'I didn't have any money at the time, I was skint. But I thought, f**k it, I'll give it a go'

The  Staff Canteen

Ben Crittenden is the chef and owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Stark in Broadstairs, kent. 

Ben has spent his life working hard to better himself at whatever cost, and it has served him well: critics, guests and guides have poured praise and accolades on the restaurant which he all but built himself.

One of five children, the chef said, "I've never had loads of money." 

Aged thirteen, he got two paper rounds and delivered leaflets for a Chinese restaurant, as, he explained "if I wanted to go out with my mates I had to earn the money myself."

As a result the chef is frustrated when people make assumptions about his upbringing. "We haven't been gifted anything," he said. "We've had to bust our bollocks to get to where we are and do what we do." 

A journey and a half

From his days at Rhodes W1's brasserie, where the chef was part of a large brigade in the early 2000s, followed by six years sharing a kitchen with Graham Garatt at The West House in Biddendham, the chef finally decided it was time for a place of his own.

The chef had planned to fit out a van and sell his food that way, but on a chance visit to Broadstairs, he spotted a vacant sandwich shop which seemed within the realms of what he could afford. 

"I didn't have any money at this time, I was skint," he laughed. "But I thought, fuck it, I'll give it a go." 

Without telling his wife Sophie, the chef admitted, "I agreed to take on the place before I actually had any finances. I thought: 'It can't be that hard to get a little bit of money together.'"

"I went to a bank and they laughed at me," he said. And so, the chef turned to a start-up loan company and secured a £15,000 loan, "which I thought was loads of money. Turns out it's not." 

But with help from his dad, a carpenter, he converted the old sandwich shop into a restaurant, and opened in 2016 with a 6 x 8 foot kitchen smaller than most people's domestic kitchens. 

"We put everything into the refurb," he said. "It wasn't just a lick of paint, we ended up having to gut the place and did everything." 

"By the time we opened, I think I had £500 in my name." 

The restaurant got off to a slow start, the chef explained, serving a table a night for the first three months. 

But eight months in, Marina O'Loughlin gave the restaurant a beaming review, and everything changed overnight. 

"We went from doing four people a night to being full for two months." 

Two weeks later, Ben received the Good Food Guide Chef to Watch award, "and all of a sudden it went mental, we filled up for the rest of the year." 

Trout, cucumber, fennel 

What makes Stark 

By no means striving to turn a fortune, the father of three, who said he's never earned more than £25 grand a year, explained that "it's more about work life balance. and having the freedom to do what you want to do."

At Stark, that means a tasting menu that can change up to several times a week, with no compromises for allergies or dietary requirements.

Dishes on the menu in recent weeks, the chef strenuously recalled, include confit leg of squab pigeon cooked in beetroot juice, with pickled cherries with puffed buckwheat, and cured mackerel with sunflower shoots and iberico pork-flavoured tomato dashi. 

Defining his style of food is something he has never tried to do, as, he said, "I just do a six-course menu and I do six courses of what I fancy doing that week." 

The name Stark, as confirmed by the chef when he stepped up on stage to receive his Michelin stars at the awards ceremony last year, is inspired by the cult series which need not be named, but also speaks to the restaurant's decor and food ethos: stripped back to bare essentials, and more rough around the edges than your stereotypical white tablecloth fine dining restaurant. 

"I've based the restaurant based on what I'd want when I go to a restaurant," he said, "because I don't like all the stuffy shit."

Bumps in the road 

Before the pandemic, the chef had planned to launch a bar and Tapas restaurant on the same street as Stark.

He and his wife were a month away from launching the new venue when the whole industry was shut down. 

"I thought that was us done and dusted," he said. But not one to be discouraged by adversity, the chef took out a bounce-back loan, paid off his suppliers, covered his rent costs and revised his plans.

They reopened Stark at the alternate site to accomodate people despite social distancing, and the chef returned to his one-man show behind the pass after months of closure. 

Glad to have had the time to fit out the new site exactly as he wanted, he said:"Yes we're in a lot more debt than we were, but the restaurant's turned out exactly how I wanted it to be and it's gone down really well." 

The Michelin question

However fond chefs are of accolades, getting a star right before lockdown, Ben said, was "a bit of a kick in the bollocks." 

"They say that the year you get a star is the best year you're ever going to have financially. I can honestly say this has been the worst for me." 

Because he's moved shop, he doesn't even know if he'll keep his star in the new guide, but, he said, "I'm not that precious about it. It's something that I've achieved that I never thought I would achieve,"  not just to get a star but to have been the first in Thanet to bag one. 

"No one can take that away from me really, it's done. I'm not going to be bitter if I lose it - if it's because I've moved down the road, then fair enough, but that was always part of the plan anyway." 

The chef's cookbook comes out next week, and will serve as a testament to how far he and Sophie have come in the past five years. "There are some pretty dark bits," he said. "It's not been an easy ride and we just thought we'd document it." 

As for the future, a move to Essex - but only on the condition that it be in Sophie's hometown on Mersey Island - seems highly likely, but the chef would like to keep at least one restaurant in Thanet, where he was born and raised. 

"We've built our reputation in Broadstairs and to relocate that somewhere completely different is worrying," he said, "but I think it's what we'll end up doing because it's where Soph wants to be. I've had my start of being here and I took on the restaurant without telling her, so."

"I think I owe her one. At least she told me about it." 

Stark in Broadstairs, Kent
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd September 2020

'I didn't have any money at the time, I was skint. But I thought, f**k it, I'll give it a go'