Above: My best girls call me Big Mack, so I should bloody act like it, shouldn't I...
I'm not one for New Year Resolutions. But this week I decided I would make one.
This year I resolve to be more thick skinned.
Those who know me well might snigger. Exactly how much more shameless is she planning to be, they wonder.
The thing is, the gang and I are at Gold Mine on Monday night, and I just about literally bump into Mat Follas. 2009 Masterchef UK winner. Owner of The Wild Garlic in Beanminster, Dorset. Even with roast duck, and pork belly fried with garlic and dark soya sauce on the brain, I twigged enough to do a double take, and ask myself, "Is that who I think it is? How many handsome brawny beardy baldies can there be in 1 city?"
So? Did I lean over and say "Sorry to bother you, but you look a lot like the chef Mat Follas. If you are, I just wanted to say hello and I'm delighted to meet you and I can't wait to try your food and foraging classes. If you're not, my apologies, and please enjoy your dinner"?
No. I did not. Why? Because I am a thin-skinned idiot, that's why. Well I am putting a stop to this nonsense. Right now.
So. On that note, I will now unashamedly announce that I am a Ben Greeno keeno.
Above: The very fresh-faced Ben Greeno is cool, calm and confident prepping dinner for 8 with just 30 minutes to go. He gets nervy only when I point the camera at him.
Ben Greeno, who grew up in Newcastle, is an alum of Sat Bains, the growing David Chang-Momofuko empire, and NOMA. He decided to do a long transit in London last year, and has been cooking in various formats such as supperclubs and pop up dinners, collaborating with an eco-system of partners like the wine merchant Bottle Apostle (see reviews by Eat Like a Girl and An American in London), luxury boutique hotel The Hempel and whiskey makers Glenfiddich.
I'd heard of him for a few months before I met him. London food bloggers, The New York Times and my Singapore mafia alike were singing his praises like a Harlem church choir after eating his food at his various gigs around London. In the closing months of last year Ben was getting to be such a hot ticket that I knew of acquaintances who squabbled because of who did or did not manage to get a reservation with him, and who did or did not get invited to that table. (What a field day it would've been for the likes of Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen or F. Scott Fitzgerald.)
Then in one of those plot twists where fact is stranger than foodie fiction, I wound up cooking for Ben before he cooked for me. More on that in a later post, but sufficed to say it was the most nerve-wracking batch of Singapore Hainanese chicken rice I'd ever made in my ambitious but relatively short history of kitchen muppetry.
But he was gracious and enthusiastic, and -- a common trait among my favourite people -- understated, very chilled out, but clearly switched on. And (I'm a sucker for this) uber-geeky about produce. Which shined through when he lauded the cauliflower at The Gramercy Tavern in New York. When's the last time you shared a rave about cauliflower?
Good omen for his cooking, I thought.
My own evening of Grub ala Greeno finally rolled around, where my hunch got confirmed.
We opened with Jerusalem artichokes, brown butter and hazelnuts. Beyond mentioning the pleasant balance of sweet and savoury nuttiness of the dish, I won't wax much more lyrical about this. I will say that the dish showed a very healthy respect for a usually unsexy winter vegetable.
The 2nd course was mackeral with grilled cucumber and pickled kohlrabi (1st photo at the top). Babs and I are both mackeral fiends so I was really looking forward to this dish. The fish (Norwegian) was raw and in macho-sized chunks. If it was cured it was very subtle. But it was gorgeously fresh and sweet and rich with its own fish oils. The cucumber (I hope I remember this right) combines a grill-blackened outer skin with a raw cucumber ball on the inside, which gives a great combination of smokiness and crisp crunchiness without the yucky mush of cooked cucumber. The kohlrabi -- I'd developed a taste for it in Hanoi -- was lovely and delicate and cut the oils of the fish without negating its luxuriant feel.
Next up is what I consider Ben's answer to Heston Blumenthal's bacon and eggs ice-cream -- with much less hocus pocus but no less magic. This was a slow cooked egg, with pig-cheek bacon, and brussel sprouts, with a few well placed bread bits. A deceivingly simple looking "breakfast", but oh so decadent once you tuck in because of the custardy egg and the very bitey bacon. How do we find our way back to hardboiled eggs after this, I wonder.
A pre-dinner sneak peek at the bacon being fried.
Babs couldn't stop talking about this next dish for a couple of days after -- never-so-tender sous vide lamb rump and belly, pickled walnuts (I wonder if these are from his foraged August batch), and carrots. In particular, a segment of very pretty, almost tie-dye purple haze carrot.
And now onto the desserts. Yes. Plural. First, roast apple, chunky financier crumbs, and malt. Yummy, but almost too subtle a blend of tastes to be mindblowing.
And to finish, chocolate, and broken up pistachios and very dainty and elegant rose-flavoured meringues. Just phenomenal. I'd never given much thought to meringues. That might change now.
Tummies filled and diners delighted, Ben joins the group for drinks and a lot of chat into the wee hours. It's hazy now what topics we covered. The only crystal clear memory amid the fog of red wine, port and a myriad of whiskies is more produce geekery, when I'm babbling on to him about my favourite watercress grower in London and he's showing me photos of buds and bulbs of a well known fruit farm's early vegetable-growing efforts on his phone.
There are plenty of skilled chefs out there, but how often is it that one of them catches your attention because they show signs of a new, distinct, personal and identifiable style? I think of Ben Greeno's food as... naked. But there's naked and there's naked. I'm thinking lush naked like the best of Ruben's last paintings. I'm almost thinking an innocent, pre-paradise-lost Adam and Eve naked. There are sauces and garnishes and combinations of ingredients, sure. But it's more alchemy than masks or clothes or duvets.
I wasn't drinking when I wrote that last paragraph, I promise. Though it's potentially worrying that I write like that sober.
At any rate, if it's piqued your curiosity, at least, I suggest you try his food for yourself and come to a better description than me. You can keep track of his upcoming gigs on his blog and twitter feed.
In the meantime, many many thanks to Jas & Dom who organised a gig for Greeno at theirs.