Thai cooking

Why Being Mates with a British Farmer Is the Best Way to Run a Thai Restaurant

“To get the best ingredient, you have to work with the person that makes it,” says chef Ben Chapman of London’s Thai-inspired Kiln. “To do that, I have to work with someone here.”

by Daisy Meager
15 September 2016, 5:16pm

The day I visit London-based chef Ben Chapman at his new Thai barbecue restaurant, Kiln, is most definitely a stretchy pants kind of day. It's recipe testing time ahead of the eatery's opening later this month and while I may have had a moment of madness squeezing into skin-tight trousers that morning in the sweltering late summer heat, I'm always up for a food challenge.

And so too is Chapman, apparently. As I step into the kitchen, he informs me that it was only fitted this morning.

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Glass noodles in clay pots at Kiln. All photos by Liz Seabrook.

"This is the first time we've been in here when this bit looks like a building site. I haven't actually tried out these dishes properly," he admits. "But there's no point doing it until you have what you're working with, like the ingredients and the equipment, in place. We'll see how this goes."

Spoiler: it went well.

Chapman, who also co-owns and heads up the kitchen at Thai-inspired Smoking Goat down the road in this patch of Soho, gives me the grand tour. He starts with the restaurant's namesake: the kiln.

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Herbs and chilies at Kiln.

"We usually burn sweet chestnut wood for its gentle smoke flavour but we're not cooking the food directly over the flames," he explains. "Instead, we're letting it burn down a bit and then shovelling the embers underneath a grill."

Or, in the case of the first two dishes prepared by Chapman, just throwing the clay pots containing glass noodles—one with topped with smoked eel, one prawns—straight into the glowing wood is enough.

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Noodle dishes cooking in the embers.

And nestling at the bottom of both pots is the belly meat of the restaurant's pièce de résistance: the Mangalitsa pig that Chapman has been breeding to perfection for the last 18 months with farmers at The Cornwall Project, a collective providing London restaurants with top South West produce.

"I guess we're nice to work with from the farmer's perspective because we take and use the whole animal," says Chapman as he points out the outrageous amount of milky white fat on one of the cuts. "We'll use it all. Right down to using the lard in place of oil for frying."

Next up is laap isaan, a gloriously heady and herby ground pork salad.

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Ben Chapman, head chef of Kiln.

In between mouthfuls, Chapman passes me herbs to try from the counter in front of him. Between chewing on sweet mint and fragrant lemongrass, he tells me that they haven't come from the hills of Thailand, but rather, grown specially for him in Dorset and Cornwall.

"Our cooking is about showing off the ingredients. You get a good ingredient and you kind of want to do as little as possible to it," says Chapman. So far, so like a lot of produce-led cooking.

But Chapman cares a little more than most chefs.

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The mangalitsa pork.

"To get the best ingredient, you have to work with the person that makes it. To do that, I have to work with someone here," he adds. "I want to work with a progressive farmer that has the right attitude and is willing to teach me what we need to know in order to do what we're trying to achieve in the kitchen. It's just common sense, really."

The ingredients at Kiln might be British, but the flavours, textures, and aromas are rooted firmly in South East Asian cuisine.

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Laap isaan.

"You have these guys out in the villages of Laos where they're able to take kaffir lime straight off a tree and galangal straight out of the ground as they use it," remembers Chapman of his research trips to the country. "Travelling around the rural areas can get tricky though."

My chopstick mid-air with a mouthful of the next dish, gaeng hang lay (a Burmese-style curry with more tender Mangalitsa), I ask Chapman what he means.

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Slicing pork at Kiln.

"Well, our car ran out of fuel when we were on a hill. And when I say a hill, I really mean a mountain," he tells me. "So, we had to roll it down but then the brakes overheated. We all had to get out and pour water on them, watching all this steam hiss off them."

Yikes.

As the final dish of the day is served (more pork, this time presented simply with a bunch of the British-grown Thai herbs and a chili sauce), Chapman muses: "I get more pleasure from working on the produce, getting it here, and then looking at what to do with it when it arrives, rather than cooking it."

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Gaeng hang lay (Burmese-style curry).

He concludes: "I sometimes think that I shouldn't be a chef really."

Walking out the door of Kiln and waving goodbye through the window (which I then realise has no glass pane—Chapman wasn't kidding about this place being half a building site), I vow to get the number of that farmer if Chapman ever does decide to hang up his chef whites. I don't know what I'll do if I can't my hands on a sliver of that pork belly again.

All photos by Liz Seabrook.