The siren call of Cornwall came when friend Grant Nethercott, chef owner of Alba in St Ives alerted Ben to an opportunity at Jean Shrimpton’s Abbey Hotel in Penzance. Jean and her husband Michael wanted to put the former Zero Club space to use and create a restaurant that would compliment the charming boutique accommodation that the Abbey offers Penzance’s well-heeled visitors. Ben and his wife met with the hoteliers and a plan formed. Working together to renovate the space, they opened as the Abbey restaurant in 2001, with Ben buying the lease in 2005 and working there until selling up in 2008. They set the Abbey up with a simple ethos inspired by his Catholic upbringing – to do unto others as you would have done to yourself. To translate that into cooking, he makes food that he wants to eat.
The Tolcarne Inn came up for sale at the right time for Ben; it was exactly what he wanted. A pub rather than a restaurant and, more, a pub in Newlyn – the ultimate source for his fine fish dishes. By this time, he was tiring of the ceremony that so often accompanies fine dining. He had never set out to be a Michelin starred chef, and wanted to do something more wholesome.
Being in Newlyn has led to an outright devotion to fish on his menus. In Ben’s previous kitchens, the ratio of fish to meat was roughly 50:50. At the Tolcarne, it is 90:10 in favour of fish. He sees fish as an ever changing bounty, dependent on weather and which boats are working. A good relationship with Stevenson ensures that Ben knows what has been landed and when, and he buys based on the reality of the catch rather than a preconceived idea of what he wants to work with.
Ben has very kindly shared a recipe with us. Do try this at home…
1 stick celery
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
A splash of white wine
2 pints water
A good pinch of salt
2 oz sun-dried tomatoes, diced
1 red pepper grilled, skinned and cut into dice same size as the tomatoes
1/2 medium hot chilli finely diced
2 cloves garlic finely crushed
1/4 pint extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp freshly chopped basil
1/2 tbsp lemon juice