The Man Behind London’s Best Thai Restaurants
Mr Ben Chapman in the kitchen at Kiln, London. Photograph by Mr Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd.
The life lessons learnt by Mr Ben Chapman, owner of Smoking Goat and Kiln.
Since 2014, Mr Ben Chapman has been at the heart of exciting Thai food in London. With no formal training in the industry, that year he opened Smoking Goat – a bar serving snacks on Denmark Street in Soho – “on a shoestring”. Over the same time period, other chefs and restaurateurs have been doing fantastic things with the unmistakably delicious qualities (heat, sourness, salt, smoke) of this brand of Asian cooking. Som Saa (opened by Mr Andy Oliver, a friend of Mr Chapman’s) in Spitalfields is outstanding. Farang in Highbury is another favourite, operating within a mini food trend – which disavows the sickly sweet creations we have all ordered to mop up a hangover, and instead inspired by Thai food maestro Mr David Thompson – that some have branded “nu-Thai”. But none have received the plaudits Mr Chapman has, particularly since he opened his second venture, Kiln, on Brewer Street in 2016 (he has since opened Smoking Goat in Shoreditch after the Soho site closed to make way for the Crossrail development).
So what makes Mr Chapman’s approach to Thai cooking so special? According to his CV to date, the first secret is to wing it. Second: do your research (but don’t obsess over authenticity). And thirdly: buy fresh (very fresh) ingredients – and don’t muck about with them. Find out more about his philosophy and influences, below.
“I started out designing restaurants.”
“Then, I set up a smoke shed in the back of an old pub in Homerton where I practiced dishes, giving stuff to the locals. I heard about this little place on Denmark Street. which used to be owned by Mad Frankie Fraser. No one else wanted it. I had five or six dishes that I’d been working on and my friend Andy [of Som Saa] taught me a few things. I only had a few dishes, but I thought ‘it doesn’t matter, no one will come anyway’. But it didn’t work out that way.”
“Six months before we opened Kiln, I went on a trip to some of the more rural parts of Thailand.”
“I ate with some families and I noticed that they cooked with very few ingredients, but they were high quality because they were near farms. When we get galangal here, it’s a dry root, like ginger. Over there, it is bright and fresh. I remember having a laap that used about five ingredients, which is insanely simple for Thai food. Each ingredient was treated delicately. That taught me to obtain really good ingredients and do the least amount to them before making the dish.”
“We work with The Good Earth Growers in Cornwall.”
“They have these big poly tunnels where they grow Thai produce just for us. We had the equivalent of two acres of lemongrass under there last summer. Kiln is an unfinished project – to make rural Thai food driven entirely by ingredients grown here. Having fresh lemongrass, galangal, ginger and chillis makes all the difference. They have an intense flavour. That level of detail and knowledge with the ingredients means we do so much less at our end.”
“The fundamental principle of Kiln is that none of the dishes are archetypal Thai food.”
“Our beef curry is a variation on a famous curry that we’ve adapted because we have really good wild ginger. Rather than being driven by the recipe, let the ingredient drive it. That’s what we saw in north and northeastern Thailand.”
“We’d never import fish.”
“A fish is as good as it is fresh. We use a supplier called Kernowsashimi in Cornwall. Nothing comes through a market. We get WhatsApp messages every day telling us what’s available. The next morning, it’s in your curry. I find it dispiriting how a lot of professional kitchens are run. You make a big batch of something, chill it and put it in the fridge for a week. We didn’t want to do that. When you open the box from the fish supplier, you get a sense that it is a wild animal. I wanted a restaurant where there was as little fridges and processing as possible. We use loads of wok burners so we can do all manner of dishes as soon as we get the ingredients in.”
“Meat-wise, we use Fred Price in Somerset, who grows Tamworth pigs for us.”
“I wanted a native breed and a leaner pig with more of a focus on flesh rather than fat flavour. Fred is progressive. He found a way of farming pigs on a small scale, but using the cover crops from the arable land and moving the pigs around. So the two work in harmony. A happier pig tastes better. You have to understand the supply chain. Take away the economic pressures preventing the farmer from doing what he wants to do. And then your job is to sell the product.”