Ben Marks, chef owner, Perilla

The  Staff Canteen

Ben Marks is the chef owner of Newington Green’s Perilla. A modern European restaurant which he opened with friend Matt Emmerson and backed by Claridge’s Martyn Nail and former GM Thomas Kochs and Elystan Street’s Phil Howard, whom Ben met when he worked at The Square.

It's been two and a half years since they opened and Ben feels he 'got lucky' that he managed to stay open for the first six months! He talks to The Staff Canteen about what he has learned so far, why he never wants to see one of his opening dishes, pea and butter milk dessert, again and how excited he was when he managed to get his first dish on the menu at Claridge's. 

Why did you want to be a chef and what three tips would you give yourself if you were starting as a commis again?

I wanted to be a chef because I enjoyed cooking, it’s as simple as that. I was very lucky that I knew what I wanted to do when I was still at school. In terms of tips, I would’ve taught myself to work more organised! The three major places I worked in were Claridge’s, Noma and The Square – they were the three fundamental parts of my career. I think I’ve taken three specific parts of me now from those three kitchens.

From Claridge’s I feel I really learned how to cook and the fundamentals of cookery. At Noma I learned how to look slightly outside of the box, to see what is possible within an incredible restaurant environment. Then at The Square I feel like learned what I really love about food, flavour-based food, which is always based on it tasting absolutely delicious with a real focus on seasonality.

So, I think it’s really cool as a young chef if you can try and craft that, I’m fortunate that that just kind of happened for me. For a young chef I think you need to be very careful about where you choose to go and work and that you work out what you want to take from that restaurant. Plus give yourself enough time to achieve that.

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Which chefs do you aspire to be like and why?

Obviously, you look at other chefs and have a massive amount of respect for what they have achieved or done or what they cook. I don’t know if I ever look at a chef and think I want to be like them – I think that would be quite a strange way to approach it. There are definitely chefs who I massively admire, a lot of it is how they conduct themselves in the kitchen and the hard work they have put in not necessarily the food they cook. I think it’s dangerous to look at food which other chefs cook and mimic that. 

What was the first dish you ever put on a menu and how you feel when you achieved that?

A roast beef, horseradish and tarragon sandwich at Claridge’s. It feels wicked! Especially if it’s good and people enjoy it.

Tell us more about Perilla and opening it.

We approached them which was super scary! We found this site and then we needed to start looking for money, we needed to ask everyone we knew but I said I didn’t feel comfortable asking people I had worked for in the past but Matt said I had to do it. So, I asked, and it took a lot of persuading and convincing and coming down here to the site, looking at the area and talking. Luckily, they agreed in the end.  

I was quite relaxed in the build up and then we opened, and I realised I was completely out of my depth. For the first six months we didn’t really have a menu and the format for the menu wasn’t right. The amount of issues we had at the start I can’t even explain to you. I think we got lucky that we managed to stay open for those first six months.

I think we have massively developed since then and that’s really exciting. Because it’s a neighbourhood restaurant and that’s what we set out to be, I want to food to be approachable in terms of the flavours we put on the plate – we are not here to educate anybody. The food style should allow people to come back once a week.

Copy of Copy of Rising star  Name the chef you think is set for glory Tom Booton%2C previously head chef of Alyn Williams at The Westbury and launching a big new venture this Autumn.

You said you struggled to write a menu in the beginning – is there a dish you put on in the early days you hope you never see again?

We had a pea and butter milk dessert – I hope there is never anything at that standard on our menu again. It hasn’t resurfaced yet but maybe one day I can make that tasty.

Show us a dish on the menu at Perilla now

I want the food here to be different from anywhere else you will eat but they are flavour combinations which are approachable, people understand and are enjoyable. Everything we do is based around very traditional cooking techniques, so lots of pan work. We work a lot with seaweed, we have a lot of seaweed stocks which are the basis for our sauces.

What impact did Great British menu have on you and Perilla?

I was worried after I didn’t win it, I consider myself reasonably competitive, but I came up against two great chefs in that region which softened the blow of losing. Luke Selby and Paul Walsh are complete opposite chefs to me but I have massive respect for what they do. Paul never moved faster than 5 miles and hour and he was super organised – I don’t know how someone can be that methodical and get so much done in that time. And what Luke did in an hour and a half I don’t think I could do in 4 hours!

I was quite nervous about the whole thing but you do it for two reasons to raise awareness of your restaurant or to compete with food. I’ve never found competing with food that attractive – it might be because I’m scared of losing with something I care a lot about.

I was reluctant at first and Matt said it was up to me ‘but we don’t know where the restaurant will be in a years’ time’ so it’s a massive opportunity. It definitely has helped the restaurant in one way or another which is a positive and justifies me going on it. I was worried that after working my whole career, so 12 years, I would be judged from one week on a TV programme.

Now we do get people in the restaurant who recognise me which I found quite nerve-wracking at first because it felt like they weren’t just judging the restaurant but judging me too. Because it’s an open kitchen I found it quite strange at first but not now.

What career goals do you have and how many have you achieved so far?

Opening a restaurant and making sure it is busy! Maintaining a busy restaurant hasn’t been ticked because that is a never-ending box. Luckily, we are busy at the moment but who knows what will happen next week. In terms of awards, right now I’m not massively concerned with accolades.

Tell us your chefs to watch ben marks /COPYOF~2.PNG

How do you find recruiting and retaining chefs?

At the start we struggled to retain staff, it’s something I’ve really had to learn about, the importance of having a really good working environment. I got that wrong at the start and it was a real negative for us here, I think my own insecurities as a young head chef had a negative impact on the people around me. It’s wrong to ever behave like that in the kitchen and it’s only ever going to be a negative to the running of the restaurant.

I was demanding too much from people without giving enough back, I wasn’t maintaining a nice environment in the kitchen, the hours were too long and I probably wasn’t very pleasant to work with because I wasn’t comfortable as a head chef. Now I think we are the complete opposite – I think we have a really good working environment, I don’t want to be in a negative atmosphere and neither does anybody else. I want it to be a happy place. We have a big focus on making sure people are developing, we sit down and talk about goals and achieving those – we’re not perfect but we have now managed to maintain a core team in the kitchen.

I’ve seen the impact that has had on us as a restaurant and the guest experience as a result of it and it’s crucial to me now to keep people for at least a year and that they are constantly driven and developing. I’m embarrassed looking back at how it was when we first started.

Where do you see yourself in five years?    

I think for now it’s about focusing on Perilla and developing it and constantly making it better. There’s potential for a few little projects we have been thinking about but at the moment it’s about making sure this can be the best it can be.  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th August 2019

Ben Marks, chef owner, Perilla