Neil Rankin, John Salt, London

The  Staff Canteen

Last December a media storm brewed in Angel as twitter announced the departure of Ben Spalding from John Salt. Neil Rankin, who was already in discussion with 580 Limited group, stepped in offering on-trend ‘Carnivore food porn’.

Louise Thomas meets Neil to find out more about his cooking and how he is making a name for himself at John Salt.

There are some parallels between you and Ben, though I appreciate you are two very different chefs. How will you avoid the pitfalls of comparison and create your own name here?

I don't think there's any comparison between Ben and I. I came here on the friends and family night when he was in the kitchen and he was cooking great food. But I'm not trying to copy; I'm not trying to do anything like him – we come from a completely different place. I'm a lot older and I'm more relaxed about the food I want to cook and I'm not here to make a big statement. I can't see any parallels, apart from us both being chefs here.

You're were already in discussion with 580 Limited with regards to their site in Shoreditch, The Owl and the Pussycat, before joining John Salt. Will you still be looking after the kitchen there or is this your new home?

It will still be something I'm doing, but I've got to get here secured first. My sous chef, Luke Findley, has a really good background: he was in the original line up with Tom Kerridge at The Hand and Flowers before going to Nopi. Luke will be running The Owl and the Pussycat, but as a group we will advise on the menu and help build that. We want to get that up and running for the summer, but John Salt is our priority at the moment.

Who is working with you in the kitchen and how have you pulled the team together?

I've got Luke as my sous chef and Barry Fitzgerald as my CDP, who was head chef at The Harwood Arms and spent time at The Fat Duck, Roganic and L'Enclume. Barry is only with us for four months, as he's really a head chef, but he wanted to come in and see what we were doing. Roger’s here too, who came down with me from Pitt Cue Co. and he’s one of the best guys I’ve ever worked with. James Lowe helped me out on the blogger nights. It’s a bit of a dream team.

You've worked in fine dining kitchens such as Rhodes 24, The Glasshouse and the Latymer at Pennyhill Park: what made you take the move into something more informal?

I was a bit stagnated and it wasn't the food I wanted to eat so I understand why I was cooking it. The Barbecoa thing came up, which sounded like the most amazing project: you've got Adam Perry Lang (maybe the best barbecue guy in the world) working with Jamie Oliver (who you have to have respect for, for what he’s done). It was definitely an interesting thing to do. I ended up cooking over charcoal, which was something I wanted to get involved with: meat and butchery. It was all the things I wanted to learn and hadn't had the opportunity to learn properly before. The food in the end wasn’t my bag, but it made me think that maybe fine dining wasn't for me; it was still a great learning experience.

You've done fine dining to street food; which kitchen has had the most influence on your cooking to date?

Definitely working with Adam Perry Lang. Our one to ones, of which we had many, taught me a lot. What I did at Pitt Cue Co. was me; it was my own cooking, but Tom Adams’ obsession with rare breed animals did rub off on me. Out of the other chefs I've worked with, the time I spent with Nuno Mendes inspired me creatively. The different ways he deals with seafood was just "Wow" – he's my favourite seafood chef. Nuno does things really simply and brings out those big fishy, sea flavours from the produce really well and really boldly; that’s what I want to do here in my own way, but add the barbecue thing to it, and gather in all the other flavours and techniques to deliver a good plate of food. In terms of food and flavour, I've had more influence going out to eat. Korean and Malaysian cooking; things that are a little bit different excite me as a chef. I just want to get involved with that. It's been nice as we've had loads of Korean, Japanese and Chinese people coming in here and seeing what were doing and loving it as well – that's a real buzz for me.

Your food is very on trend: smoking, charcoal, 'carnivore food porn', informal dining, single protein and American-comfort food. How will you ensure your food outlives the trends?

I don't know why it's still called 'Dude Food'; I've got some really delicate dishes on my menu, product led cooking. My food revolves around what I want to eat and what I think other people want to eat. I don't have a specific goal, a brief in mind, to do this or do that. It's very eclectic. With the help of Matt Chatfield form the Cornish Grill, we’re rolling this year with seasons: we don't have crab on at the moment because it’s not easily available and the menu is fully flexible. We’re not trying to scour the earth just to fill a space on a menu. I'm just cooking stuff as it comes in and when it’s beautiful and affordable and I don't think that will go out of trend – hopefully not. If it does I'm out of a job…

You were a blogger yourself and you invited bloggers to a soft launch at John Salt; and you're also a regular tweeter. How important is it to be social media savvy? And how do you manage bloggers and tweeters?

I wouldn't say I was a blogger: I started a blog four years ago, but didn't really keep it up. I'm definitely a tweeter – maybe not a blogger, but definitely a tweeter. I got the bloggers in primarily for Twitter as I knew I would get an honest response from them and it would create a bit of a buzz. There was definitely a media storm brewing after Ben left, so I needed something to say I'm here; this is what we are doing. The bloggers are well connected, so just a couple of photographs across the Internet and Twitter on the night can do amazing things – and it had the desired effect. I think social media is massively important now. I don't think my last post at Pitt Cue Co. would have been anywhere near as successful without social media. There are restaurants that can't afford massive PR, and Twitter can fit right in there. It can be harmful too; if you get a bad tweet you have to know how to respond to it, but generally if it's something positive coming out then it can do a lot of good.

What are your ambitions for here and where do you see yourself in five years time?

The five-year question! Here, I just want it to be a busy, buzzing bar and restaurant. You have to have drinkers in here as well as diners. As long as it’s got a good vibe and it’s busy and people say it’s got good food I'm happy. I’ve owned my own business in the past and I’ve done quite a few things in my life, so I’m not desperate to open just anything with my own money without serious thought. Maybe there's a restaurant somewhere in the next five years. I don't know but we'll see…

If like Neil you want to be a head chef, check out our jobs board for current vacancies. 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 8th March 2013

Neil Rankin, John Salt, London