Meet the chef: Talking food with Joseph Wright from Joseph Benjamin
Chef Joseph Wright co-founded Joseph Benjamin in Chester in 2006 with his brother, Ben. Joseph Benjamin has been awarded a Michelin Guide ‘Bib Gourmand’ every year since 2012. The same year Ben and Joe Wright launched Porta, a tapas bar which is located next door to their eponymous restaurant Joseph Benjamin. Since then they’ve opened a second Porta in Altrincham and are set to open a new site in Salford later this year.
We sat down with Joseph to find out a little more about this highly talented chef, from his signature dish to his favourite ingredients to work with.
What inspired you to become a chef?
Ben and I grew up in a very foodie family, life was generally based around what we were going to have for dinner or what was being planned to eat for a big family get together. Our annual family holidays to Portugal revolved around which food market we were visiting and what amazingly fresh fish/seafood we could cook on the BBQ. We were always encouraged (forced) to get involved, whether it was helping prepare or just doing the washing up!
When I was 13 I got a weekend washing up job at the local pub. I went on to be a waiter/barman but ended up back in the kitchen helping with salads and desserts. I enjoyed the buzz of the kitchen on a busy Saturday night. I was hooked. I ended up working full time as a trainee chef learning from all the chefs I worked under and studying catering at college on my days off.
What influenced you to open your own restaurants?
Not sure. It just kind of happened. It just felt like the natural progression. I’d been thinking for a while about how it would be possible for me to do it. (It wasn’t).
One Christmas when Ben was back home from London where he lived and worked, we got talking over a few celebratory beers. Before we knew it, we had a meeting with our bank manager, Ben somehow convinced him it was a great idea to loan us enough money to get ‘Joseph Benjamin Restaurant’ open. Albeit on a shoestring budget. Our parents have always run their own business (domestic kitchen design & installation) so it didn’t scare us.
The idea of ‘Porta’ came from us both looking for a simple casual bar we could go to on our (few) nights off. Something different from the swanky cocktail bars which were popular in Chester at the time.
I had been becoming more and more influenced in the kitchen from holidays all around Spain, and particularly the simplicity of the amazing dishes served in the tapas bars we visited. Every occasion I could squeeze a one or two-night trip in, I would intensively research and make lists of tapas bars we needed to go to for each city/town. My wife (Robyn) and I would try to squeeze as much into a trip as possible, I got carried away (as I still do) and we’d end up doing 3 tapas bars for lunch, maybe a pit stop for an afternoon snack, and another 3 for dinner.
When Ben ended up with the same obsession, the plan was hatched.
Joseph Benjamin restaurant in Chester was awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2014 what does this mean to you personally and the running of your restaurant?
A ‘Bib Gourmand’ style of restaurant is what we had always aimed at. Although never really expecting to receive the award.
We have never aimed for Michelin stars, and infact neither of us particularly enjoy that style of food/service, although obviously there are a few exceptions!
We both love uncomplicated food that doesn’t have any pointless garnishes. Why make a tomato foam when you could just slice a nice tomato? It’s probably going to be nicer anyway! We work hard at sourcing quality ingredients and we try to respect them by not distracting from them with too many things on one plate. The bib gourmand is all about good value, and that is exactly what you need to be to be the kind of neighbourhood bistro that keeps your regulars coming back.
We are both really proud to be on a list that contains both of our favourite restaurants across the country. It’s also great for all of our staff to get some recognition for the amazing work they do to keep the standards so high.
What’s your signature dish?
As soon as you tell anyone you are a chef, this is always one of their first questions…… and has always been one I can’t answer. I couldn’t pick just one. I love cooking all sorts of dishes, across every section of a kitchen. This is why I’ve always chosen to work in small kitchens, so I get to do that every shift, rather than being stuck only doing one thing over and over again.
When are you happiest?
Opening our 2nd ‘Porta’ in 2016 in Altrincham meant I had to be able to work across all of our sites, and therefore less of my time is behind the stove in the JB kitchen. What makes me happy is seeing the stuff coming out of the JB kitchen better than ever under the watchful eye of our head chef José and seeing the smooth running of Porta Chester and Altrincham and seeing the all the happy people in the queue for a table.
There are still plenty of times I get back in the kitchen and I still love the buzz of running a busy kitchen and hearing lovely feedback from our guests. Its way more fun grafting in a hot, sweaty kitchen, burning and cutting yourself than all the boring management jobs!
Away from work, my happy place is sat (or stood and squeezed in) in a busy bustling tapas bar enjoying a glass of wine or a cold beer and a few dishes with my wife, friends or family.
What are the most important considerations when crafting your menus?
We spend a lot of time sourcing quality ingredients from top quality suppliers.
We change the menus frequently which allows us to use the produce that is in season and at its best.
We often use the lesser known, cheaper cuts of meat to allow us to keep our menu prices as low as we can. This tends to mean more work prepping in the kitchen, but the results are generally tastier and more satisfying than the prime cuts.
We keep our menus relatively short to ensure the turnover of stock meaning we can keep everything nice and fresh.
We try to keep the dishes as simple as we can. We often come up with an idea for a dish and then strip it back as much as possible until you are left with no more than three elements to the dish.
The appearance is super important, however, not at the expense of flavour. We go for the natural beauty look rather than the over worked style.
What would you do for a living if you weren’t a chef?
Good question. I’ve never tried anything else, I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 13. It certainly wouldn’t be anything office based, maybe something outdoors like a landscape gardener.
What is your favourite dish to cook at home?
I cook a lot at home with Robyn my wife, we will cook together. We do a lot of BBQing, whole fish, shellfish or large sharing steaks. All very quick and easy, and most importantly – no plans to wash at the end! We often serve it with a warm salad of vegetables that we have cooked directly on the BBQ, stuff like broccoli, leek, asparagus taste amazing slightly charred. Dressed simply with olive oil, a splash of vinegar and a little garlic.
What is your favourite ingredient?
Right now, I am a bit of an anchovy addict. At the restaurant we get delicious tinned Cantabrian anchovies from the north coast of Spain from a company called Ortiz, they are amazing. Especially as each individual fish has been filleted and trimmed by hand. I often steal a tin to take home to throw in a quick pasta dish or eat on their own with a bit of crusty bread.
They have a delicious umami flavour that is a world away from the nasty anchovies we’ve all tried in the past on top of a cheap pizza. They are great with a simple tomato salad, in dressings, used as a seasoning for lamb, or straight out of the tin as they come.