Let's Eat

From Skegness to London with chrein

Salt Yard's chef director, Ben Tish, reveals how perfectionist Grandma Ada has shaped his food


Skegness may seem an unlikely place to forge a stellar cooking career, but it's where Ben Tish made the two most important culinary connections of his life. One was with star chef Jason Atherton, who happens to be a fellow townsman, the other with his grandmother, Ada Tish.

"It may not sound very likely, but although she was a tailoress with a good business in Tottenham Court Road, she moved up to Skegness in search of a better life," explains the chef director of Salt Yard - the group comprising Salt Yard restaurant in Fitzrovia, the Opera Tavern in Covent Garden and Soho's Dehesa and Ember Yard.

Nearly 70 years later the grandson has returned to the city streets bubba left behind - not that she retired: "Grandma Ada opened a seaside cafe and worked well into her 80s - in fact she lived to be 103," remembers the 40-year-old who was raised on grieben and other heimishe dishes he never learnt the Yiddish for.

"My parents were working full-time, so every day after school I'd go to grandma's and get involved in whatever she was cooking."

Even when this was egg and chips, it was sublime, he remembers. "However simple the dish, it was the best I'd ever tasted - Ada was a perfectionist." He also has fond memories of latkes and fried fish with chrein. "I'm so into chrein that I make my own from scratch."

Longing to swap seaside serenity for the buzz of the big city, Ben headed for London after his A-levels and landed his first job in the kitchen at the Ritz Hotel. Renewing his acquaintance with Atherton, who he'd met in Skegness, was crucial: "He got me a job at Coast in Mayfair and I worked with him at other restaurants."

It was at Al Duca in St James that the chef fell in love with what he calls "ingredient-based cooking - just two or three superlative elements on the plate". And then he surprised himself by leaving London as abruptly as his grandma had done for the tranquility of a boutique hotel restaurant in the HIghlands.

"I was too young to see out my career there, but it gave me valuable experience in sourcing my own ingredients. The hotel was so remote I had to go to local farms to find the best stuff to cook for my guests."

This job also helped him build up savings to return to London at age 30 and do nothing but eat out for three months, soaking up trends before helping Atherton set up Maze restaurant and eventually taking the big job with the Salt Yard group.

"We're mainly about the flavours of Spain and Italy, but Israel comes into it too - Israeli is the biggest food trend of the moment," says Tish. He's a huge fan of Israeli chefs Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich of Honey & Co - "We're always in each other's restaurants" - and imports courgette flowers from Israel to stuff with cheese and honey at Salt Yard. "It's the one item we can never take off the menu, and Israel offers us a year-round supply."

Tish also cites pickles as an influence which has never left him. "Grandma always had onions and cucumbers on the go, and I'm known for my emphasis on acidity."

Humble items like beetroot have also stayed with him, and not only for chrein: "I love to roast them whole in the ashes at Ember Yard, which is all about wood-fired cooking. I also like to cure salmon with them and mix the red ones up with golden and candy-striped ones - they look so good together in a salad."

The chrein recipe is going into his second cookbook, due out next year, but it may alarm traditionalists: "I add caraway seeds and olive oil to the roasted beetroot before blitzing it with fresh horseradish, seasoning and more olive oil."

Among other signature dishes are slow-cooked butternut squash served with home-made grape jam and whipped goat's curd and mackerel escabeche spiced with saffron.

Tish's newest venture for Salt Yard sounds exciting - an alpine restaurant due to open in September serving freshwater fish from the Italian mountains and seasonal fondue. "Think of using cheeses only available in summer and serving the fondue with asparagus and Jersey Royals, and another version made from winter cheeses served with salsify and Jerusalem artichokes."

But he confesses to having more of a meaty than a milky tooth when it comes to his own preferences. "I find I'm always craving the smoked salami, sausages and frankfurters which were the taste of my childhood - and, of course, the pickles to go with."

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