SLOAN! Magazine talked to new EatFirst Head Chef Benn Hodges on the advantages of a unique online restaurant and the challenges facing young chefs in the UK. In January 2016, Australian chef Benn Hodges, formerly of Roka, The Century Club and The Club at the Ivy was appointed Head Chef at pioneering online restaurant start-up EatFirst.
EatFirst is Benn’s first involvement with a start-up, and he believes their pioneering online restaurant model is set to become increasingly influential, being well placed to capitalise on the growing trend for casual dining. Benn says: “EatFirst offers a great experience, very relaxed, like going to a restaurant without going to a restaurant!” Casual dining is set to be big in 2016, with the spread of pop-ups and informal brasseries, and EatFirst is forging new ground in this sphere thanks to its unique model.
In its purpose-built East London kitchen, Benn’s team of chefs design the menu and prepare their original dishes fresh each day. The dishes are then delivered chilled to order by their own delivery team, to be heated at the customer’s leisure. This system allows EatFirst to be very competitive on price – offering great quality food, using the same suppliers and ingredients as top restaurants, but without the service charge, or big overheads. This means Benn and the team can position their dishes very competitively whilst still offering incredible, restaurant-quality food.
When it comes to chef training in the UK, Benn believes a step change is needed and this is where companies like EatFirst come in. At EatFirst, Benn is keen to cultivate a fun and nurturing environment, where chefs can learn their craft and develop as chefs, whilst enjoying benefits such as the healthier work-life balance that working 9-5 Monday – Friday offers compared with the famously demanding hours many chefs work in traditional restaurants. Passionate about training, Benn cites this as one of the greatest differences between the culture in London and Australia. In Australia, there is an embedded culture of apprenticeships, which take five years and can be completed across multiple sites. In the UK, chef training is much shorter, with a very limited culture of apprenticeships, resulting in less qualified and experienced new chefs entering the workplace. This, coupled with the poor treatment of trainees and long hours, makes it too easy for many aspiring chefs to burn out or lose their confidence.
Benn’s advice to aspiring chefs is to be prepared to spend time learning your craft well, it’s not always about studying at a cookery school either – finding a great chef to take you under their wing can be as good as any course!
One interesting aspect of the new way of working at EatFirst which Benn is still adapting to is not having final control over the serving of the dish. The system of delivering freshly prepared meals for customers to finish at home in the oven or microwave means that for the first time, Benn’s team don’t have final control over the serving of the dish, which for such a perfectionist is a little challenging! Now, for the chefs when a dish is “finished” it’s only actually 90-95% finished, as the final cooking is done by the customer at home – an unnerving experience for professional chefs!
Benn’s plans for EatFirst include using his passion for Asian cuisine to introduce more Asian flair to the menu, and making EatFirst a pioneer in the online food offering. EatFirst offers high quality, restaurant standard meals freshly cooked each day by Benn and his team, delivered chilled in half-hour delivery slots, for you to heat at home or work and enjoy. The menu changes daily, with exciting new dishes added to the menu every week.
For more information please visit www.eatfirst.co.uk