Like the whole pulled pork thing. There's a lot of people following trends, not enough people setting them. That's my view on things.
Did you ever find it difficult getting people into your way of cooking?
There's a brilliant picture of this old dude at one of my dinners with the bread and butter mousse that we squirted on his hand and that really sums it up for me. He came with his wife to eat and he must have been about 70. He sat down and was a bit like, “What the hell is this?”. But I do the the bread and butter course deliberately as an icebreaker, I know what it's like to have 30 strangers sitting around that don't really know each other. He really came around after that, his shoulders dropped down, he relaxed and I got his attention for the rest of the meal. I want people to trust me and know that they're going to go on a small journey with food and hopefully they're going to enjoy it. That was a real turning point for me and the way I cooked, and when that picture of the guy came back, I was like, "Wow", I really felt like I'd achieved something.
Ben's residency kicks off at The Laundry from February 2. To reserve a table, email reservations@thelaundryE8.com or phone 020 8986 0738 for more information.