The Salt Yard Group’s Chef Director Ben Tish talks guest chefs, culinary genius in London and his new book, Grill Smoke BBQ which is based on the concept of barbecuing everything the traditional Spanish way, using wood and charcoal. Ben tells The Resident why the group has such an affinity with the Mediterranean way of life…
Words: Rachel Mantock
The Salt Yard Group has gone from strength to strength since its founding in 2005, with four Italian-Spanish inspired tapas restaurants with a dash of North African influence in their portfolio and another slightly different concept on the way, they don’t seem to be pumping the breaks any time soon either.
Ben Tish sits at one of the dark wood, country tables inside the exquisite décor of Ember Yard on Berwick Street, the walls painted a moody, greyish blue with an effect that makes it look like marble, clad with large textured, abstract artworks. He raves about the Dutch artist behind these huge, expansive paintings, reminiscing about the time they both took a trip to Spain and experienced ‘La Matanza’ – a traditional Spanish pig slaughter, the blood making its way to the walls of the Ember Yard kitchen in the form of a framed painting of a pig.
Tish says: ‘We have a picture of a pig painted in pig blood; our artist loves to do stuff like that. After watching the traditional slaughter, these two old village women turned the pig into salami and sausages and he painted the whole process. It’s quite controversial, quite macabre, but also quite interesting.’
He is keeping the Salt Yard Group’s latest venture under wraps, revealing very little as I prod and poke for details. The East Londoner says: ‘All I can say at this point is that it will be a different concept to what we are known for.’
The new restaurant will evolve up from the dark woods and cool, copper lighting of the Salt Yard Group’s current offerings to a more grandiose aesthetic, set to serve as a physical manifestation of the group’s rapid growth and innovative yet lavish flair. Tish loves the location of all their restaurants, explaining that they were carefully selected during times when the areas around them were up and coming, now all bustling and busy foodie spots.
He lights up when he mentions his new collective concept, initially dubbed ‘The Fitzrovia Collective’ whereby he and two other chefs in the area came up with the idea of guest cooking in each other’s restaurants, creating a bespoke menu for one night only each, featuring all their best dishes plus nods to each other’s best work.
He wants to develop this concept on a bigger level, eventually maybe branching out to other foodie hotspots such as Soho – which he says has a slightly more competitive vibe that could pose a problem – and Islington. Originally from coastal town, Skegness off the edge of Lincolnshire, Tish says he got ‘the London bug’ very early on in life and always wanted to get out of his hometown that was frantically busy during summer due to tourists but ‘like a ghost town’ during winter.
He says: ‘I used to save up and travel to London on occasions to buy clothes and records; I knew I had to move here at some point.
‘Now I am getting to a certain age, I probably will move out of London, but only an hour or so away, so I can have some land and animals, I’d have to be able to dip back in all the time otherwise I will get bored easily. I need to always be busy.’
I was the bottom of the ladder at Coast restaurant and Jason Atherton was already on his way up but I loved it. It’s the first time I have ever seen people so excited and passionate about food
Good friend and also a Skegness local, Jason Atherton of the Pollen Street Social, was Tish’s ticket into the culinary world, having gotten him into food in the first place and having worked with him at the then revolutionary Coast restaurant in Mayfair. ‘I was the bottom of the ladder there and Jason was already on his way up but I loved it,’ he recalls. ‘It’s the first time I have ever seen people so excited and passionate about food.’
Tish is a big advocate of the Mediterranean diet, explaining that they just eat everything in moderation without fads and fuss. Of London’s obsession with veganism, gluten free and dairy free, he says: ‘It’s scaremongering and people jump on it. I have even been swayed by it myself because my wife is very keen on these slightly faddish diets and I get sucked in. But, really, it’s all about moderation.’
When it comes to the food at any of the Salt Yard Group’s rustic foods spots, they are not schooling anyone. Tish says: ‘We are certainly not faddish; we use the best quality ingredients. Naturally there are some healthy options and naturally there are some naughty things on there too, people come here to have a good time.’
With a brand new book released earlier this year and a top secret restaurant in the making, Tish will not be putting his feet up in an idyllic countryside pad anytime soon. ‘London is at the top of its game,’ he says, ‘it’s an incredibly exciting time for the restaurant industry in this city.’