Interview conducted by Hilary Armstrong
Edinburgh chef Ben Reade breaks off his thoughtful musings with an outburst of enthusiasm and a choice expletive. He’s out walking as we talk and has just stumbled upon a whopping great Dryad’s Saddle mushroom on a felled tree – “It’s got to be four and a half kilos!” he raves – a wild food find now destined for the kitchen at the Edinburgh Food Studio, the restaurant and research hub he launched with partner Sashana Souza Zanella in November 2015.
It’s a good way for a mushroom to go (fermented in brine with koji to a Noma recipe, he later tells me). For Ben and Sashana, 32 and 29 respectively, are two of the proudest champions of Scotland’s abundant natural larder that you could find.
The couple, both graduates of the prestigious University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, came to Edinburgh, Ben’s home city, three years ago, with big plans to launch an ambitious open-source research project on Scottish food history and culture.
They’d quit their previous roles (his as head of research and development at Noma’s Nordic Food Lab; hers as a tutor at their alma mater) and were ready to start something together – something creative and genre-bending that could put Scottish food on the map.
When attempts to secure funding hit a brick wall (the creative bodies found them too foodie; the foodie ones found them too weird), they introduced a restaurant to the business plan and took to Kickstarter. This was, according to Montreal-born Sashana, “the best thing we could have done because it created a community around the project. People were waiting for us to open our doors.”
Said doors, painted a tasteful heritage grey, opened on Dalkeith Road in Edinburgh Southside in November 2015, to reveal a hybrid space – part restaurant, part research facility – with a large island for tastings and demos, a whiteboard, projector and two long, wooden, communal tables.
The dining room opens just three days a week, Thursday-Saturday, and serves a £42 seven-course set menu. “We wanted to serve food to everyone at the same time,” explains Sashana. “For us, eating is all about relating to people.” Adds Ben: “One of our aims was to have the creative part, the research part, but also to feed people. For me, it’s almost a sacred thing, feeding people and sharing food. Without that, it all becomes a little meaningless.”
The rest of the week, the studio’s alive with a community of interns – historians, designers, anthropologists, you name it – researching anything from cured seal meat in the Outer Hebrides to ‘lost’ dairy desserts and the history of sheep-breeding in Scotland. “We’re collecting one leg from every different Scottish heritage breed of sheep so that we can do a proper degustation and develop a sensory language for mutton,” explains Ben. It may sound high-flown, but Ben, who admits he’s “a right nerd”, insists it’s born of a “pretty down-to-earth” desire to interact with human beings by doing good stuff.
Collaboration is the studio’s lifeblood. They’ve hosted poets, foragers, ceramicists, musicians and a line-up of culinary big-hitters, among them Ana Roš (the World’s Best Female Chef 2017) and a team from Stockholm’s two Michelin-starred Oaxen. “Every other week we’ve got someone else cooking with us so we’ve always got weird and wonderful leftovers,” Ben explains.
“There’s this idea that you have to conceptualise a dish from start to finish. How could you possibly use somebody else’s preparation?” He pooh-poohs the notion, citing one-off dishes – there’s no such thing as a ‘signature’ dish here – including a foie gras torchon (courtesy of Iron Chef-winning Aussie, Tom Halpin) that introduced the first of the season’s Scottish asparagus, with cep oil, a little Madagascan voatsiperifery pepper (one of Ben’s favourite spices) and some Oaxen-inspired crisp fried nettles. “Each component has a story.”
Another dish from that same week’s menu: North Ronaldsay mutton with ground ivy, a wild herb with a mint-like quality, and sea sandwort. A dish in response to the ongoing mutton project, it’s their research realised on a plate. To finish, a petit four of miso fudge, a hand-me-down from the Oaxen visit, made of three-year-old miso by Rose Green, ex-head chef at Belgium’s In De Wulf. “So there you have a kind of like In De Wulf x Oaxen x Edinburgh Food Studio ‘collab’,” smiles Ben.
“It’s difficult to define our style. We’re constantly cooking with different people, using new techniques and new seasonal ingredients. I suppose ‘responsive’ would be a fair descriptor.”
“What’s fun about what we’re doing is we’re experimenting a lot, throwing things out there, just playing with it,” says Sashana.
As to the future, the Edinburgh Food Studio has just three years left on the lease. Ben and Sashana know it won’t last forever in its current fluid form, but they’re excited about what it might morph into and the role it will play in shaping Scotland’s food in the future. “Our driving force from the very beginning has been to show that food is creative,” states Sashana simply. “That’s something we keep proving every day with every project, every event and every intern.” edinburghfoodstudio.com
The Edinburgh Food Studio’s hero ingredients
North Ronaldsay mutton
An ancient breed of sheep from the northernmost island of Orkney. A dry-stone dyke confines these hardy beasts to the seashore where they survive on little more than seaweed.
Our apple vinegar is nine years old now. We’ve got 16 barrels of it in our basement in balsamic vinegar barrels from Modena.
In the comb, straight out of the frame.
Sustainable, twice-dived scallops from the Isle of Skye. The scallops are lifted from Loch Sligachan’s deeper waters then re-laid in the plankton-rich shallow waters to grow to size.
East Lothian pigeon
A beautiful, traditional bird. There are ancient doocots (dovecotes) all across East Lothian outside Edinburgh.
From the Blair Atholl Watermill in Perthshire, one of five remaining watermills in Scotland.
A beautiful aromatic seaweed that we use almost as a spice.
A traditional yellow pea flour from Golspie Mill in Sutherland. Used with beremeal (a type of barley) for homemade miso.
Photographs | Jack Wilson
Words | Hilary Armstrong