Great British Menu 2015 turned out to be fourth time lucky for Norfolk’s Richard Bainbridge. Having previously gained the title of runner-up, he triumphed this year, serving not one, but two dishes at the final WI Centenary banquet. Last month we enjoyed a Monday morning FaceTime with Richard, after another busy weekend for Benedicts.
“We’re fully booked every Friday and Saturday for the next couple of months so we’re super busy at the moment. But we shut Sunday/Monday and Sundays are always ‘Hollyday’ after my daughter, Holly…there’s got to be at least one day where I have to be selfish and say, this is for my family.” A chef who dedicated time to his family and delivered a great pun instantly impressed me; having myself grown up above a restaurant, I know all too well how stressful it can be to juggle restaurant and family responsibilities.
Richard is a proud Norwich lad and, like many chefs, started out as a pot wash at his local pub. “It was the day after my 13th birthday at 6pm that I started my first pot wash job at my local pub, The Bull in Hellesdon where my mum did the books upstairs and my sister worked behind the bar….twenty years to the day I walked into my own restaurant.”
Over the next couple of years Richard progressively took charge of desserts, then starters, becoming second chef by the time he was 15. “I remember talking to myself, biking home, saying “If I’m going to do this, I know that I’m going to work weekends and all these hours, I’m going to give myself 10 years and if I haven’t done anything by the time I’m 24 I’ll jack it in and become a plumber like my mum said!”
Richard quickly realised that his future would lie amongst the hustle and bustle of a kitchen, the buzz during a service is something that only chefs get to enjoy and certainly gets the adrenaline pumping.“The camaraderie between the chefs was just somewhere where I thought I belonged. I’m not particularly academic, I was quite severely dyslexic at school and back in the early 90s it wasn’t recognised like it is now. You were kind of put to the side as “thick”. People seemed impressed with what I could do [in the kitchen], so I thought “this is amazing, this is something I could be quite good at!” I knew that I needed two Ds to get into catering college and I found a card from my mum the other day saying,”Two Ds and a C…clever clogs!”
Whilst working at a cookery demonstration, Richard met Galton Blackiston of Morston Hall and the rest, as they say, is history, “I lived in this hotel, had no idea what a Michelin Star was, what fresh produce really were and Galton showed me this amazing world that I’d never known! And at the end of the summer Galton asked if I’d like to work there full time. I managed to do college on my day off and I just got better as it was in the days when Galton worked in the kitchen every single day so I got to work with him one-on-one for nearly two years.”
After leaving Mortson Hall to go to America, Richard returned soon after 9/11, at which time “the only people that called me up were: my mum, my sister and Galton who said just to come back to Morston. I looked at him as a father figure.” However within six months he knew that if he was going to stick to his 10 year plan that he needed to move on. Wanting to challenge himself, Richard bought the Good Food Guide and sent CVs to the top 20 restaurants from around the UK. He received responses from Le Gavroche, The Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal’s [The] Fat Duck; he couldn’t have picked better himself! “I accepted a job at Le Gavroche (2 Star) and just after I went for a trial at The Waterside Inn (3 Star) and thought if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go for the top and started my job at The Waterside Inn.”
Richard spent nearly eight years travelling the world; working in London, America, New Zealand (where he trained as a sommelier) and Dublin. He knew that food was his passport to the world. “If I could be a chef I could work anywhere and see the world.” With each different restaurant, he took away different skills, “Morston Hall taught me seasonality and to respect what was local; The Waterside gave me foundations of French classical cuisine; Kevin Thornton (Thornton’s Restaurant) taught me how to be flamboyant in a kitchen and not to be bound by classical rules, that I was my only limitation.”
By this point in our chat I thought it timely to talk about his time on Great British Menu. “Someone just gave me a call and asked if I would be interested and I was just a 25 year old thinking: “I’m going to be on telly!” The first year, looking back, I wish I hadn’t done it — it’s cringeworthy! I don’t really know what I was trying to prove, I threw everything at it…Including the kitchen sink. I was just trying to impress everyone and I failed. I think until this third time I was probably the least successful contestant ever!”
Each year the chefs are given a brief from which they are to cook up a four course menu. 2015 was the centenary for the Women’s Institute, something Richard’s Grandmother had been a big part of, so it seemed as if this year was made for him to succeed. “This year it just really clicked, this was the time I knew it was going to be my year, I knew one of my dishes was going to get me to the banquet…One of the big things for me in making me win was having my daughter. Just the idea of Daddy coming home a loser, was plenty of drive! I wanted to show homage to my baby along with my mum, my nanny, my sister and my wife and all the hard work they’ve put into making me who I am.”
Richard became one of the most successful chefs to have appeared on the show when he was asked to cook both the starter and dessert courses; something I was keen to applaud him for, “I looked at the brief differently this year; I sat down with my wife with a glass of wine and we had the starter and the dessert done within 10 minutes. I knew for the starter I wanted a bowl of Jerusalem artichoke with the hymn singing as the starter was coming out — done. Then for dessert I knew we were doing Nanny Bush’s Trifle, I wanted to show her off and it’s WI through and through.”
There was no time to rest of his laurels as soon after finishing the show Richard, and his wife Katja, opened their own restaurant, Benedicts in Norwich. Both dishes from the banquet have become firm favourites with diners. Richard puts this down to how comforting and thought provoking food can be, “Food can comfort any situation: if you’ve broken up with your boyfriend/girlfriend, family members have passed away, there’s something about food that brings us all together and it feels like a warm hug. For instance, Nanny Bush’s Trifle, people come from miles to eat my Nanny’s trifle. Nobody would care who she was, but now everyone wants to know who she was and we get to share our memories of trifle — everyone seems to have a story about trifle!”
Throughout our chat, what really shone through was Richard’s immense pride at his staff, his local area and its produce. “I love Norfolk. There’s dishes on my menu, I can put my hand on my heart and say everything comes from within 25 miles of the restaurant, and I’m proud of that fact. But it’s important to use anything from our island, you don’t have to use asparagus from Peru!” Perhaps the most refreshing moment of the chat came from a discussion around his rapport with his suppliers, “When I use a supplier for the first time, I want a relationship, I want to talk to them every day, I like to know what’s going on and I like to feel their enthusiasm; it works full circle for all of us, it’s just working together.”
Benedicts is located at 9 St Benedicts Street, Norwich, NR2 4PE. They are open Tuesday to Saturday, serving lunch 12/12:30-2pm and dinner 6pm-9:30pm. To book a table or for more details visit www.restaurantbenedicts.com
Photos © Katja Baindrige. All rights reserved
Words by HQ