It’s difficult to interview Ben Chapman. The 33-year-old founder of Smoking Goat and Kiln simply has too many interesting things to talk about. If he’s not already writing a book, he should. Over lunch at Brat (which he backs), our conversation ranges from his childhood in Birmingham and his art history degree to falling into restaurant design to taking on an ‘untouchable’ space once owned by Mad Frankie Fraser, to his desire to make Smoking Goat into the next Wagamama (yes, really).
He talks frankly about not knowing enough about Thai food when he opened his first restaurant, and the journey to what Kiln offers, via cooking in rural Thailand. His desire to serve fairly priced food for everybody, while also protecting and supporting suppliers, is now his focus.
More than anything, he is a passionate and staggeringly well- informed proponent of a close relationship with a sustainable supply chain. Nerdy, possibly, but essential. And the enthusiasm with which he shows off photographs of an innovative way to rear pigs shows that this well- respected, very urban restaurateur has a deep connection with nature too. (Turns out he kept chameleons as a child, which isn’t quite like farming, but it’s all animals...)
His business model is progressive and admirable, like his brain. His is a way in which restaurants may have a long and successful future...
Let’s start by talking about authenticity, because it’s very much part of the current conversation about restaurants.
I’m not even well placed to point out how ridiculous our idea of authenticity is, but if you talk to Thai chefs in Thailand about it they think it’s hilarious - I think we just need a slightly different word! When they say authentic, they mean - are you cutting corners? It’s not going to be the same, but you can definitely take the spirit of the thing and for me that’s where I would look for - for want of a better term - authenticity.
I feel really early on with Smoking Goat we really got that wrong and took a fairly meandering understanding. Initially I was really scared of cooking Thai food because I didn’t really know how and didn’t want to half do it. So I found a way in between - not really Thai food, but barbecue with Thai spices. But after a while it was like “no we just need to do this stuff properly, we need to go and learn”. We needed to accept what we didn’t know and start at the beginning again.
How did you actually get started?
I’d fallen into restaurant design through meeting Charlie Carroll of Flat Iron, and I was designing the branch on Denmark Street when the landlord walked in. I asked “What are you doing with that little place with the cool shutters?” He said “Do you want it?” I said “Yes, what is it?!” It was available for six months and it used to be owned by a gangster so nobody wanted it. I just walked in and saw Smoking Goat. It was already written!
I had like maybe three or four good dishes that I thought worked and were good, and had good connection with meat supply chain through Charlie and through Matt Chatfield who I was friends with - and I was like ‘Ah, no one’s going to come anyway so it doesn’t matter!’ I met Seb [Holmes] who had been cooking at the Begging Bowl before that, so he knew what he was doing and he taught me a lot and that was that really. I was lucky, I had Brian [Hannon] ex-director of restaurants at Selfridges as my partner and he knows a lot.
It was exciting because it was cool and that got translated into “good”, but I became less comfortable with it the more I learnt about Thai food. Initially you’re like “this is cool, my friends are here” and then your horizons move, don’t they?
Talk me through the maths, because it seems perverse: you want to make the food cheaper in your restaurants, and to pay the farmers more.
I appreciate the irony of what I’m about to say while choking down a lobster... but I remember once seeing a video of a chef talking about his menu, somewhere in Midwest America. He had meatloaf on the menu and it was $6 and all the other mains were about $24 and he was asked “what’s up with the meatloaf?” And he replied “it’s for poor people” and I was like “huh?” I totally would have phrased it differently, but we do have the power to do these things...
I was in the process of redoing the menu at Smoking Goat earlier today and I was looking at a dish which was a bowl of rice with eggs, some sour vegetables, some little chills around it and it’s incredibly simple, incredibly delicious. It’s way nicer than the things you feel you have to cook in a restaurant and I’m like “I could serve this for nothing”! Why can’t put this on? Is it because it’s not ‘restaurant food’? Because I haven’t done enough to show that I’ve done something?
Sounds like it would be massively popular.
Absolutely and that’s what I wanted to do with Smoking Goat and it’s frustrating that I haven’t achieved it. My whole thing is restaurants are more exciting when there’s a mix of people there having a variety of experiences, you know, like pubs. You could sit there and all three of you could be drinking and just get a big plate of fried rice because then young people would come and not petrified of the bill and worried about who’s eaten what.
So now do you think of yourself as a restaurateur? And if so, what’s next?
I’ve started in the last six months to think about what I want to do and that’s partly driven by creative satisfaction. What role is that for me actually? What I am really trying to do at the moment is set up each restaurant as almost its own business, that has its own cashflow and therefore growth and give the people that are there - the GM, the head chef and whoever they feel they need - has serious shares in that company. Once that business in and of itself has generated enough income, they can go and do something else with it.
People have told me the more successful you are, the further it strays from why you started...
There are days when it makes me quite happy and days when it makes me unhappy. There was a moment I realised that people were going to like Kiln and that was going to work and the supply chain worked - and all the product I’d be working on for a year started arriving... And then people come and said ‘this is good’ and I’m like ‘phew’. I’d like have that again but I’m 33 and I don’t know if I will.
It feels like what excites you more now is the supply side?
Good ingredients are more expensive than bad ingredients... but great ingredients often end up being a lot cheaper than good ingredients. A good example would be the hogget skewers at Kiln. In order to make those, we have hogget taken to a certain age on the moors, then fattened. The farmer puts a huge amount of fat on them and that means that they could be hung for 5-6 weeks, so every single muscle is tender enough to grill on a skewer. I started working on that a year before we opened...
I’ve made a commitment to the farmer that this is how we are going to do this thing and you’ve got to be right, to have the economic fluency to know it will work I’m probably a very extreme example of focusing on the supply chain! The concept of owning a restaurant here tends to come with ideas of wealth and that bollocks and social status and that’s not really what I want to be talking about and actually what I want to do is be creatively fulfilled and go between the farm and the pass. It’s a role that on the continent is done all the time, it’s called the owner.
I feel that sense of discipline and not taking the easy route through life. I always say, don’t have ideas and dreams and not do them... put everything you care about on the menu!
And now Kiln is the number oneon the National Restaurant Awards. Congratulations!
Generally when you win an award you get told beforehand and we weren’t. So it doubles the effect because I thought ‘we know we haven’t won anything’!
My first reaction – and I think also for Luke the GM and Nick the head chef – was embarrassment really... We are not the best restaurant in the UK and now everyone thinks I think we’re the best restaurant in the UK and now I’ve got to stand on stage, this is weird.
But the next day I was in Cornwall on one of the farms and what it meant to the farmers, the justification of what they had been doing... they felt it confirmed that they had found the right way to do it and that was amazing. And that made me realise ‘this is a pretty big thing actually’ and then what also blew me away was that overnight it made the restaurant better.
You seem evangelical about pigs. Tell me more...
In the run up to Kiln, more than a year before opening, I wanted to cross Tamworths and Mangalitzas - who both root around - and get the flesh flavour from the Tamworth and the fat flavour from the Mangalitza ... I started talking to people about doing this and out of the blue this young guy Fred Price, just 28, who had just taken over his family’s arable land - he wanted to start doing something with pigs, and Tom Adams introduced us.
The farm has 26 different types of herbal ley that the pigs are on. It keeps the quality of the land really high and pigs are grazing animals, so with the right type of ley they will just go around and nibble the top off what they need: chicory for high protein, salad leaves that are high in nitrates and so on. It’s way cheaper, because you don’t need feed - the pig looks after itself you don’t need as many of the medicines either. No one’s ever done this before as far as I know.
Sounds like a brilliant idea.
There are some charcuterie guys who take the sows because they are too big for us but otherwise it’s just us. My focus at the moment is to get other chefs and restaurateurs involved, they want it but I have to tell them ‘you’ve got to still be there in September if you ask for it in June, because this is just one guy’s livelihood.’
My main focus at the moment is to put another 35p on per kilo, till we are at the point where we feel it’s fair in terms of price and really works for him. Fred’s also growing heritage wheats for Ben Glazer at Coombeshead. Once we’ve got him to the point where he’s got someone else, he can then go off and teach other people. It’s going to be amazing.
Professionally, what are your goals?
For us as a company it’s about these individual people that, when they’re ready, can take the next step. There is the economic fluidity side of it which I can share, but with cooking, I am reaching the edge of what I can teach Nick at Kiln or Ali at Smoking Goat. The impact he’s having on the business is greater than the impact I’m having on it; it’s his thing now. That’s what it’s about.
One of my fantasies would be to open something that’s got the accessibility and size of something like Wagamama was in the early days, but with this quality of produce. It would be hard to get there but it feels logical. People always expect me to have this indie DIY mentality, but I enjoy the architectural scale. It wasn’t so long ago that people were saying you couldn’t have this quality of ingredient at Kiln serving that speed of people... it’s nonsense - the opposite is the case.
There’s no reason why cheap restaurants can’t have the same quality of ingredients or probably better than expensive ones because they are going through so much of it. It’s easier to have that supply chain.
So Smoking Goat is the new Wagamama? You heard it here first!
And your personal goals?
I’d like to spend half of my time at the farms ... so I can see that probably involves moving half my life to Cornwall. I imagine I’ll set up some kind of kitchen down there so the guys can come and cook.
I’d love to work with somebody from a really fine dining level and see how that would fit with our supply chain and how that would fit with our ideas of atmosphere. Not necessarily from a business point of view, but from a creative one - someone like Dan Cox, someone amazing.
I’d like to do some pop-ups, it seems a bit crackers, but do some more playful things where I cook. I would love to do a season in Cornwall, just doing specific types of fish curries - and if no one comes no one comes, I’d be happy about that. I’d love to travel to regions in China - I want to sit in a market stall somewhere in south east Asia for no specific reason and sit there until I’ve got a good idea again!
This article was first published in Issue 16 of CODE Quarterly
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