If Richard Bainbridge ever gives up working as a chef, he can always find work as a promoter for Norfolk produce. Whether it’s the county’s amazing quail (used at The Waterside Inn and Outlaw’s at the Capital, as well as sold in Selfridges) or its world-beating barley (exported for use in Jack Daniel’s and Japanese whiskies), he’s constantly singing the praises of the local foodstuffs.
But it’s not just Norfolk’s bounty that has him excited. Spring has sprung, and the chef-owner of Benedicts has been experimenting with the natural abundance of lovage, watercress and wild garlic found up and down the UK – as has his foraging partner, his 3-year-old daughter. “She looks like a cow in terms of chewing on grass. I look behind me and she’s there picking all this wild garlic and her mouth is full of all these wild garlic leaves,” he laughs.
Bainbridge is a big fan of Noma and its app, Vild Mad (Danish for ‘wild food’), which helps people identify edible, seasonal vegetation that can be sustainably picked.
From further afield, kohlrabi and daikon are on his radar, as is red Russian Kale. “It’s really earthy but super sweet as well, which is delicious raw,” he says enthusiastically.
Here, the winner of the Great British Menu talks about his approach to creating dishes, why he no longer rolls his eyes at vegans and going back to Britain’s roots – literally.
Lovage is one of those British herbs that tastes of Britain. It’s really quintessentially English in that kind of celery, earthy, almost like a light curry flavour. It grows in abundance all over England, but we haven’t necessarily used it to its full advantages, because it’s a strong, strong herb as well. Sometimes it can be really overpowering. I remember having a lovage soup once and it was vom-tastic; I was gagging trying to get it down.
More and more now, people want to know about English heritage and the food that’s part of our landscape, but it’s a language that’s been lost over 100, 200 years. Lovage is one of them. Alexander is another one that just grows everywhere, but you just look at it as a weed, you don’t do anything with it, but it’s to die for.
You’ve got ground ivy that’s coming up at the moment as well, which is delicious, quite citrusy at the beginning, and then it finishes with a peppery note. And then you’ve got three-cornered garlic, which is in abundance at the moment – obviously wild garlic is everywhere now.
We’re practising on lots of new dishes using wild garlic, whether it’s in a mayonnaise or serving it into a sauce… We’re now doing a soup recipe this morning for young nettles and wild garlic soup. At the minute, all the little stinging nettles are coming up. Stinging nettles and wild garlic grow together, so surely they should work together in a flavour combination.
People love England, we love walking around England, but it’s just a matter of opening up our eyes. Whether you’re in London or Norfolk or Scotland or the Lake District, I guarantee you, if you walk along the stream long enough you’ll find an abundance of wild watercress… But people don’t even look at it. They’ll just see a green leaf and just carry on walking.
You can’t run a kitchen with just my mindset down there going, ‘This is going to be a great dish.’ I have to listen to my general manager, whether I like it or not. Or I have to listen to my wife, who goes, ‘That is sh*t, what are you doing?’
Coming up with dishes is all about communication and flavours in your mouth. A lot of our dishes at Benedicts is built on nostalgia. So flavour combinations that I remember when I was younger.
Cheese and pineapple, prawn cocktail, steak and chips – you try to take these ideas and elevate them to something great. Like mash and gravy is something we have on and people love it. It’s a potato mousse with a beef jus, and then we have some crispy fried onions on top. That comes from my mum serving me mash and gravy on a Sunday night with the mash leftover over from a Sunday roast and a bit of Bisto. But it’s how I then try and elevate it into something special so that it resonates with people.
Go simple, don’t overcomplicate a dish. You come in with one flavour – so you might go, I want to work with lamb – don’t go crazy and put everything that you like on that dish. Go, right, what works with lamb. You can look at where it comes from, so look at the field, look around, look where it grows, look what it eats, but also what you like.
What we do when we come up with a dish is create a spidergram. So we’ll put, say, lamb in the middle, and we’ll have a spidergram that then goes off from all these flavours that work with lamb.
No more than five ingredients on a plate. No more. Otherwise you’re just confusing and you’re trying to be too clever and it doesn’t’ work. So keep it simple, so you get the marriages right.
I remember when I first started cooking, it was all about the protein. It was about getting the beef, it was about getting the fish, and you did a bit of vegetables on the side – you did them a bit al dente, so when you tried to eat it with a knife and fork it would shoot across the table; it was too hard. And that was what a vegetable was: the after-thought of a dish.
As a restaurant, we now spend twice as much every month on vegetables as we do on meat and fish combined. Especially because we’re from Norfolk. We’re a very vegetable-growing county.
There’s only so much we can do with a piece of meat and a piece of fish, whereas our world and our vocabulary on using vegetables I think has only now started. So we slowly roast carrots for six to eight hours; we do celeriac in a salt crust; we bake beetroot in hay and then set fire to the hay so it smokes it. We make clay which has got rosemary going through it and then we wrap vegetables in that and then we bake them off. We pickle and we ferment – there’s all these things that we’re now starting to do.
Ten years ago, I would roll my eyes and huff if a vegan came in the restaurant. And I would probably say I wouldn’t do anything because I didn’t know how to do it. But now, I get excited with the idea of vegans coming in.
I got to go to Noma for about a month about six years ago. That really blew my mind, that idea of foraging, the idea of how to present vegetables in a unique and simple way that still showcased the vegetables.
Twenty years ago when we started cooking, it was a nightmare to try and keep up on trends. The hospitality industry is like the fashion industry… If we don’t keep up on trends, we become old fashioned, we become out of sync, nobody wants to come to our restaurant anymore because we’re boring. So you’ve got to constantly keep up on trends.
The world of the internet and social media has made [keeping up with trends] so much more enjoyable… Sometimes just a picture of a dish can ignite a new idea for us. Or just seeing a vegetable searching on the Internet – we put it on the board, talk to our local suppliers.
Our world is so much more open. Chefs want to talk; we want to learn from each other. Yesterday, we had a guest chef night, and we had Tom Kerridge come into the kitchen.
Guest chef series are brilliant. You can’t necessarily go into places and say, ‘Can I come in and get some work experience,’ because you feel like a bit of a tw*t… But when you do these nights, we go into each other’s restaurants and we communicate and we talk, we find out new things about business, about ingredients, about cooking methods.
It’s a great way for each of us to learn from each other, and it’s great for the other chefs to see and learn from them. But also for our regular customers and our regular client base, this keeps things nice and fresh… The [guest chefs] get to showcase themselves in a place that they might not normally, and we get to offer our guests something different as well. I think it’s definitely becoming a thing.