In our cooking series Quickies, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Quickies takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness—these are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
Chef Ben Marks and front-of-house don Matt Emmerson are no strangers to long days at work. Marks has cooked at fine dining powerhouses like Claridge's and noma, while Emmerson learned his craft at Polpo, a busy Italian restaurant with locations across London.
Then, late last year, after a series of successful dinner events, the pair opened their first restaurant. Perilla stands in what was previously a children's cafe on a corner in Newington Green and serves ingredient-led modern British dishes. Needless to say, both the food (and decor) has improved since they took over the space.
RECIPE: Quick Spaghetti Carbonara
And after a long day, Marks and Emmerson like to wind down with a big plate of cheesy carbs—even if it's not totally on-brand.
"It's probably the most un-Perilla thing, but nothing beats Carbonara," admits Marks. "There's something about a heavy pasta dish that's just so comforting. It's the perfect solution for a speedy midweek meal because you don't want to be slaving away in the kitchen for hours."
Luckily, on my visit to Perilla, Marks has half an hour to spare to show me how he makes his spaghetti Carbonara.
"The quality of our European ingredients such as lardo and our fresh Italian eggs gives it our signature twist," he says.
Marks starts by cracking and separating eggs to create the base for the pasta sauce. He grates in a generous helping of Parmesan cheese and adds minced garlic, before seasoning with black pepper.
Next comes the meat. Marks dices some of that Italian pancetta and lardo into thin strips and cooks in a pan with olive oil until crispy. He leaves the fat to cool before adding to the egg yolk mixture.
"Be sure to also include the fat from the meat to the sauce as well so it makes it gooier," Marks advises.
With the bulk of the Carbonara complete in less than five minutes, you'll never look at a jar of supermarket pasta sauce in the same way again.
Moving onto the main component of the dish: it's time to boil spaghetti.
"You're looking for something with a bit of bite and something that's soft enough that can soak up the sauce," Marks explains. "I'd say to boil the spaghetti for about ten minutes depending on how you like your spaghetti, but always try the pasta as you go along."
With the pasta bubbling away, he disappears and comes back with a tub of aromatic bread crumbs. I take a big whiff.
"It's actually seaweed bread, which we make ahead and it's served with a light brushing of lamb fat on the menu, but it's just blended up into breadcrumbs here," Marks says.
The proudly Welsh side of me instantly has to ask: "Like laverbread?"
"Wait, are you Welsh?" Marks replies. "Because one third of the Perilla team is Welsh and our bread definitely draws some inspiration from that."
After a few where-abouts-are-you-froms and who-do-you-knows, it's back from Wales to the breadcrumbs.
Marks lets the butter foam in the pan, then lightly fries the breadcrumbs to give his dish that crispy element. While draining the excess butter, adding even more grated Parmesan to the breadcrumbs, and combining everything into the meaty egg yolk mixture, Marks explains that breadcrumbs are known as the "poor man's Parmesan" in Italy.
"It's called pangritata because back in the day, Italians couldn't afford Parmesan, so they'd make their own breadcrumbs instead," he says. "They'd cut off slices of old bread and lightly fry it to crisp up then add to their pasta dishes. But I'm adding both Parmesan and pangritata in this recipe to give extra flavour."
Now comes the slightly technical bit. Marks adds a small ladle of pasta water to the egg mix and stirs.
"When you add pasta water and egg together, this helps thicken the dish but you want to keep adjusting the consistency so it add doesn't scramble," he warns. "Take care with this step because if you add too much, it can become a watery mess, so slowly add to it until you're happy."
Finally, the dish is topped with leftover breadcrumbs and an extra helping of grated Parmesan cheese.
"And there you have it: velvety Carbonara in less than 30 minutes," says Marks proudly. "It's probably not the healthiest dish—it's definitely not 'Lean in 15.' It's probably more 'Fat in 15.'"
As Marks hands me some to try, he warns: "You'll want to eat the Carbonara as soon as it's served as it'll slowly set and start to thicken."
You don't need to tell me twice.