In July 2018 Chef Ben Palmer returned to his home town of Looe to open The Sardine Factory: a 60-cover restaurant boasting stunning harbour views and a menu that reflects the simplicity and ethos of the coastal town. With a slew of awards under his belt – including the quarter finals of Masterchef: The Professionals – Ben is no stranger to success. As testament to his great quality food, The Sardine Factory was just awarded a coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand. So, we sat down with Ben to find out more about what it takes to make waves on the Cornish food scene…
Ben, can you recall your earliest memory of cooking in a professional kitchen? What was it about the industry that appealed to you?
My earliest kitchen memory was working in Trawlers On the Quay (opposite The Sardine Factory) and a local fisherman bringing in a box of mixed local fresh fish that he had just caught. The local produce being so fresh and available to us is one of the biggest factors in me wanting to work in this industry and wanting to do justice to the produce. The industry is fast paced and I perform well under pressure. I love the camaraderie.
Congratulations on The Sardine Factory being awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand! Aside from this accolade, what would you say have been some of your career highlights to date?
Masterchef: The Professionals for sure, that and being given the opportunity to guest appear at a pop-up restaurant weekend in Greece. Being able to travel for my job like this is phenomenal.
How does it feel to be putting your hometown on the foodie map – did you always know you wanted to open a restaurant in Looe?
Absolutely – I have worked away but my goal was always to return to the town that I grew up in, to raise my children and open a restaurant. Looe will always be very special to me.
Cornwall seems to be attracting some of the UK’s top culinary talent. Why do you think this is?
It’s great for our part of the country to be put on the map for something so special. We are so lucky in that we have such a strong local larder, so why wouldn’t chefs want to use produce from here!? Not only that, but in the past decade it has become such a popular holiday destination, chefs see it as a great seasonal business opportunity to open up down here too.
Local provenance seems to be hugely important to you. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of finding and working with quality local suppliers?
We source the best ingredients around us, as well as spending a lot of time with my head chef Charlie Walters, researching key ingredients and suppliers. Our key suppliers have been with us for years. I speak to our fish supplier numerous times a day and use their experience and expertise to ensure that we are supplied with the freshest, best produce.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Keeping everything new and exciting. Moving forward with the industry is challenging, always evolving and improving dishes and foods daily, to make sure that we are not left behind in such a fast-moving industry.
What three words would you use to describe your restaurant/cooking philosophy?
Fresh, Simple & Flavourful.
Is there anything about the current state of the food/hospitality industry that you’d like to see change?
There is a mindset at the moment that hospitality isn’t a great career, and after a huge staff shortage across the whole of the UK, I would love to see this change. You can make great friends, be part of a strong team and have a huge sense of belonging within the working family. The industry takes a bad reputation for pay and long hours, but this is not really the case anymore. It can be a blessing to be part of this working world.
Would you say you have a signature dish?
I like to think that all of our dishes are something to be proud of, but the two at the moment that I am championing is our pilchard pate and our hero dish, a ‘next-level’ Cornish Stargazey Pie!
Do you have anything exciting in the pipeline for The Sardine Factory?
We are teaming up with a local music festival called LOOE LIVE and partnering to offer a foodie element to this years’ offering – its going to be so fantastic we can’t wait!