Ben Spalding, Creative Belly

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Other 11th March 2014

Ben Spalding is one of the UK’s most talented young chefs. He was head chef at Simon Rogan’s Roganic before leaving to head up the cooking operation at John Salt. After a disagreement over the direction the food was taking he left and went his own way, forming his own event catering company, Creative Belly. This was followed last year by his dining concept, No Rules, where diners bring their favourite and least favourite ingredients and challenge Ben and his team to create something memorable and delicious with both.

Why did you make the decision to break away from the traditional restaurant scenStripped Backe and go into street food and pop ups? I’d been in Michelin star kitchens for eight years and I just felt it was time to do my own thing. I didn’t have the funds to just go and open a restaurant and I wasn’t keen on just jumping into any old head chef job so I thought, what’s better than the street? Due to my limited funds I had to prepare the food at home. After the first few times I did it I thought, this is a concept that has a future. The first time we did it, it was just paper plates, plastic cutlery, a couple of table cloths, napkins, a couple of gas burners. We prepared a very simple menu of four dishes for £17.50 and just went and did it. I thought, Jesus Christ, what am I doing? But people were really into it. How did you come up with the idea for No Rules? My original thought process was, how do I take the chef’s table, which is great but f***king boring, and make it more interesting Stripped Back (2)whilst at the same time challenging myself and putting myself in a really uncomfortable position whilst heightening the guests’ excitement? So no menu, no pre-planning or rehearsal; the whole thing is ad hoc and totally made up on the spot. Then I thought, what if I take that even further and get everyone to bring their least favourite ingredient so it really challenges me? Then of course there’s the favourite ingredient side, so that people actually get fed what they really want and enjoy. The whole thing becomes like a play between the chefs and the guests and there’s this complete trust between me and them because I have nowhere to hide. What’s the most challenging combination of ingredients anyone’s ever given you? I’ve had lamb’s liver three or four times, which is a real b****rd! The second time we did it, we cooked it in burnt caramel and sliced it super thin and it came out almost like a cured meat, and was actually really nice. We’ve had some really funny ones, like somebody brought Skips one time. I immediately got Stripped Back (3)one of the chefs to grind them up into a dust then I got some chicken wings that we’d cooked slowly for half a day and covered with some lovely barbecue sauce and then coated them with the Skips like a massive mole hill on top. Everyone was eating them with their hands and just loving them. It’s all about interactive, unpretentious, but most of all, delicious food. I’ve never seen a guy so happy as the guy that brought those Skips in and I just thought, wow, this is what I want to do with food.  You very much go against the modern grain of local and seasonal; can you explain your reasons behind that? It goes against every way I’ve been trained. I’ve never worked for a chef who told me to cook like that. At Roganic I was told that everything had be sourced from Britain, everything had to be in season and use as much wild food as you can, which is hard. In December you’ve got hardly any plants to use; we had to do a lot of curing and preserving. But I found I wasn’t being as creative as I wanted to be; I found it more frustrating than anything. So when I went my own way, and particularly with John Salt, I wanted to see how far I could push the creativity, which is why I introduced things like the brick and desserts like peanut butter and cucumber. Then when I left John Salt last year, I was completely free to do whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t have any directors telling me what to do or any executive chefs; I was completely free to Warm bread and butterbe as unruly as I wanted so I just ran riot and every month it just gets crazier and crazier. Can you give us some examples of the craziness? At the beginning of every Stripped Back meal you get bread and butter mousse; I wanted that malt loaf flavour you remember from being a kid but I wanted like a kind of liquid, so we cook it out in butter, blend it, pass it off and you’ve got this stuff that tastes like puréed malt loaf, then we put it in a gun, charge it and keep it at 70 degrees; then after we’ve served the normal bread and butter to the guests we’ll ask them to hold their fists out and we squirt this hot bread and butter mousse onto their hands and they have to lick it off. I’ve seen the most stony-faced people start smiling halfway through tasting this thing. We’re working on fortune cookies at the moment, which will have little notes in them. We’re playing around so that we get guests’ full names and some very subtle, non-intrusive fact about them, like maybe what they do for a living and so, for example, if they’re an accountant, the message in their fortune cookie might say: “How are the accounts going?” or something like that. What have you got coming up? We’ve got some really fun stuff coming up. I’ve just secured a site in King’s Cross to do No Rules and Stripped Back for the next three months. We’ve also just won a government grant to do something called Decade Dinners which is basically a voucher from the government to research archives and do six dinners form different decades – 1920’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s, 2010’s and 2050’s. We also have Coachella festival in California in April where we’ll be looking to feed in the region of 30-40,000 people over two weekends. Ben Spalding In between all that I’m searching for a permanent site which I’ll be doing with Sylvain Acola who’s been a restaurant manager with the Galvin brothers. We’re looking for a kind of run-down, grotty café. We’re going to gut it and pimp it out – no table cloths, music loud, seven days a week, with a top class barista, then we’ll have a few breakfast items, like a full English done properly, then a lunch express menu – three dishes for sixteen quid, changing every day. Then for dinner time we’ll use it as our venue to host Creative Belly events. It’s going to be high end cooking in a café setting, kind of similar to Le Chateaubriand in Paris, but better!
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Other 11th March 2014

Ben Spalding, Creative Belly

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