Kingdom of Cooks: Ben Radford, Head Chef of Timberyard in Edinburgh
Andy Lynes - February 10th, 2014
Over the next several months, Food Arts contributing authority Andy Lynes takes the temperature of the U.K. cooking scene through more than a dozen chef interviews, recording the culinary diversity across the country. These chefs have worked with well-known mentors, although you may not know their names just yet. Collectively, they represent the new direction of British restaurant cooking.
Timberyard is one of the most significant restaurants to open in Edinburgh in the last decade. Shortly after its launch in August 2012, The Scotsman newspaper described it as “a landmark restaurant,” and the owners—the Radford family—as “culinary royalty.” Writing in the Sunday Herald, critic Joanna Blythman said, “Revolutionary, game changing, paradigm shifting, however you like to put it, the opening of Timberyard in Edinburgh will shake up the Scottish, even British restaurant scene.”
It's an extraordinary space. There's a real “through-the-back-of-the-wardrobe” feeling when you walk into Timberyard. Tucked away on an Edinburgh back street, 10 Lady Lawson Street sits between a surf shop and a Chinese restaurant, luring in diners with its huge red folding doors. The converted 19th century warehouse has an arresting rustic charm, with exposed timber rafters, painted iron pillars, and whitewashed brick work. Inside, you find yourself in a Scandinavian-influenced food-centric Narnia.
But the real star of the show is 28 year old head chef Ben Radford's food, which combines a local and sustainable ethos with trending techniques like curing, smoking, and pickling to create distinctive and delicious dishes. The short, regularly changing menu is divided into Bite, Small, Large, and Sweet sections, with dishes ranging from a “bite” of cured mallard duck with pickled roots, nuts, and lichen to a large plate of hake and squid with mussels, Aura potato, cider, sorrel, carrots, and sea purslane.
“It’s very hard to pigeonhole the style of cooking here. I hate words like 'contemporary,' and I don't like 'modern,' but I'd definitely say it's British,” says Radford, who is part of a family team behind the restaurant. Patriarch and multiple Scottish Chef of the Year, Andrew is credited with helping jumpstart Scottish cuisine's revival. He and wife Lisa now own Timberyard, with one son behind the stoves, another, Jo, in management and helming the bar, while daughter Abi juggles marketing, social media, and photography. “My parents are both English, and our background comes across a bit in the food, so perhaps New British.”
That Radford has made such an impact is all the more impressive when you consider his résumé. Big name chefs are conspicuous by their absence, and his entire career so far has been spent working exclusively in Edinburgh. He started out as a schoolboy washing pots part-time in his parents' two previous restaurants, Blue and Atrium (which closed in 2011 after trading for nearly two decades), before taking a permanent position at Blue after university.
“I then moved to Cafe St Honore as a chef de partie and stayed there for four and a half years, working my way up to head chef. I learned the classic French sauces and techniques there. That’s a good background for a lot of chefs. You can bolt a lot onto that, and you can use them and change them however you like. It was a good starting point. The restaurant is still doing very well, and my wife and I eat there quite a lot.”
Radford has been involved with Timberyard from day one, helping refurbish the dilapidated building and landscaping of the courtyard during days off from his job at Cafe St Honore. All that hard work has paid off, and now Radford heads up a brigade of eight in a spacious ground floor kitchen that's flooded with natural light during the day, almost as if to underline Timberyard's back-to-the-earth approach.
“My dad has always been a big advocate of slow food and sustainability, and that’s where I got the ethos that we try to work with here,” says Radford. “We’re doing our own bacons and our own hams. We’re doing our own smoking. That part of what I learned at Atrium has definitely come along here.”
Another big influence on Radford have been the family trips to Copenhagen, where he's dined in many of the top places, including Fiskebaren, Relae, Radio, Kadeau, and, of course, René Redzepi's landmark restaurant.
“Noma is absolutely fantastic. The food is obviously on a completely different level from anything else. It comes across very simply, but the techniques they're using are mind-blowing. I'm in constant awe of them, actually. We’re doing our own thing here, but they're definitely influenced by what's going on in the world.”
Radford may not take localism to quite the lengths that Redzepi does, but Scottish produce dominates his menu, with organic vegetables from East Lothian, herbs from just outside Edinburgh (he also grows his own in the restaurant's grounds), and whole lambs from the far-flung Shetland Islands.
“The lambs feed mostly down on the salt marshes, so they're eating seaweed. When we don’t buy in from Shetland lamb—a small wool-producing breed from the islands, only available September to early December—we buy open pasture-fed Texel lamb—a breed originally from the island of Texel in the Netherlands. You can tell the difference straightaway because the Shetland salt marsh lambs almost have a natural seasoning to them, which is amazing.”
Radford serves a pan-fried loin of Shetland lamb with rolled belly that's braised for four hours at 200°F (90ºC) in stock made with the bones from the lamb and stout with kohlrabi fondant, organic beets, buttered curly kale, and beetroot/rosemary lamb jus. It's finished with whipped potato aerated in a soda siphon, a rare nod to modernism.
“We don't use water baths, we don’t vacuum-pack things, it's not what we do. There’s a place for water baths, but I do think it takes a lot of the fun out of cooking. Also, a good piece of fish or a meat cooked sous-vide is delicious and tender, but for me, there isn't any texture to it. You don't get that caramelization you get on a nice pan-fried piece of lamb or venison.”
Rather than fill his kitchen with technology, Radford has plans to go even further back to basics. “We’re going to put a kind of pit in the kitchen where we’re going to cook over naked embers—burning oak or birch or beech. It adds a completely different flavor to meat and fish. You get that kind of smokiness, almost a barbecue kind of taste.”
A lot of time and effort has already been lavished on Timberyard, but it's still a work in progress. A downstairs bar with its own dedicated street entrance should be open in time for this year's Edinburgh Military Tattoo and Fringe Festivals in August, and Radford has his eye on the currently empty first floor space.
“We're thinking about a private space with a table for up to 20, a couple of wood burners, and a little satellite kitchen. It would probably be for a seven- or eight-course dinner. Ideally, it will be a slightly more interactive experience for the diners—not a demonstration style thing, but watching your main course cooking on one of the wood burners in the open fire.”
Radford also has ambitions beyond Timberyard. “I’d like to think that my brother and I would probably, as a stepping stone from here, do something else. Hopefully in Edinburgh; it's a great city. Not walking away from here, but in addition to here. Perhaps in a different part of town, slightly stripped-back and even more simple than what we do here.”
A driven, talented, and thoughtful chef mature beyond his years, Radford seems poised to achieve his goals in a short matter of time. Certainly, Edinburgh has much to anticipate.
Recipe: Ben Radford's Burnt Heather Partridge with Celeriac, Watercress & Chanterelles