This year promised greatness for Ben and Sophie Crittenden, who planned to move their Michelin-starred restaurant, Stark, into a bigger site and launch a tapas bar in the old premises. Tessa Allingham finds out how they've reacted, adapted and succeeded.
There is a passage in Stark, Ben and Sophie Crittenden's raw account of a young life in hospitality, that should perhaps be required reading for the wannabe chef. Writing even before the spring lockdown, which shut the couple's tiny Broadstairs restaurant and put plans for 2020 on ice, Ben is in reflective mood. Being a chef, he says, isn't about accolades and working with fancy ingredients; it's about "toughing it out when you're at a low ebb. It's about being resilient when your back feels broken and there are tears streaming down your face. It's about steel and grit, about sanding floors and paying bills."
For Ben, a world of "uncertainty and doubt, of insecurity and loneliness, of hard times and making do" is made bearable by the support of family: "If you can stay safe in the storm and keep your family close by, the rewards are enormous."
If you can stay safe in the storm and keep your family close by, the rewards are enormous
Words of a media-savvy headline-grabber? Ben shrugs. "It's how I am. I tell it like it is." And so, a story of steel, sanding floors – and success – unfolds.
The best-laid plans
A conversation in February fizzed with plans. The couple were going to move Stark a few doors down Oscar Road – to number 15 – into a very slightly bigger space, and turn their existing restaurant – at number 1 – into a tapas bar. They were planning an April opening, they would recruit, the business would likely grow a bit. "It was about having 40% more covers – 14 instead of 10," Ben says. He could squeeze in a reconditioned Rational and a second fridge, and have a bigger solid top rather than two induction rings, though he'd still be right there, in full view, cooking the same food as before.
A conversation in October is, of course, very different. Number 1, which took a year to renovate back in 2016, such was the rot (planning issues meant it didn't have a loo for three years either), is now a storage space. Stark did open in its new premises in August, and has been full every evening (Wednesday-Saturday), albeit at 70% capacity because of social distancing. "We do two tables of two at 5.30pm, a two at 7pm, and two twos at 8pm," says Ben. "It just about works, but those 8pm tables are tight to be done by 10pm." Sophie, the steel behind uncompromising website instructions, adds: "If people do what I say it works. When they don't it falls apart."
Sophie caps bookings at 60 days so she can plan family time, a lesson learned after a combination of Marina O'Loughlin's sparkling review in the The Guardian, and winning The Good Food Guide's Chef to Watch award in 2017 eliminated hopes of a day off for months. Floodgates opened again after Stark won its Michelin star in October 2019. "It was mental," she says. "Our family knows to give loads of warning about things – otherwise we just wouldn't get there."
But for all the adulation, and despite being able to fill tables several times over, it's tough. The Crittendens' lockdown story – like countless others – is one of navigating loans and grants, and the spectre of debt. It's also one of renovating a space and launching a new business, caring for their three very young children, and buying a first home, a 1950s ex-council house in Ramsgate. They moved in September, and the places needs work: cue steel and grit, and Sophie's ruthless protection of her husband's days off.
"We were putting everything we had into the new place when [the first] lockdown happened," says Ben. "We took on number 15 with only a bit of overdraft left. A £10,000 grant settled supplier bills and cleared some debts, but rent still had to be paid. We took out a £30,000 bounceback loan. It was ‘take it or fail'."
Everything was done on a budget. Floors are reclaimed OSB planks, varnished and resined to cool effect, dark-painted wooden walls give a cosy log-cabin feel, and the light is muted by opaqued windows. Jewel-coloured diner-style chairs and quirky prints tell of the Crittendens' personalities. Even the ceilings add to the look, one part covered with some 2,500 stickers in a Where's Wally-like collage, the other graffitied with the lyrics of ‘Maybe' by Sick Puppies, a track Ben listened to as he worked on the kitchen with his dad. ‘I'm a dreamer', ‘I've had enough', ‘Maybe I should just give up', it says in black scrawls.
It's under this ceiling, in a kitchen still barely bigger than many a domestic space, that Ben creates Stark's £65 six-course menu. He works alone from planning to pot-wash, turning out dishes spectacular in their simplicity and true to his motto of ‘good food laid bare'. The menu changes whenever Ben wants, or as ingredients dictate, but he's cautious – before new dishes become second nature, service is inevitably slower, which is a concern with the curfew.
Three ingredients anchor every plate and are the ‘stark' descriptors – ‘poussin, korma, grape' or ‘scallop, Ibérico pork, tomato'. "It's about getting maximum flavour out of each ingredient, something I learned from Graham [Garrett, of the West House in Biddenden]. We played with fancy techniques at the West House, but I prefer a stripped-back approach, more like Gareth Ward's [Ynyshir]."
With game season in full swing, Ben might brine a partridge crown for 24 hours, roast it quickly, finish with a honey and apple juice glaze, and serve with apple purée, pickled baby turnips and a calvados sauce, made using the remainder of the bird. If there are less costly ingredients elsewhere on the menu, he might serve luxurious halibut with cauliflower purée, palourde clams and wild garlic pesto.
Goats' curd, beetroot, rhubarb, finishes a late winter meal with fresh, savoury flavours and uplifting colour: the rhubarb is cooked sous vide, passed, blitzed, a puddle of it topped with diced beetroot and a scoop of cold-smoked frozen goats' curd, the dish finished with puffed buckwheat and Peruvian marigold leaves. Fresh too is a raspberry sorbet on a peanut parfait, served with Valrhona chocolate purée, frozen raspberries and micro lemon balm.
Wine pairings – a five-wine flight is £35 – are suggested by natural wine specialists, Les Caves de Pyrène. A Gran Cerdo Tinto from Rioja works with the scallop dish, naturally cloudy Les Saveurs from Alsatian winemaker Christian Binner accompanies chicken, mushroom, yolk, and a glass of organic Château St-Cyrgues is offered with bass, celeriac, hazelnut.
The approach to dietaries – including vegetarians – is uncompromising. "Ben was having to think up individual alternatives and it got ridiculous," says Sophie. "We had some trolling, but to be honest we prefer that people with dietaries don't book – and I say that clearly." Ditching alternatives improved the food, Ben says. "I could focus, I felt confident. The star came after we stopped them. People think ‘10 covers, that's a piece of piss'. But it's not.
"Timing is so important, getting the balance of dishes right. You have to make sure it works practically: it's no good having a stock on then finding you can't do anything else because your induction ring is being used. And it is just me and 60 plates of food a night."
Sophie manages Stark's paperwork and social media, runs the family home and looks after the children, while Cleo Hudson is out front in the restaurant.
"The only way Stark works is with a set menu, set price. We started at £45 and £20 for the wine flight, then £55/£30, now £65/£35. We had to up it after lockdown to help with debt. People say we're too cheap, but I base it on what I'd save for. I don't want to appeal to arseholes who eat round Michelin places," Ben pauses. "We still get some arseholes, sadly…"
Forecasts and GPs don't trouble him overly. "I aim for an average selling price of £11 per plate, but as long as we're full and not spending too much, it's OK. We don't pay ourselves a salary; I draw what we need from the business. I have an alert on my phone and when that goes, I transfer money. But I did buy a new car, a Skoda Kodiaq. I'm too tight for a VW but at least it's not another £300 banger!"
Stars in your eyes
However good the food is, Ben is not a limelight-seeker or accolade-chaser. He recalls sweaty palms, stomach churning at the very idea of going on stage at the Michelin awards event: "I was thinking: what if I'm called first? Which way do I go? What if I trip on the steps? What will they ask? People say I speak too quietly, so will they hear me? What if I swear? I was a mess!"
Ben was called up first. But he didn't trip, and a question about the restaurant's name was easy: it references both the Game of Thrones character, Eddard Stark, and Tony Stark, the ‘real' name of the Marvel superhero, Iron Man. An after-party with industry peers to mark the award – a first for Thanet (the most easterly part of Kent anchored by Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate) – wasn't possible, however. "Ben's mum had been babysitting, so we got on the train home," says Sophie. "And Tuesday is my big prep day," Ben adds.
The star changed little. "We never aspired to be Michelin-starred, and I'm not going to go round bragging," Ben writes. "It feels like a quiet achievement, a personal achievement." Speaking in October, he adds: "I don't wear chef whites, I distance myself from the industry even though I'm part of it. I never promote myself as a starred chef; I don't need that validation. I do this job to support my family. They are why I get up every day."
I never promote myself as a starred chef; I don't need that validation. I do this job to support my family
Ben is excruciatingly open about his mental health, in Stark and in person. His own state of mind spiralled in 2015. "I was burning the candle at both ends, trying to be a dad, husband, chef, travelling long distances, living apart from Sophie and the girls. Something had to give." He recalls terrifying panic attacks, overcoming an urge on one occasion to drive into the motorway central reservation, and, during a work trip to Spain, stopping himself from jumping from a hotel balcony by thinking of his children without a father.
"These issues are common. I'm fine right now, and I know what the signs are for me, the gradual build-up of anxiety, money worries. Before, I didn't realise until it reached a head. I used to be embarrassed, but now I know it's OK. Sometimes I just needed a cry and cuddle. I've never had therapy – I talk to Sophie!"
Was the book a form of therapy? "Maybe. I wondered if people would be interested though. I've not worked for Marco or gone off to France without speaking the language. I don't have those stories. But I have sacrificed a lot, and I've been to some very dark places. I can't read the book because I've tried to forget stuff – the things Soph and I went through. Some people will think it's a load of shit. Some might relate, and it might help them. If that happens, I'll be really happy."
15 Oscar Road, Broadstairs, Kent CT10 1QJ
Opened August 2020. Since December 2016, Stark had been at 1 Oscar Road
Owners Ben and Sophie Crittenden
Seats 14 (currently reduced to 10)
Food A six-course set menu (£65 plus £35 optional wine pairing) is served in staggered seatings, 5.30pm-8pm, Wednesday to Saturday
BookStark, by Ben and Sophie Crittenden, published September 2020 (Away With Media, £30)
Money was tight growing up for the Kent-born chef, one of five children. "I had two paper rounds, delivered leaflets for restaurants. If I wanted something, I earned money to get it."
Early apprenticeships and local jobs sparked an interest in the teenage Ben and paved the way for formative chef positions at the busy Rhodes W1 Brasserie, London, and then with Graham Garrett at the West House, Biddenden. Ben rose through the ranks over six years, observing, listening, learning, grafting to become head chef of the then-Michelin-starred restaurant, and to take part in MasterChef: The Professionals in 2014. It was a period that saw Ben at his lowest from a mental health point of view, but Garrett remains a mentor.
After leaving the West House, a flirtation with a pop-up barbecue business evaporated when Ben stumbled across an empty sandwich shop in Broadstairs. "I could just about afford the rent and I thought, ‘fuck it, I'll give it a go'." Agency work and a start-up loan funded a year-long shoestring renovation, Stark at 1 Oscar Road, opening in December 2016.
"I did agency work to keep money coming in. We opened whenever people wanted, but it was quiet until Marina's review and The Good Food Guide award. We went from four people on a midweek evening to being full for two months, and we've been full ever since.
"The weird thing is that people assume we have money, that we're ‘down from London'. We don't and we're not! I'm from Ramsgate. There's a trendy vibe here, but that's not me."
Photography Adrian Franklin/Hospitality Media
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