New Britain on the menu

After a year of concentrating on British cuisine, Ben’s Canteen found that limiting its repertoire to strictly home-purveyed food was becoming more of a bugbear than an ode to Britain. Here, founder Ben Walton explains why.

At Ben’s Canteen, we set ourselves the goal of serving British food, done well.

This we felt was a great idea but it’s also one that we found tricky. What is British food? We would come up with a brilliant addition for the menu — one that sounded super tasty— only to scratch it off the list on reflection that it just wasn’t British enough.

In truth this just seemed a bit silly — why limit ourselves? We were in charge, yet we were having to bow down to a killjoy overlord, and worse still, we’d created this beast.

As Jamie Oliver reflected on his TV series about British food, it’s from all over the place. We’re a magpie culture.

Then we started to think about three other factors:

  1. We love big cities, especially London and New York because of their diversity;
  2. We sell a boatload of burgers. Now ours comes topped with homemade corned beef. That’s pretty British but it’s easy to argue that a burger isn’t;
  3. We didn’t feel that in our corner of Britain our customers were overly obsessed with us serving British-only food — perhaps because like us, they couldn’t quite define it unless it was limited to bangers and mash, fish and chips and so on. But if we sought to explore beyond that, were they seeing it as British or just ‘interesting’?

With these thoughts we came to the conclusion that what our customers really wanted was comfort food. Now this feels like a very British thing… home after a distinctly average day at work and a hellish commute on a dark and cold night, you want something to cuddle you and make the world a better place.

So we came up with a menu heavy on the comfort element, and we’ve stopped getting too worked up about whether it’s British or not (and it’s safe to conclude that some of it definitely isn’t).

What we haven’t stopped doing is trying to use British produce and British suppliers as much as possible. We also haven’t stopped trying to be ‘interesting’ but we’ve aligned that with some simple choices. We’re not really seeking to overly challenge our customers. We want them to feel comfortable so they can concentrate on enjoying themselves.

So, now we’re Ben’s Canteen, the place on the hill, serving brunch, dinner and drinks seven days a week. We’re busier than ever and crucially everybody feels comfortable with our menu, both the staff and our customers.

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