'It’s very hard to make a simple looking dish very very good - but that’s the challenge'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Ben Tesh is the head chef at Restaurant Folium in Birmingham. 

In his own words, the chef came into the game “a bit late,” aged 22. 

“I originally set out to be a doctor,” he laughed. 

Ben took a part time job in a kitchen at a restaurant to keep his finances flowing, but soon realised he had found a career he wanted to pursue. 

“I think it was the adrenaline rush,” he said, “the mad rush in service, the crazy hours kept and that part of it that gets your heart going, it makes it interesting and exciting.” 

'Ring of fire'

Originally from a small village near Pontefract in the outskirts of Leeds, the chef set his sights on high end cooking, heading to work for Colin McGurran at Winteringham Fields, where his willingness and ability to learn were put to the test for six months.

“It was a bit of a ring of fire for me there because I went from having absolutely no restaurant experience to getting put on one of the most responsible sections in the kitchen.” 

Although being assigned to sauces might not be every chef’s first foray into fine dining, Ben found this gave him a good grounding. 

“It was an amazing kitchen, all singing and dancing, really grand,” he said.  

Heeding Colin's advice to do short stints in several restaurant  to get more experience in a short timeframe, for the following two years, the chef worked at Anthony’s in Leeds - for chef Anthony Flinn, who opened the restaurant after working at El Bulli

Cod skin cracker. Click here Ben's recipe

He then landed a placement at Noma, and contrary to what one might expect, didn’t find himself out of sorts at the world famous restaurant.

“The crux of the kitchen are the same really. It’s just that the food at the end is considered world class.” 

What he did find surprising, he said, was the simpliciy of the dishes and how they were presented. Instead of adding more intricate elements to a plate, the best chefs, he said, ponder what they can take away.

“That was the big thing I learned, the actual ingredients and approach was very different. They were very forward thinking at the time, they were leading the world, going out and foraging back then - it’s rife now - but back then, they pioneered that.” 

He then joined now chef owner of Michelin-starred Alchemilla, Alex Bond, at then Michelin-starred Turners at 69.

To Richard Turner’s classical style, Alex brought a different, more modern approach. 

“They were creating a style that mixed the two,” Ben explained.

Testing the concept for folium

After Turner’s, he said, “I knew I wanted to open a restaurant.

"But it was trying to understand how I was going to do that, because it’s obviously not an easy process, there’s so many things to consider - you need the right place at the right time, to get the right funding, for everything to drop into place.” 

Birmingham, with its “up and coming food culture scene” seemed fitting. And so, to test his concept, he and his partner Lucy, who now manages the front of house at Restaurant Folium, hosted a series pop-ups in the city.

A year went by, and the chef held successive events in Leeds and Newcastle, which, thanks to a growing following, were sell-out events. 

Eventually the couple decided to take a leap of faith, renting a former warehouse which was being redeveloped, keeping part of its previous moniker, ‘Folium Press Ltd.’"

With backing only from his family, Ben explained that getting banks or investors involved was never their favoured option. 

“We had to make sure that we got a smallish restaurant like we do now, one that we could afford,” in order to “minimise risk where we could.” 

“We were always trying to keep it independent. If there’s just us involved, we don’t have to please anyone else, it’s just our decisions.” 

Describing Restaurant Folium as “minimal” and “clean,” the couple wanted the restaurant interior to be a reflection of the food. 

“It’s very hard to make a simple looking dish very very good,” he smiled. “But that’s the challenge I guess.” 

As for what sets them apart from the pack, Ben said: “We always try to have something on there that’s not ‘run of the mill’ - that you could get in any restaurant somewhere. I like to always have some kind of preparation that’s unique on there.” 

“It’s important that you establish yourself as a restaurant, as a chef.” 

While pushing boundaries isn’t the be all and end all, he said, “challenging yourself and trying to create something new” are crucial to keep the restaurant scene moving. 

“Because if you just do the same things, same preparations, nothing new is going to come about.” 

The 3-5 and 7 course tasting menu - with orders taken before guests arrive - has been well received, but the chef has ambitions to evolve and push things further. 

“We have certain limitations, the kitchen is small so the maximum number of chefs we can have at once is probably four or five if you want to work shoulder to shoulder.” 

Wagyu beef, potato terrine, coffee butter, potato hollandaise, black garlic emulsion 
Find out how to make it here

The rise of Steel City

One thing is certain: with The Wilderness, Purnell’s, Opheem Birmingham’s culinary scene is brimming with high calibre chefs. 

“I think it’s very exciting. Everyone in Birmingham is quite supportive, I’m certainly well supported by certain people, even from the start.” 

The chef doesn’t deny that receiving rave reviews and accolades feels good - including a beaming tirade by critic Marina O’Loughlin, another from local blogger known as Meat and one veg, as well as a spot in The Good Food Guide and a mention from Michelin. 

“It doesn’t define your restaurant, they’re just good ways of say you’re doing good.” 

“Not every day is a good day, you have hard days as well, so these things do help.”

Is there room for improvement? According to Ben, yes. 

“The food, it’s still not where I want it to be. Going forward a couple of years, I’d like to make the food a bit more refined and do a longer offering on the menu, but it’s just not something we can do at the moment.” 

And though it would be too easy to project far into the future, he adds: “we just take it every day as it comes. It’s a very romantic thought to think that it would be nice to move into the city centre with a bigger restaurant and try to attract some investment to make a grand restaurant, but they’re just thoughts.” 

“We love this restaurant, it’s just small, it’s just a nice restaurant, it’s not too pompous or anything and we have fun here, so that’s the main thing really.” 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 5th June 2020

'It’s very hard to make a simple looking dish very very good - but that’s the challenge'