We were delighted to chat recently with one of our Fellows, Ben Purton FIH, in the first of a series of interviews with chefs. Ben has been in the hospitality industry for over 25 years and has worked in some of London’s most exclusive establishments.
Tell us about your career at the moment.
I’m currently wearing a collection of chef hats… I’m the Chef Director for Off to Work so staffing the reopening of hospitality with temp, temp to perm and perm chef solutions for our clients – that’s keeping me very busy as you can imagine.
Due to Covid, this means a lot more interviewing and talking than cooking but learning so much more about all the candidates in that process has been a real eye opener as normally they come in, cook off and a decision is made. This way we are really looking for and drilling down on the actual person which has been great for matching chefs with clients and with huge success.
We run a few private events at Off to Work too and are planning the Culinary Academy to start up again in September so will be cooking with the new recruits then too.
I’m the owner and chef of Thyme and Plaice which is a catering company set up in lockdown and caters for anything you can imagine.
We started off doing afternoon tea deliveries for a few local families and friends and this led to 3 course meals that just needed re-heating and now we are nearly back to chef in your home experiences, weddings, birthdays, post Covid celebrations, you name the time (thyme) and the place (plaice) and we will be there.
I love it and it’s the family company I’ve always wanted.
How has the return to the kitchen been for you and your team?
It’s a total mixed bag to be honest. I’ve been cooking on and off throughout just in different locations and for different projects so not really stopped.
Others have slipped back in like it was yesterday with ease and grace, however some have understandably really struggled. The kitchens are a tough place to be away from at any time, so the steps to return need to be taken carefully for all involved. Behind the normal tough exterior, we chefs are a delicate breed and I’m really concerned about the mental well-being for all those that are feeling the strain.
I took a Mental Health First Aid Course during the last few months and that will be a big part of the next 3-18 months. It’s ok not to be ok and 80+ hours a week is not a badge of honour and needs addressing if this is happening. Reach out, talk, ask if your mate is ok and make sure to ask again, or call me.
Have you been affected by the recent chef shortage? If so, how are you dealing with it?
Recent? There is nothing recent about a chef or skilled chef shortage in our industry. I’ve been in it for 30 years and it’s always been a challenge. As an industry we have been paid low and treated badly for too long (not everywhere of course but more the norm than not)…
So what am I doing?
- I’m paying my team well.
- I’m checking that they are ok.
- I’m challenging employers to take better care of their teams.
- I’m organising and running Chef and “Let’s get you off to work” academies.
- I’m assessing Chefs as an EPA.
- I’m judging young Chefs with the Chaine des Rotisseurs.
As much as I can really… I want to challenge the norm and stand up for what’s right in our industry.
You’re a Fellow of the Institute, Which elements of your IoH Fellowship do you find most valuable?
I’m really proud to be a Fellow but it’s been a strange start as I’ve spent it all in Lockdown.
I’ve loved joining the IoH London committee and helping to guide and support the London Branch team and helping to promote all IoH has to offer.
The Fellow’s list is a who’s who of this amazing industry and it’s my go to list for advice when needed so just having that added to my own network is invaluable.
What is your most popular/well received dish at the moment?
So I’ll answer this with my Thyme and Plaice hat on… The afternoon tea deliveries have been going down a storm with “Oh those scones” and “Oh that lemon tart” being regular comments.
Outside of that we are getting ongoing return bookings for my tasting of lamb… Roasted herb crusted rack, slow braised shoulder and mini shepherds pie – totally yum!!
Which IoH resources did you use most during lockdown?
I loved the reopening webinars – so much detail and data was on offer to so many and given it was a topic we were all learning… it’s great to see IoH pushing forwards with some important topics.
I’ve also been involved in the MentorMe project and my mentee is going from strength to strength. I think she may actually mentor me now!
What are your hopes for the cheffing industry for the rest of 2021?
Easy! Let’s reignite (where needed) the passion and fire for what being a chef is and how rewarding it can be.
Let’s promote cheffing as a great opportunity for so many as it’s a job that you can fall into (like me) and love (like me).
Let’s pay chefs what they deserve!! Scream it from the rooftops!!
Let’s stop the crazy hours badge of honour that still lingers as this is terrible for physical and mental health.
Employers, when you get your chefs, look after them and treat them with the respect they deserve.
You were a guest panelist at our Sussex Branch event; ‘Brave New World Hospitality Career Opportunities Post-Pandemic’ during lockdown… How was it?
Loved it… it was amazing! So professionally set up and run and when I was not speaking, I became an attendee as the other panelist’s had so much to say and their input was immense.
It’s also great to live it now too as re-opening is well under way and my role within Off to Work where I am the Chef and Back of House Director means we’ve been able to be at the forefront of getting people “off to work” and to see so many now out there and working is so rewarding.
Are there any food trends that you love/loathe at the moment?
I’ve never been a lover or a hater of trends as I have seen so many. I love that vegans are getting looked after a lot better than they have in the past but this is not really a trend. I also love any focus on local, fresh, seasonal and with strong links to suppliers.
I say “Embrace all trends. If they are not right for you, that’s fine but that does not make them a bad trend”.
What is your favourite of the seasonal ingredients that are currently available?
Asparagus and strawberries at the moment are just stunning and even combine well together!! Grilled asparagus, left to go to room temp, crumbled goats cheese and then best of British strawberries that have been marinated for 2 mins in aged balsamic. This creates a stunning dish.
How has being an IoH Member helped your career?
It’s an amazing network full of amazing people and every one one of them dedicated to improving the industry we all work in.
My lifelong mentor and fellow Fellow – Michael Gray FIH has inspired me for longer than he hasn’t! And my career would not have been what it’s been without him. He’s always promoted the Institute and all the great things it stands for.
What is the cooking appliance that you cannot live without?
I’m a simple chef and I don’t have a kitchen full of gadgets and gizmos… Give me a good set of tongs, a non-stick pan, a pastry knife, a small veg knife and a rational and I’m a happy man.
Now saying that, I love a dehydrator!
What advice would you give to anyone considering the cheffing industry?
Go for it! Jump in, both feet, fully commit.
Try all roles. You are going to spend a great deal of your time in this job so find one that you love.
Try hotels, restaurants, sports, stadia, contract catering, or education.
Try big, try small.
Try. Try. Try.
Ask for help and ask for support. If you don’t get it, ask again.
Buy good shoes.
Buy good knives.
Do every job to the best of your ability, every time.
Be early, on time is late.
Say hello on arrival, say goodbye when you leave.
Eat well, hydrate and look after yourself
And finally… the question everyone loves! Tell us three things about yourself that we don’t know!
Have four! So… On my first day in hospitality – Woodford Moat House, 1991… the lady on reception became my wife of 24 years!
I’ve gone from a Marmite hater to a Marmite lover and just saying – toasted crumpet, marmite, smoked bacon with Brie is delicious!
I love Amaretto – I mean, what’s not to love… 3 ice cubes, cover with Amaretto, swirl, enjoy!
I’m a big fan of Scotch Eggs. I just can’t resist and often order them as a side dish just to try and love all the different versions now available.
Connect with Ben on LinkedIn.