As the culinary director of the Stafford Collection, Ben Tish is responsible for the food and beverage offering at the five-star Stafford Hotel in central London, England, covering The Game Bird restaurant, the American bar and private dining. And one month ago, the group opened this first independent concept with Tish at the helm.
Norma, says Tish, is his spin on Sicilian food with North African and Moorish influences threaded through it. “The Moorish influences form a natural part of Sicily and the Mediterranean, which was occupied by the Moors for hundreds of years in the Middle Ages,” he explains. “This is still evident in the culture. On the west coast of Sicily, the staple diet is cous cous and they eat saffron, sultanas, oranges and lemons.”
A love of Sicily as a holiday destination combined with an interest in Mediterranean cuisine since his mid-20s make Norma a very personal project.
He first got hooked on Italian food in 1999 when he joined London restaurant group Cuisine Collection. A new opening called Al Duca, saw him working under head chef Michele Franzolin, serving simple food; dishes such as burrata and tomatoes. An unusual approach at a time when restaurants had a tendency to overwork dishes and few worried about provenance. “I loved it there and I ended up staying for two years. It was a real turning point for me,” he recalls.
Next, he headed to Scotland where he worked for a couple of years; an unusual move, he concedes. “It wasn’t Mediterranean food but it really made me focus on produce,” he says. Shortly after his return, in 2006 he joined Salt Yard, a restaurant focused on exactly the Mediterranean food and flavors that he loved so much.
He stayed with what became Salt Yard Group for 11 and a half years, overseeing the launch and management of several more restaurants including Dehesa, Ember Yard and Opera Tavern as chef director and partner.
A personal concept
He always had an ambition to have his own restaurant and Tish knew exactly what he wanted to open. Having looked for possible sites – and missed out on one of them – he had a chance encounter with Stuart Procter, CEO of the Stafford Collection, who explained the group was looking for somebody to oversee F&B at the hotel but also to help the group open separate concepts. “I presented my concept to them, they liked it and here we are,” he says.
He retains the role at The Stafford Hotel, helping the head chef with menu writing and some development of dishes. It is very much a hands-off role, unlike Norma. “I am deliberately spending a lot of time at Norma; I am cooking, I am at the pass. I have a great head chef who will run things with the general manager on a day to day basis, but I am here helping front of house, back of house, talking to people – it is early days still,” he explains.
There are notable differences between the two operations, not least in the kitchen. At The Stafford Hotel, chefs work in a setting in line with a five-star hotel while Norma, based as it is in the middle of central London, comes with an old school basement kitchen, not the most pleasant environment for the team of 14 chefs to work in, as Tish concedes. “It is a bit pokey, it’s not a very attractive space and chefs today can pick and choose. There is a lot of choice for them, so we try do the best we can to make it attractive,” he says.
He is hoping to make it a nicer environment to work in by implementing some changes to the kit. “We have a standard solid top and we will be upgrading it to induction, because it is very hot down there, it is a basement kitchen and so for ethical reasons we will be changing it. It is better for the environment, it saves energy and it is easier to clean,” he says.
His approach to equipment is, he says, “quite old school. As well as the solid top, we have a pasta boiler, some fryers, we have a robata grill that we inherited from the last operation here. Rational ovens are amazing – we have two double ovens and one small one that we use on the pastry section,” he explains. “On top of that we have a sous vide that we use for storage and to press things and we have a Pacojet. It is fairly basic, but it is what we need.”
A changing approach
During a career spanning over 20 years in the foodservice industry, Tish has worked with big name chefs including Jason Atherton and Stephen Terry.
His approach to dealing with staff is heavily informed by his own experiences in kitchens – some were fantastic, but others not so much. He won’t have any young chef turning vegetables for a year before they are allowed near anything else as was his own experience when he worked at the Ritz as an 18-year-old. “Chef never spoke to you, I probably spoke to the head chef twice while I was there,” he says.
Having picked up lessons from the chefs he worked under, he has developed his own management style in the kitchen, which has naturally evolved over time. He says he has forced himself to relax more. “I used to get very stressed about work, I’d take it home and couldn’t sleep. As I got older and with more experience you kind of generally know that everything will be OK at the end of the day,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I still get pissed off but I am under different kind of pressures.”
Top of those pressures currently in the UK restaurant market is the challenge of finding staff in this pre-Brexit time. “It is incredibly hard,” he says. “You see everybody, not just grumbling, but panicking about how to get staff. It really puts the strain on us from the get go.”
A new generation joining restaurants, ask for more work-life balance and operators must respond, he says. “Salary is one thing, but it is also about the hours. They don’t want to do the long old school hours. We now do 40 hours a week, which is quite good. They do more than that but they get paid for the extra shifts,” he says.
“I used to work silly hours in my earlier days and sometimes I never even got paid for it, but you were told if you did you would make something of yourself. You were almost in a club.”
Having joined the club and put in the hours, Tish has certainly made something of himself.