Chef Ben Marks opened Perilla in London’s Newington Green in November 2016 with friend and restaurateur Matt Emmerson following a series of pop-ups. The restaurant is supported by leading industry figures, including Claridge’s executive chef Martyn Nail, Phil Howard of Elystan Street and Corinthia London managing director Thomas Kochs. Ben started in the industry at 15 as commis chef at Operakällaren, in Stockholm, returning to the UK a year later to train at Bournemouth and Poole College, which included an apprenticeship with the Academy of Culinary Arts that placed him at Claridge’s. In 2012 he moved to Copenhagen to work as a chef de partie at Noma, returning to London a year later to work with Phil Howard at The Square where he remained for three years before deciding to go solo.
You started in the industry at 15, what prompted you to become a chef at such a young age?
There wasn’t anything in particular that made me want to become a chef. I cooked a bit at home with my dad, not very often or very well, but I just really enjoyed cooking.
As someone who combined college and on-the-job training, what are your thoughts on education in the sector? Do you think colleges prepare students properly for the world of work?
I did an apprenticeship and that worked for me. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way, but that way worked for me. You’re never going to be able to teach somebody the intensity and demand of the kitchen at college. That’s impossible. I think it’s inevitable that you’re going to get people coming out of college who aren’t going to be able to hack it in the kitchen, but it all depends on the individual. If you’re eager to learn and to progress then there are colleges out there that will allow you to do that, but if you’re happy just to just go through the process without taking it very seriously you’re not going to come out of college as a super-chef.
College is a good way of not dropping you in the deep end, but you need to do certain things over and over again to improve and the only way you can do that is in a professional kitchen.
When you went to work at Noma it had been named the World’s Best Restaurant by 50 Best, did you feel pressure?
I found it quite difficult moving there from Claridge’s which is a very different kitchen. I found Noma a tough place to work. I guess at the end of the day it’s like any kitchen – just an extremely highly-detailed well-run one. Rene Redzepi is a true genius. I’ve never worked with, or seen anyone work, like him before. He’s extremely obsessed and incredible. He deserves every accolade and bit of praise that comes his way.
How have the head chefs and the restaurants you’ve worked in left their mark on you and how does it show at Perilla?
The style of food at Perilla is a combination of the different places I’ve worked, but the food’s probably most influenced by The Square, although it’s extremely different. That sort of emphasis on flavour and deliciousness is something I try to recreate at Perilla and what I loved about The Square. Phil strives to make food really tasty and that’s something I really liked. Now when we’re making a dish, we ask ourselves, ‘is this delicious?’. That is the most important thing when you come to eat food.
How did you manage to get the support from Martyn, Phil and Thomas to set up Perilla?
We approached them, I knew all three of them from when I’d worked with them. I’d stayed in very close contact with Martyn. He’s been extremely good to me throughout my whole career, very supportive and whenever I have a question about what I should do next or I’d always go and ask him. Then we approached them and they were interested which is great. We are constantly asking them questions and you’ve got to utilise that. To have three such incredible professionals on board is a dream.
Are you happy with how things have gone at Perilla now you’re a year in?
There’s a lot of work and fine-tuning still to be done. That’s the excitement of it, constantly trying to make it better and smoother and improve the whole operation in general. There is always room to improve something and having that mentality of constantly questioning everything and trying to make everything better is really important and is what drives you every day. There are a lots of areas I’d like to improve. although we’re very proud of it. It’s a beautiful little spot. I love the dining room and we’ve got some incredible people working with us now which is such a bonus and makes things easier an more enjoyable.
At the start of the year you predicted vegan and plant-based food to be big this year, is this something you’ll be introducing more of at Perilla?
Our menu does have some vegetable-focused dishes on it already. We’re certainly going to look into how to be a more sustainable restaurant so if that means becoming more plant-based then we’ll do that, but I have to be honest I love meat and fish, so it won’t be coming off the menu any time soon.
The sustainability angle is important to us. We’ve started recycling all our food waste. A guy picks it up and grows vegetables with our food waste and there are just little things in the restaurant we’re doing, like getting rid of straws, using less plastic and making sure we source all our fish and meat correctly. We are definitely trying to be more responsible, especially as a restaurant.
What has been the biggest learning curve about running your own restaurant?
Man management and looking after other people I think has been the biggest reality check. It’s a difficult thing to do and something that comes with a lot of responsibility. I’d never had that before, being responsible for other people and their well-being, and ensuring they are happy every day in an environment where they are able to perform. I think I found that quite difficult. I still find it difficult.
Who, or what do you admire currently in the industry?
Martyn is probably my biggest inspiration but there are a few chefs that I have worked with in the past at other levels, people like Gary Foulkes (Ex-The Square and now executive chef at Daniel Fletcher (Ex-The Square, now head chef at Fenchurch restaurant) they are doing some really exciting things. I take massive inspiration from everyone around me, but they are the ones who inspire me most.
What are your plans for the next five years, more restaurants?
Perfecting Perilla, is where our focus will be. Right now we’re doing some minor refurbishment, bringing the kitchen out into the dining room a bit and streamlining the kitchen. It’s just a constant re-evaluation of what we do.