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Chef profile: Neil Rankin on the art of smoking

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Chef profile: Neil Rankin on the art of smoking

Neil Rankin’s two London Temper sites might serve very different styles of  cuisine but they have one thing in common: smoked, barbecued meat. And it’s a  theme that’s winning the chef fans. James Stagg talks to him about the subtle art of smoking

Neil Rankin is a chef-restaurateur who doesn’t appreciate being pigeon-holed. It’s tricky then, to approach interviewing the Scot, who has made his name smoking meat and developed a fairly distinctive style, without falling into the trap of  trying to precisely place his influences.

His two Temper sites in London both have distinct offers: the Soho branch  focuses on tacos, while in the new City of London site – which opened in August – there is a strong curry focus. But describe either as Mexican or Indian and you’ll get short shrift.

Temper Soho
Temper Soho

“The one common theme is that there will  always be a connection with smoked  meats and wine,” Rankin explains. “At the first one, we decided to do spirits and tacos – though it’s not really Mexican, it’s just the basis of how we serve things; something to play around and experiment with. Tacos and mezcal, they go together well. While this one [Temper City] is curry and gin. It’s a bit of fun, but  it’s also what I’m passionate about: cooking and things I think I can make something else out of.”

Rankin opened Temper Soho just nine months ago as his first solo project, having
parted ways with Noble Inns, where he made a name for himself at Smokehouse  in Islington and developed further concepts in his role as group executive chef, such as Bad Egg.

Prior to that, he worked with Adam Perry-Lang at Barbecoa – who he credits with igniting his interest in cooking with charcoal – before taking on the head chef role at Pitt Cue, where he was at the forefront of the meat-smoking movement in the UK.

He has now partnered with managing director Sam Lee, whose CV includes Greene King and Searcy’s, to run Casper & Cole and a series of Temper  restaurants backed by the Imbiba Leisure EIS fund. “They’ve invested a  significant amount that we’re pulling from at the moment,” Rankin says. “Though in time, we’ll be funded through turnover.”

There’s clearly a bright business brain to accompany the flair and imagination when it comes to cooking. “We’ve not been set up with just me,” Rankin adds. “We have a managing director, financial director, two general managers and a group general manager, so we’re set up to do this. We have an office in Temple and, in order for us to pay these people, we have to open enough sites. Therefore,  I can’t wait two or three years.

“We turn sites down all the time, but we’re always looking and there are  definitely more in the pipeline. It’s only when we get to four or five that we’ll feel the pinch a little in terms of management.”

Slow burn
It’s not just commercial acumen that sets Rankin apart from the many meat smokers who have set up sites in the past five years. He cut his teeth in fine-dining kitchens under Michael Wignall and Nuno Mendes and at Rhodes 24, on London’s Old Broad Street (now closed), and the French Table in Surbiton,  Surrey.

Despite ditching waterbaths for smokers some time ago, his grounding in the  classics has provided the foundations for the dishes he develops.

Even when it comes to the smoking of the meat, Rankin isn’t after bold, in-your- face flavours. He prefers the smoke to add an extra dimension to a dish, rather than taking it over.

“Smoking is a nice way of cooking things and it brings a nice flavour, but I don’t think I over-smoke things,” he says. “It’s all about the quality of the meat and the slow cooking.”

So while each restaurant has a focus on a particular cuisine, it is more of an  influence than a mission statement. At Soho, Rankin has played with smoke to add an extra angle to tacos, while at the City site, curry enables him to bring a new twist to a firm British favourite.

The cooking styles also enable the resourceful chef to ensure he’s using all of the animal – a key consideration since he purchases whole carcasses direct from specific farms to be butchered in-house.

“It’s something we’ve done since Smokehouse, but not to this level,” Rankin  explains. “Back then, we could always buy a cut to do something else with, but we’re trying to stick to our ethos here. That’s not to say we haven’t hit a few stumbling blocks along the way, and to accommodate it we’ve changed the menu quite drastically, but that has enabled us to give better value for money.”

Using the whole carcass certainly lends itself to making curries at Temper City,  with dishes such as the lamb, scotch bonnet and black pepper stew (£11, or £16  as a thali that includes paratha, Temper mix, spiced fried potatoes, turmeric pickles, yogurt and tamarind sauce, and peshwari dust), the dry goat curry (£12/£17) and mutton roll (£8.50) providing useful homes for lesser-used cuts.

But Rankin’s desire to be sustainable certainly won’t get in the way of people  having a great meal. “I’m not being sustainable just for price consciousness and being waste-free, but just because you have to be conscious of what you’re buying and from whom,” he says. “Where we stop is when it becomes a bad  meal. We have to use a product because it’s the best ingredient there – and that’s tricky. But we got there in Temper Soho. Here, it’s slightly easier. If it’s a tougher area of the animal, we’ll mince it.”

Centre stage
Diners at both restaurants will be in no doubt that they are eating great-quality meat, as the majority is prepared in front of them in a large, open kitchen featuring a vast fire pit. The 242-cover restaurant features a six-metre-long grill, a tandoor and a poultry smoker surrounded by a marble-top counter seating 34.

Rankin says: “Everything happens at the heart of the restaurant. We literally want to put it in front of the diner. Nothing is hidden and there are no sneaky tricks.”

Crispy egg with katsu from Temper City, photo by Steven Joyce
Crispy egg with katsu from Temper City, photo by Steven Joyce

Though he admits that the tandoor in particular is taking some getting used to. “The chickens are a little bit too big, so we’re trying quail and poussin,” he says. “We use the tandoor frequently, but we don’t use it for breads. We serve parathas, but they’re no good in the tandoor – it’s my favourite bread and I won’t let the equipment lead the menu. To do a naan as well would be crazy – at the
moment I make 500 parathas a day and I don’t want to have to make 500 naans  too.”

Tacos with a twist
As you might expect from Rankin’s cooking, Temper City isn’t simply curry, just  as Temper Soho isn’t all tacos. His willingness to experiment and, where possible, enhance dishes through smoke, is evident throughout the menu. For example, he explains that his Korean haggis dish has been extremely popular and is another way that parts of the animal that might not otherwise be used make a valuable contribution to the menu. It’s simply duck liver, kidney and heart chopped up in  a tomato base and spiced with Korean flavours.

Cheese burger taco, photo by Steve Joyce
Cheese burger taco, photo by Steve Joyce

Elsewhere on the menu, the squid bhaju with samphire and onions is a hit, as is  the dry goat curry (similar to a Malaysian rendang) and what Rankin describes as a “chip shop dashi chicken curry with a deep-fried egg in it”. With so much fire evident in the kitchen, it might not be surprising that Rankin has been accused of  being a little hot-headed on social media at times – with one blogger who reviewed the new site on soft launch getting particularly short shrift – a result,  he says, of passions running high and sleepless nights thanks to the new opening.

But he is adamant that the name of the restaurant is purely to do with the optimum way of preparing meat. “It’s called Temper as it’s essentially the way you cook meat to get it right,” Rankin explains.

Slow and easy but cooking it at the right temperature all the way up there. It’s  about getting it from A to B in the right way.”

Tempered growth
Temper City, Neil Rankin’s second site in just nine months, is a big investment  and a vote of confidence in Rankin and managing director Sam Lee from the Imbiba Leisure EIS fund. There are already plans afoot for a third site, though Rankin won’t be drawn on details. For the moment, he sees the Temper brand remaining in London and is confident they can get the right sites at a reasonable price.

“Property-wise, the market is definitely stagnating a little,” he says. “People are still asking for big premiums, but I’m not sure whether they’re getting them or  not.”

Temper City, photo by Steven Joyce
Temper City, photo by Steven Joyce

At Temper City in the new Angel Court development, close to Bank station in the City of London, Rankin’s mix of personality and ability has been of appeal to the developer, Stanhope, who is keen to set the right tone and boost a food and  beverage offer that already includes Peruvian restaurant Coya and Notes Coffee and Wine.

“New developers want something that will still be cool in 10 years’ time,” Rankin
says. “They don’t want something that is just trying to roll out.

“Financially, for somewhere like this, they are concerned about the office space.  The restaurant is just a marketing tool to bring people in. The money is  important, and we’re not getting it on the cheap, but they want the right operator to create the right mix.”

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