All it took was one review from Jay Rayner to save Ben’s Cornish Kitchen from closure – and diners are now beating a path to his door. Russell Brown talks to Ben Prior about working with his family, being inspired by Gary Rhodes and his new pub project
Many will argue whether a restaurant review from a notable critic can make or break a restaurant, but for Ben Prior, chef-proprietor of Ben’s Cornish Kitchen in Marazion, Cornwall, a review by Jay Rayner three years ago changed his fate.
“Things hadn’t been easy, and we had a conversation as a family about getting through the summer and then closing the place down come the winter,” he says. “After Jay’s review came out, our October takings were double those of the previous year. Everything changed.”
That review was published in The Observer on 3 August 2014 and included the following passage from Rayner: “The result is not eye-widening food, but it is very pleasing. Witness a starter of lobster and crab ravioli, the seafood compacted within the tight hold of thin pasta, like the best silk knickers over a pert buttock. Sorry, but really good seafood does that to me.”
Rayner’s arresting opening paragraphs got to the nub of what this business is about – an understated offer backed up by a tight-knit family with a formidable work ethic.
The Prior family has a history of running catering businesses in Cornwall – Ben’s grandfather ran pubs and a hotel in the area. However, Ben grew up on the Essex/Suffolk borders and, as a teenager, was firmly focused on a career as a golf pro. A job at Le Talbooth in Dedham in Essex was intended only to finance the necessary golf tuition. Having turned up for his first shift wearing a white shirt and bow tie, Ben was put on the wash-up, where he worked for the following year. He ended up staying with the company for eight years, rising to front of house manager at the company’s new launch, Milsoms.
Hospitality ultimately proved a stronger draw than golf, and Ben talks with huge passion about his time working for Le Talbooth’s owner, Paul Milsom. The experience obviously instilled in him a real sense of hospitality and the importance of service; you very much get the sense of a restaurateur, not just a chef.
He then moved on to the Crown in Stoke by Nayland, where a staff shortage led to his moving into the kitchen; it hadn’t been his original intention, but there he stayed. This time, spent working as a kitchen porter and in front of house, may not necessarily be perceived as comprehensive training for a chef, but it allowed him constant exposure to what was going on in the kitchen. It gave him an understanding of the mechanics of the job – and fuelled his growing passion for wine.
Travel followed, with lifelong friend Rob George, who is now restaurant manager at Ben’s Cornish Kitchen. The pair travelled through Asia before Rob went on to New Zealand and Ben to South Africa, a country that started his ongoing love of South African wines.
Ben recalls: “The food in South Africa was such a hotchpotch of influences. Long Street in Cape Town probably had 35 different cuisines, and then 10 minutes outside the city you have some of the best vineyards in the world.”
Lisa, Ben’s wife, adds: “Ben is rooted in tradition, discipline and rigour, but he wanted to do more, and South Africa opened up so many influences.”
After returning to the UK in 2007, Ben headed for Cornwall with the idea of getting a job while looking for a place of his own. He took a position as sous chef at the Cornish Range in Mousehole, where he stayed until he secured a lease on what is now Ben’s Cornish Kitchen. However, this was to be no solo venture and his family joined him. His mother, Jayne, and his uncle, Nick Stoten, are both shareholders. Toby, Ben’s brother, came on board as second chef, and Rob George joined as restaurant manager.
There was no real business plan and the team was inexperienced. “Everything was on the line; there wasn’t going to be a second chance,” says Ben. The menu relied on simple British dishes, many inspired by Gary Rhodes’ cookbook, Rhodes Around Britain. Fish pie, cod with garlic mash, chicken liver pâté, rib-eye steaks and homemade chips were the staples.
“If one person asked for something and we weren’t doing it, the following day we were. We did brunches, lunches, afternoon teas and dinner, seven days a week,” says Ben.
The menu evolved because the customers wanted it to, and it was a case of learning on the job for all of them. However, a strong work ethic and a real desire to provide a good experience for diners paid dividends.
“Every restaurant has to find itself, to believe in what it’s doing, and its customers have to believe in it too,” Ben says. “The front of house is the most important part. People have to be comfortable where they are. There are moments when I become just a chef and forget that it’s a hospitality business. You have to remember that what we sell is an experience.”
Wined and dined
For Ben, part of that experience is the wine list. Restaurant manager Rob shares that vision and does a lot of the wine buying, with the attitude being, ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’. The wine often leads the dish development, Ben says. “I look at the main characteristics in a wine and then see how I can mirror or contrast that in a dish. I remember a fairly cheap Jurançon Sec a few years ago. There was a nuttiness to it and we made a twice-baked Comté soufflé with a citrus salad – just a perfect match.”
Chenin blanc is his preferred grape variety, with wines from South African producer Ken Forrester a real favourite.
Good reviews and a number of awards have followed, including two rosettes from the AA, a score of five in The Good Food Guide, and Best Restaurant in the Trencherman’s Guide 2016, but it was a tough journey, as it is for most small restaurants. Then came that pivotal review from Rayner, and bookings almost immediately shot up. Ben says: “We weren’t doing anything wrong before, but not enough people knew about us.”
Since then, the menu has evolved, the kitchen has been refitted and the upstairs converted into restaurant space. Bold flavours are the foundation of the cooking, underpinned by high-quality ingredients. As Ben says: “If you don’t do seasonal food, you are mad.”
Although the site is within a few yards of the sea, sales are predominantly meat (on main courses it is around 80%), a fact he attributes to having a large number of local customers with easy access to supplies of fish.
Dinner costs £27 for two courses and £33 for three, with the menu changing according to seasonal produce. A recent addition is roast loin of English rose veal with herb gnocchi, girolles, peas, broad beans and a light veal jus.
Raise the bar
The family has recently taken on the lease of the Fire Engine Inn, a run-down St Austell Brewery pub at the far end of the village. Ben was scouting for somewhere with the idea of relocating the restaurant when he was approached by Jim Sloan, tenanted operations manager, to see if he had any interest in the pub.
Ben says: “I didn’t fall in love with the pub immediately, but because we had changed our offer over the years, I felt there was a gap in the market for something aimed at the locals that was casual and relaxed.” This was a project for his brother, Toby, and his partner, Robyn Lugg, with Ben’s support.
Tenancies may have a somewhat dubious reputation, but Ben, Toby and Robyn are full of praise for the support they have had from the brewery.
Sloan says: “It is a balance between what is in it for both parties. The difficulty is when the mutual benefit is out of kilter. The tenants put in the physical effort, and the rewards need to be commensurate with that. We have a fantastic product range to offer and my job is to act as consultant to our tenants. If they are running a solid business and making money, so are we.”
The brewery has invested £50,000 in converting a disused cellar into a separate bar and a small pool room, and there has been extensive redecoration as well as an overhaul of the kitchen by the Priors. The food offer is straightforward but incorporates the philosophy of Ben’s Cornish Kitchen on quality and uses the same suppliers. Although the pub has been up and running for only a few months, Toby has already introduced some menu changes. There is a competitive edge between the brothers and there is a sense they will push each other on.
Casual but attentive
Robyn, who has worked in pubs and managed the holiday park owned by her parents, has a similar philosophy on service. “Service is casual but attentive,” she says. “We get the customers involved by getting them to jot down their own food orders and bring them up to the bar. It’s all about being friendly and making sure they enjoy their time with us. The big challenge will be meeting all the differing expectations people have of a modern pub.”
The partners have held a small beer festival and a number of music nights, and a larger beer and food festival is planned for later in the year. The pub is open everyday from midday until 11pm, with food on offer on Wednesday evening; lunch and dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and lunch on Sunday.
The Fire Engine has provided a new challenge for all the family, but it is one they are meeting head-on with the same commitment and passion for good hospitality that has been evident since the opening of the restaurant. And their evident desire to push the business forward hasn’t yet reached its peak – Ben has ideas for a restaurant with rooms as the next incarnation of Ben’s Cornish Kitchen.
Facts and stats
Ben’s Cornish Kitchen, West End, Marazion, Cornwall TR17 0EL
Owners Ben Prior, Jayne Prior and Nick Stoten
Chef-proprietor Ben Prior
Restaurant manager Rob George
Opened October 2009
Fire Engine Inn, Higher Fore Street, Marazion, Cornwall TR17 0BB
Leased from St Austell Brewery
Owners Ben Prior, Toby Prior, Jayne Prior and Nick Stoten
Head chef Toby Prior
Front of house manager Robyn Lugg
Opened March 2017
Covers 50, with capacity to increase
From the menu
• Seared scallops, cauliflower, pine nut and curry dressing
Matched with White Rabbit Riesling 2014
• Chicken and mushroom bonbon, celeriac and bay velouté
Matched with Elki Sangiovese 2013
• Roast rump and shoulder of lamb, wild garlic gnocchi, pea and mint, and gravy
Matched with Botromagno Nero di Troia 2014
• Roast turbot, herb-crushed potato, purple-sprouting broccoli, shrimp and mussel butter
Matched with Botanica Semillon 2014
• Hazelnut cake, chocolate crémeux, salt caramel, coffee ice-cream
Matched with Nuy Mun Vorsprung Muscadel
• Rhubarb sorbet, blood orange granita
Matched with Champagne Jacquart Brut
Two courses, £27; three courses, £33