10 minutes with: Ben McKellar

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd January 2015
Ben McKellar is owner and chef of The Ginger Group, four restaurants in Brighton consisting of: The Gingerman, The Ginger Pig, The Ginger Dog and The Ginger Fox. With the flagship The Ginger Man under a refurbishment after ten successful years we thought it was a perfect time to pin this ‘Ginger Chef’ down and talk to him about his career, his aspirations and what it was like working with John Burton-Race in the 90s. GingermanDue to re-open on the 23rd January Ben said that The Gingerman Restaurant hadn’t been refurbished for years, he said: “We’ve touched it up a little in that time, but ultimately it needed a really big modernisation.” Having opened back in 1998 Ben said at the time there was definitely a gap in the market for a restaurant like The Gingerman he explained: “At the time there weren’t many places where you could have good food but didn’t have to dress up. Everything was very formal and stuffy; we wanted to change that.” Brighton was always the location for Ben and his wife’s restaurants, Ben said: “We loved Brighton so we came back here and wanted to set up a restaurant in the same spirit of what we’d seen in New York; nothing too fancy.” Ben headed to New York in 1996 to work at Park Bistro, a “French-styled” and “very good” restaurant explained Ben, he said: “It was fantastic. It was probably the best place I ever worked. The food was only bistro-delux standard, but the can-do attitude was just inspiring. “It felt like anybody could open a restaurant and as long as the food was good enough and you looked after your customers, it would work.” It was New York where Ben got the inspiration for the name of his restaurants he said “We used to go to a bar in New York called ‘Ginger Man’” but it was something a bit closer to home that also served as his inspiration “Well, I’ve got ginger hair…or rather I did have at the time. It’s more strawberry-blonde now.”Souffle Having always wanted to be a chef Ben has had experiences from around the world in order to learn his craft he said: “From quite young, probably the age of about 10, I always wanted to be a chef. It’s all I ever wanted to do growing up. It’s the perfect job for me. “I worked in a restaurant called the Langems Bistro in Brighton when I was at college. I did that from 1987-89 while I studied and then afterwards went to France in 1990” Although most of Ben’s friends headed to London for Ben he knew he wanted to go to France, he explained: “At the time French food was very highly regarded, in my opinion, France’s food was best. “So one day I just up and went! I knocked on doors in Avignon trying to find a job. Eventually I found one and stayed for the best part of three years. It was great. A good grounding in the profession.” Ginger PigComing back from France Ben strengthened his experience by working with John Burton-Race from 1993-94. Speaking about his time with John he said: “He had two Michelins stars at the time so he was very good. His restaurant was always busy.” However John was renowned at the time for being a tough chef to work for, upon reflection Ben explained: “It was a very tough place to work, shall we say. “John was just very driven. He had two Michelin stars and he wanted a third; that was his goal. He wasn’t the nicest person to work with then. It was just that kind of time in his life I guess” The stars aren’t however a sole focus for Ben as he’s now owner of four restaurants in the Brighton area he said: “When I was young that was my driving force, but as I got older it was far less of a motivation. “Now, it would be nice to have one, but I’m not going to go out of my way and change how we work to get one. You need have a popular, profitable business. That’s most important.” With no Michelin Stars in Brighton and the focus predominantly on London Ben believes it due to “a price sensitive thing.” He said: “You have to have a lot of staff and charge more money than you can get away with in a place like Brighton. London is so close, so it’s almost like you can just go there instead. “Brighton just doesn’t seem to have that economy. We haven’t had a star here since the 70’s I think.”Scallops But with Brighton’s food scene “improving year on year” Ben explained that “There’s such a change from the bottom to the top” and that “The more chefs and good restaurants there are, the higher the demand is”. The scene however must be busy enough with Ben owning four restaurants within the group, speaking about the style food across all four Ben said: “We try not to take ourselves too seriously. We like simple and good things, nothing pretentious. “The modern British movement is what I like best. I have a classical French base, but the British movement is what people want to eat at the moment. It’s light, simple food that is full of flavour” With the success of the Gingerman Group Ben has revealed he is hoping to expand upon his empire this year, he said: “We’re looking to open up a seafood restaurant this year hopefully. There are development and planning issues though. We’re hoping to open it in early summer if things work out.” We’re looking forward to seeing what happens with this new venture which of course we’ll keep you posted about. Have you eaten at one of Ben’s restaurants? Let us know over on @canteentweets or on our Facebook page. By Aimee Davis

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd January 2015

10 minutes with: Ben McKellar