Ben Orpwood is executive chef at D&D London’s latest Leeds restaurant Issho. After completing an apprenticeship at Queens College in Cambridge and a number of stages he joined Zuma London in 2005 as a chef de partie. He went on to launch outposts in Istanbul and Dubai for the brand before heading to Sydney where he worked in a number of kitchens for five years. He returned to London in 2015 to help launch celebrity haunt Sexy Fish as executive chef and returned to Zuma for a year before being snapped up by D&D London earlier this year to help them launch Japanese restaurants, the first of which is Issho.
The restaurant has been open two months now, how is it going?
Really well. It’s really busy and so far we’ve had about 95% good feedback. The challenge is that we have opened a restaurant with an offering that I don’t think Leeds has seen before, so it’s quite difficult for people to get their heads around what we do. Their normal dining habits are a three course meal and that’s not something we offer. We offer a more shared experience where you’ll get eight dishes between two. Overall it has been very positive though.
You launched Sexy Fish which was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of 2015 , how was that? did you feel pressure to get it right with so much attention?
It was the most pressure I’ve ever experienced, but more pressure from myself than anyone. Tim Hughes, who was my chef director at Sexy Fish, is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. We have the same outlook and even though it was going well, we both had this drive to know how we could make things better. We were not interested in praise, we just kept saying ‘how can we get this better? How do we change it?’. It was a hard experience, but one of the best.
I stayed there for a year then back to Zuma. The owners wanted to change the direction it was going in and I didn’t want to be a part of that, although I left under good terms. I left knowing I’d I opened the restaurant, got it where it needed to be and then handed it over. It was all good.
Your career has taken you to some of the most exciting destinations in the world, what advice would you give to chefs looking to follow a similar path?
Stop dreaming and forget about money early on. There are a lot of 21 and 22-year-old chefs who are looking for chef de partie jobs and they need to stop that. That way they hit their salary cap by the time they are 25, but they haven’t got the experience to match it. If you want to aim high you have to get experience and exposure at different restaurants and sometimes that means taking a pay cut. I’ve found that many chefs are scared to take the next step, so they stick around in the same restaurant for four or five years and then wonder why they are not being offered a senior sous chef position. It’s because they don’t know enough. My advice would be to forget about the money early on – it took me eight years from the age of 22 to 30 going up and down in salary to get to an executive chef role. The emphasis has to be on learning your craft first and then you’ll get the job and salary to match.
What is it you love about cooking Japanese food?
The respect for ingredients, for the produce and the skill. With Japanese food, there’s no smoke and mirrors. You can’t hide behind it. You can have a dessert that has liquid nitrogen flowing out from underneath it , but not taste great and people will still think it’s good and Instagram-worthy, but with Japanese food you can’t do that. Some of my dishes are just a piece of fish, rice and a pickle, but if one element is wrong – the skin isn’t crispy on the fish, or the pickle is too strong, that dish won’t work.
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration?
Colin Clegg, who was head chef at Zuma London when I joined in 2005, and Tim Hughes are like my two dads in the industry. Whenever I’m unsure about something I think ‘what would Tim or Colin do?’ Colin is very much like my own dad, they met when I went to work at Zuma in Dubai and are like two peas in a pod. I only worked with Tim for just over a year, but this guy’s knowledge about produce is just second to none. He’s such a well-respected guy in London and no-one has a bad word to say about him. He’s a bit of an unsung hero really.
Who do you admire most in the industry?
Jason Atherton is doing some amazing things. He’s opening restaurants all over the world and they’re all different cuisines. He’s also got an incredible band of talent working with him and he respects his staff. His chefs are made partners in the business, so are driven to work for those businesses, not only because they want to work with Jason, but because financially it makes sense for them. It just seems like the right way to run businesses.
Where do you like to eat and drink when you’re not working?
In Leeds I go to a place called Friends of Ham. It’s something I’ve never seen before in London, it’s a charcuterie and cheese shop which now has a restaurant with different stuff in. You can also buy wine or draught ale to take away. As an all-round product it’s really good. In London, J Sheekey is the go-to place for my wife and I, along with Elystan Street and Roka.
What’s the plan for Issho and you?
The head chef is now there and she needs the chance to build a mini-management team around herself and drive the business forward. I’ll be back once a week to check things are all good while looking for the next restaurant. D&D London hired me to help them find a number of Japanese restaurants, so that’s my focus. I’m not looking to duplicate Issho, but they will be Japanese – maybe one will be more grill-orientated or be centred around a raw bar. It will all depend on the space we find. We’ll get the site first then decide on the concept.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor