We managed to prize him away from the kitchen stove long enough to answer some questions for us.
From the value of a good cheese sandwich and the importance of looking after your knives — if you’ve ever wondered what it’s really like to work in a professional kitchen or want to know how to impress an accomplished chef with your cooking, read on…
1. Tell us about your first shift in a professional kitchen.
My first ever shift was in the Woodford Moat House after spending about four months as a kitchen porter. I hadn’t thought about being a chef (I wanted to be a policeman, in fact), but had always seen the guys in whites doing their thing. My only concern back then was giving them their pots back ASAP to keep them happy.
The kitchen was a high tempo place. After a shift the chef asked me if I wanted to cook as they needed an extra hand. That was it — I was a chef.
The first day was crazy. It seemed busy from the outside but to be in the middle of it all was utter madness. I couldn’t even keep up just watching them, let alone trying to join in! But I made it through and that was my foundation.
My first ever shift in a five star hotel was at The Carlton Tower. Again, it was nuts. As soon as I thought I’d got the hang of things, I found something new that I had to learn.
2. What’s the hardest thing about being a professional chef? And what’s the most rewarding?
The hardest thing is the hours and being away from my family. But loving what I do makes it a lot easier. You couldn’t do this job without loving it.
The most rewarding part of the job is seeing the difference that you can make on a daily basis. A new apprentice taking their first steps, a guest celebrating a special occasion or helping someone in the team to grow and succeed is a thrill.
3. What tips do you have for a budding amateur chef?
1. Be on time (every time)
2. Bring a pen and pad and use it
3. Ask “what’s next chef?” all day
4. Listen and show enthusiasm at all times.
5. Remember that a good cheese sandwich is as important as a good lobster dish.
6. Look after your team.
7. Ask for advice and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something.
8. Never be too proud to learn.
9. Say “thank you”.
10. Get a good pair of shoes.
11. Look after your knifes
12. Work as if everyone is watching and be proud of everything you do.
13. Learn a good selection of cuisines and styles.
14. Lastly, the team work on their stomach – feed them well. If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t serve it.
4. How would you describe your food?
My own cuisine is best described as British with a twist of modern and European (I love Italian food). But I love using exotic flavours from all over the world too.
My cooking style and philosophy is simple: treat your produce with care and love, bring out the best in it and then get it to the guests. Simple.
And as I mentioned before, a simple sandwich is as important as an expensive main course. I think you should do everything well and treat the dish with respect, however humble it is.
5. Where do you find inspiration?
I’m inspired by so much: other chefs, friends, family, TV, food magazines, colleges — the industry is so diverse and there is so much to learn out there.
6. Do you have a signature dish?
I love so many dishes but will always revert back to a lamb dish that’s very special to me: roasted rack, braised chump and mini lamb shepherd’s pie.
The rack is seared and then coated in a herb crust before being roasted and the chump cooked slowly for 3-4 hours (and used in the shepherd’s pie). It’s served with mustard creamed potatoes, broad beans and the cooking liquor from the lamb which I reduce down into an intense sauce. I’m slightly drooling now just thinking about it.
7. What’s your idea of food heaven and food hell?
Food heaven: lamb (as above), Pad Thai, chocolate and Amaretto mousse, rib eye steak, triple cooked chips and béarnaise sauce, ham hock terrine, wild mushroom risotto…I could go on.
Food hell: pineapple, overcooked liver, jellied eels (I know I should like them as a chef, but I just can’t), tinned tomato soup and anything cooked by anyone who can’t be bothered (you tell if someone’s not made an effort just by tasting it).
More about the One Twenty One Two
This award-winning London restaurant’s unusual name is a nod to its former neighbour, Scotland Yard, and its famous Whitehall 1212 phone number.
Ben Purton’s menu is a tour through British dishes (often with a with a European influence) like slow cooked belly of Gloucestershire Old Spot and loin of Scottish venison with a cepe roulade. Everything is prepared using fresh, expertly sourced produce which Ben and his team treat with the utmost respect.
The restaurant has been awarded two AA Rosettes and the Royal Horseguard Hotel’s afternoon tea has been given the illustrious Award of Excellence by the Tea Guild in recognition of his team’s dedication to upholding the highest standards when it comes to brewing and serving tea.
Do you dream of working in a professional kitchen? What’s your signature dish?