INTERVIEW DOUGLAS BLYDE / PHOTOGRAPHY PAUL WINCH-FURNESS
Ben Spalding is the creative force behind Roganic, the two-year pop-up restaurant of L'Enclume chef, Simon Rogan. At just 24 he is already a culinary virtuoso whose masterful cooking has won him much acclaim from critics and fellow chefs, not to mention 47th place in The Times’ list of 100 People to Watch in 2012...
I wasn’t interested in food at school. My dad was an alcoholic and died when I was 16. I rebelled and got caught in a bad crowd. Fortunately my eldest brother, Andrew put me in City College Brighton on a fast-track NVQ. At night I worked at Havana, the restaurant of a former Alain Ducasse sous chef, and caught the cooking bug.
At 17, I won a place at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons where I blistered 1,000 cherry tomatoes on the first day of what was to be a 95-hour week. At 18, having fallen in love with a Swedish girl, I moved to Gothenberg despite being halfway through a flat contract. Typical me – impulsive. I managed to blag a job at Michelin-starred 28+ by telling the head chef, Hans Boren, that I’d worked at Le Manoir for two years, not one month!
With wife-to-be Laura, I went on holiday to New York where I fell in love again, this time instinctively with the Big Apple’s energy. Having heard about Thomas Keller, I printed my measly CV in a dodgy café, taking an hour to format it, then walked into three Michelin-starred, Per Se. Keller gave me a shot. He’s utterly fantastic, gliding around his $4m kitchen, which has bins built into surfaces. I remember my first morning making the salmon cones, pouring with sweat.
On account of being youngest in the team and not being old enough to drink in the US, I returned to the UK to gain experience at 10 of its best restaurants including The Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay. Ramsay gave me the discipline to tame my wild side.
I heard about Gary Rhodes opening up at The Cumberland in Marble Arch, and immediately thought of the spiky hair. But I was wrong. I went into the massive kitchen a week after opening to serve cheeky, modern French-British to 40, sitting under £20,000 Swarovski chandeliers. We had six meats on the menu and everything was cooked by touch. I hadn’t done that before.
After a year I met Marcus Eaves at L’Autre Pied. He was 27; I was 21. At the end of a trial shift he took me for a beer. ‘I’ll give you everything I have, blood and guts’ I said. Just four of us cooked for 65. Trays were wonky and plates chipped, but we pushed for a star. I worked 28 days straight doing 18-hour shifts.
My brother told me about Melbourne for nightlife, coffee, weather and beaches so I practically got a Visa overnight. My uncle met me at the airport and took me to what looked like the set from Neighbours. I was jet lagged with mixed emotions. But I’ve always pushed myself beyond my comfort zone. I was intrigued by Shannon Bennett’s El Bulli-esque Vue du Monde, with dishes made with kangaroo and finger limes. But Laura, living in Gothenberg, had a surprise. Although we’d suffered a (temporary) break-up, she messaged me on Facebook on my fourth day: ‘I’m pregnant.’
I left Melbourne’s 30-degrees for Gothenberg’s -10, landing in flip-flops: what was I thinking? After the busy season, Laura and I settled in England. I applied to every agency, but nothing was there. Fortunately I heard Simon was opening and saw vision beyond the site’s chaos. His style was so flowing, although I didn’t understand half the ingredients at first.
A six-course tasting menu at Roganic costs £55; a ten-course menu is £80. Roganic, 19 Blandford Street, London, W1U 3DH, roganic.com.