Ben Tish: My Career in Five Dishes
Ben Tish on his path to falling in love with the lesser-known flavours of Moorish cuisine, found in the dishes of Norma, his restaurant in Fitzrovia
When considering the restaurants that helped usher in London's love affair with small plates – seasonal, produce-led dishes inspired by Mediterranean cuisines – it's easy to underrate the influence of the Salt Yard Group.
The original restaurant opened in Soho in 2005, but when its founding chef left just a few months in, a chance encounter gave the young Ben Tish – a Skegness-born, classically trained chef with an increasing interest in modern Italian cooking – the chance to run its kitchen.
Tish had come up alongside Jason Atherton, whom he describes as a "big brother", and who mentored him during his early years in fine-dining restaurants in London, but it was at the St James's restaurant Al Duco that Tish found his feet. "Something clicked, and I fell in love with that kind of food. It was very simple, lots of grilled things, two or three items on the plate, and everybody was talking about seasonality and produce."
Afterwards, at Salt Yard, Tish was able to build on his interest in simple food inspired by Italy and by southern Spain. "It was different from anything I’d seen before. It was very produce-led, lots of charcuterie, and the mix of Spanish and Italian was exciting, but the vibe was very New York – pumping music and waiters dressed down. In 2005, it was quite an eye-opener."
After 13 years at the group, which saw the opening of Dehesa, Opera Tavern, Ember Yard and Veneta, alongside two popular cookbooks, Tish was seeking pastures new, and found them in the form of the Stafford Hotel in Mayfair.
"They were looking for someone to come on as their chef-director," Tish says, "to oversee The Game Bird, but also to expand the company in terms of restaurants. I came on board on the proviso that I'd do all that, but that I'd got a concept in my pocket already." Norma was that concept.
The Fitzrovia restaurant is inspired by Sicilian cuisine, with the Moorish influences that have become central to Tish's style of cooking – roughly speaking, influences from the Arabic occupation of Europe during the Middle Ages – also in evidence. "People associate Moorish cooking with Andalucia, but it's also in Sicily. It's preserved lemons, it's cumin, it's saffron, but it intertwines with the actual cuisine of Italy."
In the last year or so, Tish has experienced success in the at-home market, and is hoping to continue his Norma at Home boxes, which he says are "not a replacement for restaurants, but another experience," and a good business model for the long term – but he's also had time to dedicate to other projects, the latest of which is an upcoming cookbook, Sicilia, which he describes as "a love letter to the food and culture of Sicily".
His five iconic dishes here range from his time in fine dining up until now, and reveal a chef who took his time to find his niche, but who has spent the years since refining it to near-perfection.
Pea and truffle risotto
"This dish came from working with Jason Atherton at a restaurant called Frith Street in Soho, which was opened by Stephen Terry around 1998 before Jason took over. It was a modern European, Michelin-style restaurant. Jason's standards are incredibly high, there's no question, but he was quite refreshing in his cooking – he was eclectic, and he liked Italy and Spain. He always had a risotto on the menu, and it always had to be cooked to perfection. He'd throw it back at you if it wasn't right. But this was one that stuck out – the restaurant was only open for a year, and this was on for the whole summer: the pea and truffle risotto. It was a winning dish."
"This was a Salt Yard dish that ended up on every menu. In fact I think the people that have bought the company have still got it on their menus now. In southern Italy and southern parts of Spain they're very big on courgette flowers, and deep-frying them, so in this dish, we stuffed it with quite a mild, medium-soft goat's cheese – so it just holds its shape but melts – a little tempura batter, and then it's drizzled with honey, so you get the saltiness, sweetness and the crispiness of the courgette flowers. It does sum up the Salt Yard approach – it’s very simple, it ticks the right flavour and texture boxes. It was quite refreshing for people to see that in 2005."
"Prawn crudo is straight out of Sicily, and this is a dish we opened with at Norma. Crudo's a big thing in Sicily. It's essentially raw or very lightly cooked fish dishes, cured with citrus and salt. When we opened Norma we wanted a raw bar, and our raw bar was essentially a crudo bar, so we had a chef there who was doing all those kinds of things. It's just very simple, super fresh. We use red prawns – gambero rosso – which are caught off the west coast of Sicily, and are very sweet and delicious. We buy them frozen, so we defrost them, peel them, finish them with sea salt, some chopped rosemary and some blood orange juice. That's it – very simple."
"This is a Norma dish. Again, it’s a dish that we put on in our first summer, and it was such a hit. It's really simple, and I love bavette – it's my kind of cut of beef, a lesser-known, cheaper cut. I experienced marinating beef in grape must in Sicily: there's so much winemaking in Sicily that there's always so much waste grape juice, and they marinate meat in it to help preserve it. But I think it happens to make a great, tasty marinade. So I got the inspiration from that, and it's served very simply with wilted courgettes, fresh mint, cumin, those Moorish flavours. It's very simple – just meat and a vegetable, really – but it really sums up the food at Norma."
"This is in our current at-home boxes at Norma. It's inspired by Claudia Roden's recipe for her orange cake: there's no flour, it's just almonds, eggs and sugar, and it has whole oranges in it. You boil or steam the oranges, with the skin on and everything, until they're completely soft, and then blitz them, so you get the marmalade-ish, bitter thing. We blitz them in with the cake, and then we make a caramel, which is the syrupy thing on top – it has some marsala in it as well as the orange zest – and I infuse everything with cardamom pods. There's a very Arabic influence to the flavours, but it's Sicilian in a sense, with the oranges and almonds. It's been very popular in these boxes, and a version of the recipe will be in my cookbook, Sicilia, out in August."