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Ones to watch: Ben Marks

Ones to watch: Ben Marks

by Pete Dreyer 08 November 2017

A star is rising in north-east London. At twenty-four years old, with ten years of experience in professional kitchens and a resume that boasts the likes of Claridge’s, The Square and Noma, Ben Marks is a serious talent.

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Ask any restaurateur in London and they’ll all tell you the same thing: finding a good site in the capital can take years, such is the competition for space. But for Ben Marks and Matt Emmerson, the search for their restaurant, Perilla, had barely even started before it was over.

‘We totally stumbled across this place,’ says Ben of the homely restaurant we’re sitting in. ‘Matt happened to walk past it and popped his head in to ask if they’d be interested in hosting a pop-up, and the lady told us she was actually trying to sell the site! We were just doing pop-ups at the time and had no plans to become permanent, but we fell in love with the building and just decided to go for it.’

And that was that – Matt left his role as manager of Polpetto and Perilla the pop-up became Perilla the restaurant, in a former kids café on the corner of Newington Green. Walk through the door now and the space already feels a million miles away from the playmats and babyccinos of its past life. Perilla is a cosy combination of pastel shades, wooden ceiling beams and soft candlelight. It’s clearly a labour of love, though Ben admits the building has its issues. ‘The kitchen is a bit of a nightmare to work in,’ he laughs, ‘and it’s an old building so it constantly throws up issues, but we love it anyway.’

Perilla's warm candlelit interior is perfect for people-watching on Newington Green
They infuse their own gins and vodkas at Perilla, and soft drinks are made on-site too

As for Ben himself – just twenty-four years old and already heading up his own kitchen – this has been a longer journey than you might think. ‘I used to cook with my dad,’ he says. ‘He wasn’t a very good cook! There’s no romantic story to it really, I just used to like cooking with him, and I was really into food.’ Ben was already working in professional kitchens at the age of thirteen, and at fifteen, on the advice of his bosses, he moved to Sweden to take up a position as commis chef at the Michelin-starred Operakällaren in Stockholm. A year later he was back in England, and started a formal apprenticeship with the Academy of Culinary Arts, which placed him at Claridge’s. ‘You stand there and you just cook all day,’ he says of the prestigious five-star hotel. ‘Let’s say you stand there and you cook about thirty fillets of salmon in the space of one service – you get to understand that ingredient so well. You might cook it perfectly ten times, and screw it up a few times, but you start to work out the minute details of cooking it perfectly. If you dedicate yourself to it, it’s an incredible place to learn how to cook.’

In 2012 Noma came to town to set up a pop-up at Claridge’s during the London Olympic Games. A trial shift in Copenhagen soon followed, and before long Ben found himself working full-time at the Danish institution. ‘Noma was the number one restaurant in the world when I went there,’ he says. ‘It was a lot of pressure! I was twenty-one – a little bit too young and too fresh, maybe – and it takes time to integrate yourself into a new city. It was tough, but it’s a phenomenal place – it deserves every accolade it gets.’

A year later Ben returned to London once again, with the next chapter already planned out in his head. ‘I felt like I needed to learn to be a good chef de partie,’ he explains, ‘and there’s no better place to do that than The Square.’ At the time, Phil Howard’s two Michelin-starred Anglo-French restaurant was one of the best in the country, with a reputation for producing outstanding chefs. ‘When I worked there, we had the most incredible team from top to bottom,’ Ben continues. He mentions the likes of Danny Morgan, soon to open his first restaurant in Berlin, Fenchurch Street Sky Garden head chef Daniel Fletcher and Angler's executive chef Gary Foulkes, who he calls ‘an absolutely phenomenal cook’. ‘It’s a true kitchen,’ he adds. ‘Everyone is so dedicated and so good at what they’re doing – you’re always learning from everyone around you.’

After leaving The Square, Ben and Matt held a couple of supper clubs under the Perilla name, before Matt’s fateful encounter at the kids café on Newington Green. When push came to shove and Perilla needed money to get off the ground, it was Martyn Nail at Claridge’s and Phil Howard, now of Elystan Street, that jumped to back the project – two men who surely know a quality chef when they see one. ‘They’re both extremely supportive without being intrusive,’ says Ben of his old bosses. ‘They’re both keen that it’s our restaurant and that we go down our own path, but at the same time they’re definitely there to give advice. It’s a perfect situation, really.’

The seaweed bread with lamb fat and butter has been on the menu from day one – inspired by the Welsh members of Perilla's kitchen team
Meadowsweet custard with fermented cherry and red gooseberry

As for Perilla, the hallmarks of Ben’s career to date are there in the respect for ingredients and precise cooking, but the pair are charting a new course for good food – one that eschews the highfalutin trappings of traditional fine dining. ‘We wanted a restaurant that served really good food, but it needed to be affordable and relaxed,’ Ben explains. Dishes likes the cuttlefish bolognese – an early favourite with guests – poached cauliflower mushroom with cobnuts and lardo, and meadowsweet custard with fermented cherry and red gooseberry are perfect examples of how Ben treads a line between interesting and approachable.

With a year under his belt at Perilla, and having recently won Breakthrough Chef of the Year at this year’s Food and Travel Awards, Ben seems ready to write a new chapter for Perilla – one where the restaurant fulfills its potential and takes its place among London’s best. ‘We’ve got plans to extend the kitchen, so we can have the pastry section in the dining room,’ says Ben. ‘There’s just not enough space in that kitchen to do anything more than what we’re doing at the moment – expanding the kitchen will help massively. Other than that, it’s just about polishing I think – we’re only a year old so there are loads of areas we can tighten up.’ I ask what the goal is, and whether Ben and team are focused on a Michelin star, and he grins. ‘We want a busy restaurant that people come back to; that’s the number one goal. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to win a star anyway. I’m not going to lie, I’d love to win a star. There’s a lot we need to iron out to get there, but it’s definitely something we’ve all spoken about.’

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Ones to watch: Ben Marks


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