Sweet chilli or Sriracha? Noodles: Super or Pot? And why does the Issho chef compare Leeds to Sydney?
After spending up to sixteen hours a day cooking for us lot, the last thing chefs, bakers, brewers, growers, and producers feel like doing is going home and doing it all over again. Kitchen Confidential talks to the people behind Leeds’ best food about their go-to meals, guilty pleasures, and the food that they actually eat in their spare time.
Cooking and opening restaurants in London, Istanbul, Dubai, Sydney, and Hong Kong would be an impressive “This is Your Life” career recap for any seasoned chef, so the fact Ben Orpwood - executive chef behind D&D’s new modern Japanese restaurant Issho - did all that before hitting 30 makes it all the more impressive.
So what’s the secret? Start catering college when you’re five? Cloning? Bernard’s watch? Nope - take up coaching an obscure, antiquated sport.
“I was trying to become a football coach - most people who left school in my group wanted to be football players, cricket players, that kind of thing - so I had a strange interview at Cambridge Uni for a Real Tennis coach, which is an extremely bizarre game. Most of what that involved was making these weird tennis balls by hand out of cork and string, so I kind of thought ‘Nah, this isn’t for me’
I told the guy at college I wasn’t really keen on doing that anymore and he told me the kitchen was looking for an apprentice chef, so I applied for that, got the job, and never looked back.”
I stagiaired all over the place - that’s a horrible experience, as all chefs will tell you
His career took a pretty traditional path from then on, studying under renowned chef Hans Schweitzer until getting his professional qualification.
“Hans said to me if you want to be a proper chef you have to go to London, it’s a great place to learn and kick off your career, so that’s what I did. I stagiaired all over the place, that’s a horrible experience as all chefs will tell you - you’re basically the dogsbody for the day, you do all the crap prep jobs, you get in the way, you annoy everyone, and then during service you stand in the corner and watch.
Then when I went to Zuma the head chef - Colin Clegg - was actually a nice gentleman, he let me cook on the service and treated me like a human and we struck it off straight away - he became one of the mentors of my career. I started cooking at Zuma and was there for over five years.”
Over the next few years he went to open outposts of Zuma in Istanbul and Dubai, before deciding he needed a change of scenery. “I didn’t want to become that chef that works in one group for their whole career, knows the place inside and out, but doesn’t really know anything else. The opportunity came up to go to Sydney to work with one of my old head chefs, so we went over there to work at Toko - which had kind of been a copy of Zuma - and give it its own identity”
Following that, London called in the form of a brief for a glamorous, fish-led Asian restaurant that would go on to become Sexy Fish, before he came a little disenfranchised with the restaurant scene in the capital. “In Sydney when people come to your restaurant they’re there for a genuinely great time, and I noticed in London that dining rooms are full of people who are there because they’ve got to be there to be involved in a scene, rather than going there for an experience.
What we’re doing in Leeds is trying to generate that Sydney feel to the restaurant, that’s my main mantra going forward with all future restaurants - to have a place for people who are there to enjoy themselves, not because they want to see David Beckham at the next table or they just want to have their photo taken.”
So how does he plan on making Issho a restaurant for people who like eating, rather than people who want to see Emmerdale stars?
“I like to get involved with everything, from the kitchen to the bar to the service. There’s a lot of Japanese etiquette I like to get into to restaurant, but not in a way that it’s going to put people under pressure and feel uncomfortable.
I use the term “authentic, not traditional” which I borrow from Zuma - authentic Japanese food, ingredients, flavours, techniques, but served in a non-traditional, non-pretentious way. Sometimes really traditional, really classic dishes but maybe we’ve changed an element to make it more enjoyable.
I made a joke to the chef that if we could put ketchup on sea urchin, Australians would eat it
For example, even in Australia where kids eat oysters for breakfast and take sushi in their school lunchboxes we couldn’t get people to eat sea urchin (uni) - you see them walking around eating pies and spraying ketchup all over them though, so I made a joke to the chef once that if we could put ketchup on it, they’d eat it.
The next day we made a dehydrated tomato and sashimi pepper powder, put the Uni on a rice cracker and topped it with the powder, and we sold out every day. We took something completely traditional and made Australians want to eat it.
That’s our goal, to make what we do more accessible and more appealing to people"
Having had chance to sample the menu at a few pre-launch events, we’ve spotted a few examples of this philosophy. One of the stand-outs is with a salad of quick-pickled tomatoes with a whipped tofu - a take on Sexy Fish’s ‘Japrese’ salad with a story behind it that means it could only have come about through Ben’s experiences.
“One of the investors at Toko was an Arabian guy who didn’t eat raw fish, he was a really straight-forward guy who only really ate well-done meat, and he said as a joke that we need to get hummus on the menu. So I made a kind of hummus out of tofu, served it to him with some pita, and he couldn’t tell the difference.
A few months later I went to Japan to get some plates, and our favourite restaurant over there, Maru, had replaced all of the strawberries in their desserts with tomatoes, because for a couple of weeks in they’re so ripe and so sweet. So they did a tomato and tofu cream version of strawberries and cream, and we adapted that into a savoury dish.
There’s a lot of versions of versions of versions from Toko and Sexy Fish and places like Avenue, but sourced from local farmers and producers, all of the seafood is from the North as well.”
Leeds has been crying out for a great quality Japanese restaurant for ages now, and on first impressions, Issho is just the thing to fill the gap. But with so many air-miles travelled and international food & drink scenes sampled, what does Ben think of Leeds?
“I’ve got really drunk at a few bars down Call Lane, but apart from that when I go into restaurant opening mode I basically just focus on the restaurant, but there’s a lot of cool places - this is going to sound silly, and everyone laughs at me every time I say it, but I see Leeds as a bit like Sydney - in terms of independents, anyway.
Sydney has the worst performing Starbucks in the country because everybody wants a coffee from the coffee guy on the street instead, and I guarantee that Leeds coffee scene is better than London’s with places like Laynes, I went in a record shop earlier on and they were selling great coffee.
It’s these independents in Leeds that gets me really excited, I’ve walked around and seen a lot of cool bars and restaurants that I can’t wait to sample when I’m out of opening mode.”
Everyone laughs at me every time I say it, but I see Leeds as a bit like Sydney
Even for a jet-setting international executive chef though, life isn’t non-stop conveyor of gourmet food. We asked Ben when he actually eats day to day…
What’s your go-to after a long shift in the kitchen?
Shin ramen, sweetcorn to put in it, boiled eggs, and normally chorizo which is probably going to offend a lot of Spanish people. Recently my wife has discovered microwaving fruit scones, so them and crumpets are kind of my midnight feasts.
When I went to Hong Kong to do a pop-up in Test Kitchen we found a ramen shop and I bought 24 packets of their instant ramen to bring home with me - it even comes with a packet of fat that you squeeze on top and it sits on top of the soup.
Favourite place for ramen in the UK?
Kanada-ya, but it’s gonna be Issho when we start doing our lunchtime ramen bar.
I’m a huge ramen fan, on my last trip to Japan I met a ramen critic, and over there they have a way of saying goodbye which literally means “I wish you good health” and the last thing he said to me was - only the Japanese can be this brutally honest - “Unfortunately I only have about fifteen years left” because of all the salt in the ramen, their critics only live until about fifty, so this guy had planned his death around ramen.
Give Tuesday a facelift. With #noodles. #lunchgoals #ramen #london
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What do you eat when you’re hungover?
I don’t eat anything - I’m the worst hungover person ever - I might look at ramen, but I can’t eat it, I just lie in the foetal position and drink coca cola, it’s the only time I’ll drink the stuff. Kedgeree is the only thing that’s come close to making me feel better
Super Noodles or Pot Noodle?
Pot Noodle all day, you need that soup
Soy sauce or Ponzu?
Soy as a seasoning, Ponzu as an ingredient, you can do a lot more of it
Sweet chilli sauce or Sriracha?
Sriracha - sweet chilli’s horrible
Sake or Suntory
That’s too hard! Sake to start, Suntory to finish.
Issho launches in Victoria Leeds on Wednesday 21 June. Head over to our Facebook page for the chance to win one of three meals for two when the restaurant opens.