“It doesn’t really feel like that,” insists Ben over cups of strong black coffee at Perilla. “It wasn’t like I planned to open a restaurant at the age of 24. It’s just how it happened. We’re here and that’s great but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done it. It’s a never-ending process. The only ambition I’ve got now is making this work perfectly. I’ll be happy when it is a really functional, successful restaurant. That will make me very, very happy.”
“We” is Ben and Matt Emmerson, his business partner and former schoolmate, now managing director at Perilla. The duo made their start together with pop-ups, first a sell-out four-month run at Platform 1 in East Dulwich, then two guest spots at Palm 2 in Clapton. “It was always in the back of our minds to open a place but there was definitely no rush. It was just ‘see how it goes’, to have a bit of fun, do something different, test it.” All very free and easy, until Matt (a former manager with the Polpo Group) stumbled upon the quirky wedge-shaped corner site on Newington Green, at the time occupied by a kids’ party venue. It was perfect. They’d have settled for a pop-up but, serendipitously, the owner was eager to sell.
To fund the project, Ben and Matt turned to two of Ben’s former bosses, Martyn Nail at Claridge’s (where he’d done his work placement during his Royal Academy of Culinary Arts apprenticeship) and Phil Howard, then of The Square (now of Elystan Street). They, along with former Claridge’s general manager Thomas Kochs, comprise Perilla’s investment dream team. “It’s fantastic having their ears,” says Ben. “It couldn’t be any better. Any questions that we have, they’ve done it, they’ve been there before. I find it very helpful to get anyone’s opinion on anything, but especially theirs.”
You may think Ben lucked out with this trio of heavyweights. Eat his food, however, and it’s quickly apparent that there’s more to Perilla’s success. Perilla serves both à la carte and a six-course set menu (at £44, it’s a steal by London standards). Ben’s food is immediately arresting, from the opening salvo of ‘yesterday’s bread soaked in moules marinière’ (think of that delicious piece of bread lurking at the bottom of your mussel pot) in a crown of mussel shells, followed by cod’s head tacos served with an almost macabre cod’s skull garnish. “We start with a few different things to look at and interact with, then it calms down after that,” laughs Ben.
The seaweed sourdough’s pretty special too: “It’s our sous chef’s recipe and is one of the things that people enjoy the most, which frustrates me massively,” jokes Ben. A more recent addition is a pressed terrine of radicchio leaves cooked over the barbecue and tossed in vinaigrette, with blood orange and sheep’s curd. “Phil Howard’s mum’s vinaigrette recipe. The most delicious vinaigrette you’ve ever eaten in your life.” Visually, Ben’s cooking is a tour de force but there’s a “massive emphasis” on everything being “delicious first and foremost”. “Interest, quirkiness, that comes second.”
After a slew of good-to-glowing reviews, the next step is fine-tuning Perilla. Already, they’ve rejigged the dining room, extended the kitchen and added more seats at the bar. “It was just so difficult working in that kitchen. On a busy service it was absolute carnage in there,” recalls Ben. “Since we re-opened, working conditions have been 10 times better. It really is important. It’s people’s well-being.” Happily for Ben, he has “one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with in any kitchen”. He’s still learning – “by making mistakes” and by encouraging everybody to chip in with their own ideas. “There have been a few things where I look back and think maybe it would have been better if I’d experienced that in someone else’s restaurant before I experienced it in mine.”
They’ve also tweaked the menu to suit Perilla’s regular clientele. For, in spite of the big-name backers and Ben’s ambitious cooking, Perilla’s a neighbourhood restaurant. Ben and Matt both come from the area and are proud to see their corner of north-east London on the up. Newcomers Primeur and Trangallan are nearby, and a little further afield, there are hand-pulled noodles at Xi’an Impression and kebabs on Green Lanes (Ben rates Diyarbakir Kitchen and Gökyüzü).“I like not being in central London. I’m a bus ride from my house. Newington Green’s unique, a weird oasis in the middle of lots of busy areas. I feel comfortable.” But isn’t he even a little worried he’s out of the game? “Not really, no,” he says with a grin. “I’d much rather be here.”
Favourite dish: A kebab. I like all kebabs but the favourite’s lamb kofte with lots of chilli sauce and garlic sauce
Most memorable meal: The Ledbury last year. It was just incredible hospitality and the food was absolutely delicious. It’s very smart, quite formal, not what I’d usually go to, but the best restaurant in Britain by a million miles
Chef or food personalities he most admires: Martyn Nail and Phil Howard. Genuinely. I’m not just saying that
Guilty pleasure: So many! Though I don’t feel that guilty about any of them. It’s hard to trump a kebab. Maybe chicken wings. I love a chicken wing with chilli sauce