‘I just love, you know, cooking a steak’

And I just love that. A decorated, game changing London Chef, saying THAT.

Some background: The John Salt in Islington hired uber culinary whizz kid Ben Spalding to run their kitchen. Ben cooked my dinner at Roganic the night I proposed to my wife, then left (I’m led to believe that leaving was unrelated to cooking for me but I think he knew it was never going to get any better than that). Then he did some successful pop ups and markets and bits and pieces and created sexy chef noise all over London. He, Ollie Dabbous and others were and are cutting a tattooed swathe across the capital- brilliant young chefs with attitude, OCD perfectionism and phenomenal standards. The heirs to Gordon, Marco and every supplier’s favourite bankrupt ginger bollix, Aiken.

Spalding’s a superb chef then, and was a great coup for The John Salt, the reviews were phenomenal. He is detail led, distilling his own salt, experimenting with flavour combinations, techniques and textures that 99.9% of our industry could never hope to emulate. Touched with genius, probably.

But so far, it hasn’t quite worked. He left the John Salt under a cloud, each party releasing increasingly combative press releases. When I had the temerity to suggest that it was a bit rum leaving without honouring 2 solid months of bookings or explanation, his ludicrous PR woman, Lexi Proud threatened to sue me. She quickly deleted the tweet but not before my phone rang off the hook with people who had been crossed by this serial, lunatic fantasist. Google her if you don’t believe me- A recent tribunal found her “unduly confrontational, intemperate and challenging”

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that Spalding and The John Salt were an imperfect match, shit happens, sometimes it doesn’t work out and I’m certainly not in the know enough to apportion any blame. He should though get better management. Whoever advised him to speak about a third person  ‘Ben Spalding’ in his press release should not be advising anyone (Hi Lexi!). Ben will find somewhere that fits and he’ll be a big name and people will wax lyrical about his food.

I don’t think I will though, and this is not at all a reflection on him, I’m just done with that style of over worked, prissy, ‘clever’ Michelin grabbing, tasting menu food. Food that is more about the Chef than the customer. And that, folks in a massively verbose roundabout way is where I started, about 4 hours ago.

‘I just love, you know, cooking a steak’

Neil Rankin 2013

I was honoured to be invited to a test dinner at The John Salt last night cooked by newly installed Head Chef, Neil Rankin. I love Neil. He rocks a trademark baseball cap whilst he cooks (I suspect he is a wee bit baldy under there), was head chef at Pitt Cue, without a doubt one of the most important restaurants of the last few years and just GETS IT, where so many chefs don’t. He instinctively knows how to feed. Anyone can cook… Few can properly feed. Rare is the chef that has the brass balls to leave well alone, to take a beautiful ingredient and not puree it with popping candy and truffle oil.

There will be many, many food blogs over the coming weeks and months honouring Neil and his team, then there will be a backlash and Jay Rayner will say that it’s crap and Neil isn’t fit to trim his Athos inspired face muff. That’s just how the game works, you have to play it, be thick skinned and move on. Neil knows this- he’s old (my age) and he’s been there and done that. He knows that he is at the top of his game and he is cooking exactly the kind of food that he likes to eat. He cooks with a rare palate and has that brilliant ability to incorporate great technical skill with seeming simplicity. I’ve never seen anyone do that better.

I loved everything that I ate last night (apart from a bream and bergamot dish that was too perfumed for me). Some of the dishes are set to become instant classics- the raw beef with sesame and pear and the pig skin with crab and fennel were the best things that I have eaten for a long time. Go and look at someone else’s blog for the pictures, or better still, go. You won’t regret it- he does cook a mean steak…. With love, blistering hot charcoal and genuinely the best chips that I have ever eaten in my life.

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