Our Chef Director, Rob Kirby, met up with Ben Chapman and Brian Hannon, the brains behind the Smoking Goat restaurant, based in the heart of Soho. Here they talk about casual dining, smoking meat, Thai flavours and over-aged pork.
Rob: Gents, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedules to meet up with me to talk about the wonderful concept that is Smoking Goat. So, Ben, tell me what brought you to where you are now?
Ben: Whilst I was not a chef by trade, I spent a lot of time designing restaurants and I’d wanted to set up one myself. After eating at a couple of inspiring restaurants, including Pok Pok in New York, I decided to get moving. I taught myself how to smoke, grill and prepare meat over wood and started to educate myself about Thai ingredients. I managed to get access to a space in a pub, the Adam & Eve in Homerton, before it was refurbished – they had a shed out the back which had been converted into a makeshift smoke house. I prepared different meats, tried different things and then gave them to the old regulars to taste test. It was great – live critique!
Rob: How did you acquire the space for the Smoking Goat?
Ben: I asked the landlord about the building. It was a pub that had closed down and had been owned by the infamous south London gangster Frankie Fraser. It’s such a great location and space for what we wanted to do.
Rob: Your passion for cooking with wood is clear, what is it about this cooking method that you really love?
Ben: I like the delicacy of it, the range of heat and styles of cooking it affords you. The image of a macho bloke with a heap of meat and a bbq is the opposite of what I’m interested in. When you’re burning a piece of wood you have a number of elements to cook with; first of all you get the fragrant smoke, then once the wood has reduced to embers you have the different stages of burning that naturally give you different levels of heat… I think it’s about delicacy and lightness of touch.
There’s also the differences in type of wood, which flavours food. I love sweet chestnut – for me it provides the balance between earthy and deeper smokey flavours.
Rob: You’ve spoken in the past about working in partnership with suppliers. Why do you believe it’s important to develop a close relationship with your suppliers?
Ben: It’s what makes the job purposeful outside of the rigour of cooking. I’m very much of the mindset that I want to understand the process, talk to people to understand how we can make it better and work together to get a better product to our customers for a better price. The suppliers that we use are the same as some of the Michelin Star restaurants. You have to be clever, understand a carcass and the supplier process to be able to deliver it successfully in this environment. It’s this intellectual challenge that is the important part of it for me. Produce constantly changes through the season so it’s important to understand this and serve the best ingredient at its most delicious moment– it’s this that enables us to be more creative and innovative.
Rob: Ben, before you started Smoking Goat you were a designer. Did you bring any of that experience here?
Ben: When you’re in a restaurant you want to feel like the people serving the food made the place, not some designer. I always loved designing restaurants for that reason and designed every restaurant with that thought in mind. So I did the same here – in fact, we did very little because we want our guests to control the experience – we wanted to create a casual dining experience, where there are no rules, and anyone can dine here.
Rob: Talk about the culture and ethos behind the Smoking Goat?
Brian: There’s complete trust – there’s no such thing as right or wrong. We encourage all of the team to input into everything, regardless of whether they are experts. We want our food and the experience of coming to the Smoking Goat to provoke discussion and interest. If everyone simply says, “It’s nice” then what we’ve produced is bland – there are enough corporate machines, with their multitude of people, out there to do this. The biggest reward for us is to delight our guests and develop people who enjoy working with us.
Rob: A year on and what a great way to start! So what’s next?
Ben: We’ve got plenty to keep us moving, some large and small projects happening – understanding our food better, learning and experimenting. We’ve recently started buying in over-aged pork and I believe we’re the only restaurant doing this at the moment – it offers a completely different taste experience. I’m heading to Bangkok to cook with some incredible Thai chefs. I’m looking forward to seeing a restaurant called Err, which is an experimental and forward-looking restaurant. I’ll then be going onto Singapore to visit Dave Pynt at Burnt Ends – Dave cooks everything on embers and leads on various interesting BBQ techniques so I’m really exited to see another style of using wood to cook.
Brian: The space has recently been enhanced. We’ve just opened the dining area at the back, which means we can take larger bookings and offer a slightly different experience for bigger groups. Having this space enables us to take bookings in advance, which allows us to offer more variety and gives us the time to get the best animals, butcher and smoke it the right way.
Rob: Forgive me for mentioning the big C word but what have you got planned for Christmas?
Ben: We’re offering a feasting menu with a couple of options, including smoked over aged pork shoulder and smoked goat leg…
A few of us, from Team Lexington, took the opportunity to grab some lunch in the restaurant – well, it would have been rude not to! We could feel the warmth from staff and energy from diners as soon as we walked into the relaxed surroundings of the 18th century former bank vault. There was a real buzz and the Thai-inspired food was full of passion, fabulous fragrances and zingy flavours, which left us all wanting more. Time to plan the next visit…