Ben Crittenden nearly quit the industry, but then the perfect restaurant presented itself. Katherine Price checks it out
"I was going to jack it all in," he says. â¨"I didn't want to be sitting in an office, but I wanted to get out of the restaurant trade. I just wanted to see the kids a bit more."
At that point his career had included six years at the Michelin-starred West House in Biddenden, Kent, the Marquis at Alkham in Dover, and the Michelin-starred Rhodes W1 in London, as well as a stint on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2014.
The site on Oscar Road in Broadstairs, Kent, had previously caught his eye, and when he noticed it had shut he messaged the owners on Facebook. It was cheap to rent and there was no down payment, but he had no money to turn the former sandwich shop into a restaurant.
He applied for a £15,000 government-funded start-up loan and calculated that a set menu concept would be the best way to ensure the tiny site would pay. Five months later, the loan was granted and the real work began. "There was so much to do," he laughs. "We thought we'd come in, give it a lick of paint and we'd be all right. We had to take every single wall down, take all the windows out, everything."
He estimates he spent £30,000 overall, and Crittenden and his father ended up doing most of the refurbishment work themselves ahead of Stark opening in December 2016. Furniture was sourced from warehouses, â¨several of the chairs are old church pews and one of the tables is a West House cast-off.
Stark is small - only 12 covers - and due to planning problems Crittenden hasn't even been able to build a toilet (he has an arrangement with a pub opposite). It's only open four days a week to ensure that Crittenden, the only chef, and his wife, Sophie, who covers front-of-house, have a good work/life balance, as well as to allow him creativity in the kitchen.
He describes the menu as seasonal and changes it on a weekly basis. "It's about working with the seasons as they are. A lot of places you go you get a 'seasonal' set menu for three months, but some things are only in season for a few weeks," he points out. "By the end of the three months, it's gone out of season and it's not cost-effective."
He picks up his fruit and vegetables from â¨J Prentis in Ramsgate on his way to the restaurant, and drives to Canterbury for Stour Valley Game. Thankfully, local butcher WA Hazell is nearby. He says: "It is a struggle down here with suppliers - everyone's willing to send to you, but they'll charge you for a courier."
He has also had to adapt to limited kitchen facilities - he has just one fridge and two induction hobs. "It was quite hard going from the West House to here. It took me a good month to get used to how it all worked. It's finding the balance of being not too simple but not making it stupidly hard. I think I've got to that point."
One of his most popular dishes is a fish dish, plaice with brown shrimp butter and braised celery, with white crab meat and â¨lobster mayonnaise. "It's really not a lot of work, compared to the other stuff. It takes me two days to get the spiced lamb dish on the plate," he laughs.
He tries to do something a bit different with his desserts - for example, a pistachio cake with fennel, pistachio sorbet and lemon purée. "I didn't know how it would go down, because it's a bit weird, but everybody really loved it." The dish comprises a crumbled pistachio cake and shaved fennel, which he vac-packs with some lemon juice, sugar and a pinch of salt. He also makes a pistachio sorbet from pistachio butter, water and sugar. The lemon purée is made of the lemon flesh and zest, which is boiled for about an hour, blended and then thickened with Ultra-Tex. He then adds candied pistachios and fennel tops.
Just nine months after opening, the restaurant received a glowing review from Marina O'Loughlin, and the Good Food Guide 2018 named Crittenden its 'chef to watch'. The â¨restaurant was receiving 15 email enquiries a week, but the day the Guide came out they received closer to 100. They now have a waiting list every day and average 40 covers a week.
There are no plans to take on staff, though. "We make just enough to get by. If we employed a staff member, it wouldn't work," he says.
Crittenden does want to open another â¨restaurant - but only if his brother, Luke, who was head chef at Polpetto in London, is at the helm. However, having put so much into it, he wants to keep Stark rather than move on. It may be tiny and lack a toilet, he says, but it's the quirks that a lot of people like.
From the menu
- Mackerel, blackcurrant, crème fraÁ®che
- Chicken liver parfait, smoked apple, buckwheat
- Plaice, celery, crab
- Spiced lamb, masala chickpeas, feta
- Almond, fig, lemon balm
- Chocolate, Extreme Earl, biscoff
Six-course tasting menu, £45, plus optional wine flight, £30
Strark, 1 Oscar Road, Broadstairs, Kent CT10 1QJ
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