Ben Chapman’s career trajectory is of the kind not normally associated with a chef who opens a restaurant that has a fair claim to being the best of the year – but it’s 2017, and things don’t tend to happen like they used to. For more than 40 years, a good barometer of restaurant class has been the number of stars issued by London Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler, who famously reserves the maximum score only for something truly special. She gave Kiln – a Thai restaurant in Soho that uses only charcoal as a means of cooking – full marks. Ben, previously an art gallerist, DJ and designer, only started cooking three years ago.
With its unusual and brilliant iteration of highly specific rural northern Thai cooking, Kiln is hardly the kind of restaurant we’d imagine would secure such universal approval from industry commentators, nor draw the kind of queues normally seen outside the city’s best, if populist, burger, steak and gourmet fast food restaurants.
Kiln is different and reflects the learning that Ben has dedicated himself to since entering the restaurant game. His obsessive and daring quest to cook food “more pungent, sour, spicy and bitter” is in line with his self-declared attraction to “unfiltered things”. A sort of ‘why compromise when you don’t have to?’ It’s a question more chefs have the confidence to ask now, and a feature of the modern restaurant industry that’s unleashed specialised personal passion projects like Ben’s.
When Ben moved to London from Birmingham 12 years ago it was to study art history. Though he didn’t finish the degree, he wound-up opening an art gallery as well as doing casual bar work. The gallery aimed to promote upcoming – but comparatively unknown – artists. Indicating his acute eye for talent, Ben recalls the last show he put on with Eddie Peake: “The next show he went on to do was at The White Cube, the biggest commercial art gallery in Europe.”
He “never made any money” and subsequently moved into the music industry, hosting obscure club nights – “weird Turkish psych called Leather Boy” was one – before moving into graphic design for venues and festivals. Through this he met Charlie Carroll who would go on to open Flat Iron. Ben designed their first restaurant (his Dad and brother are architects and he gives the impression that he’d occasionally flirted with the discipline). Through his own company, King Mob, he realised his aim of doing “something with more creative control”. Alongside design commissions, he was beginning to learn more about the food he liked and – after having met Som Saa’s Andy Oliver – began cooking Thai recipes at home.
Ben describes eating at Dave Pynt’s Burnt Enz in London Fields and at Pok Pok in New York as “formative”. On seeing Dave’s cooking over fire, “that was the first time I thought, I want to do that – I want to be a chef”. Pok Pok, he says, “blew me away”. The difference he could taste in the jamboree of unfamiliar ingredients it used stimulated a creative streak.
His inexperience has presented some challenges in the short time he’s been cooking. His pursuit of the recondite overcomes any scepticism from those he employs (who might be, in theory, more ‘qualified’). He sees his progress in the kitchen as connected to two main factors. He is able to articulate a clear vision to his chefs: “the food is extremely specific; the recipes are taken from rural Thailand”. Candidly, he also says that he’s found “no one task in the kitchen that is insurmountably difficult”. Spending time with Ben, you quickly learn that if there’s something he wants to know, he’s going to find out how to do it.
People say that Kiln is an authentic northern Thai restaurant. In some respects it is, but authenticity can be a troublesome concept, not least when you consider the real differences of a farmhouse in Isaan to a restaurant site in central London. Ben outlines his own definition of authentic in this context, saying that he wants to adhere to the key principles of Thai cooking. In the Thai countryside, he explains, “dishes are led by ingredients” relevant to their own specific time and place. One experience remains seminal: a trip to a humble country home in Isaan where he ate beef larb. Very few ingredients, flash-cooked or pulled from a plant, were casually assembled with minimal seasoning and Ben wasn’t looking forward to it, but his memory of it was that it was “amazing”.
Ingredients, to Ben are key, and chillies, herbs and vegetables for the restaurant are grown domestically in Cornwall, through his close working relationship with The Modern Salad Grower, Sean O’Neill. The two invested in a growing tunnel with Kiln in mind. “Herbs-wise, at the moment we’re getting 30%; when we come into the warmer months it will be back up to 70%,” he says. The hope is to get it to 100%. Elsewhere there is meticulous sourcing via specialist Thai importers – new-season brown rice, fish sauce, fermented shrimp paste – or from Luke Farrell who cultivates cuttings he picked on his travels in south-east Asia at Ryewater Nursery in Dorset. “When I ask him for some Vietnamese mint,” explains Ben, “he’ll say ‘Which genus?’”.
Restaurant industry buzz phrases like locally-sourced, authentic, ingredient-led and charcoal-grilled are often either overstated or plainly inaccurate. To Ben, as honest and understated as chefs come, these phrases have to mean something. And his food has to look good and taste good, too. That’s the kind of multi-disciplinary artist and great chef he’s become. kilnsoho.com
Favourite dish: Cornish crab lon at Som Saa, London E1.
Favourite drink: Spanish natural wine producer called Mendall makes quite concentrated whites, which age well. Also Tuscan producer Macea who makes earthy reds that taste like the ground, the vine and the grape all squeezed together
Most memorable meal: Undoubtedly getting schooled on laaps by Uncle Pwan outside Ubon in Thailand
Chef or food person you most admire: Tom Adams at Coombeshead Farm. Getting good produce is one thing; working with the farmer to make it better is another
Guilty pleasure: Dubiously cheap roti parathas on Whitechapel High Street
Ben Chapman’s unfiltered guide to Thailand
• Jay Fai a street food restaurant serving high quality Thai/Chinese combinations, – 327 Maha Chai Road, Bangkok