Journal: 5 September 2019
This is the first in a series of conversations with inspiring creative people living and working in Norfolk. Richard is the owner and Chef Patron of Benedicts, an award-winning restaurant on St Benedicts Street that he opened with his wife Katja in 2015. He tells us about his journey from paperboy to kitchen hand to sous chef, the mentors that have supported him along the way, and what makes his hometown of Norwich so exciting.
It all started very early on for me.
In my family you had to get a job or a trade. I had dreams of being a postman but my mum wanted me to be a plumber. I had jobs from a very young age. I did a paper round in the mornings before school. I was in a veterinary surgery, cleaning out the animal cages. I worked in a fruit and veg shop. The day after my thirteenth birthday I got a job in a pub, doing the washing up. It was like they say, when you fall in love, you know.
I fell in love with Katja and I fell in love with kitchens.
I liked the camaraderie, the praise when you did something well, working with likeminded people. By the time I was fifteen years old, I knew I wanted to do this for a living. I was in my world. When service happens, you forget the world. Service is the best therapy you can ever find.
I didn’t get on with the classroom environment.
I’m dyslexic so school was tough. At sixteen I got a job at Morston Hall. Galton [Blackiston] cooked every night. That summer blew my mind. I was taught about fresh produce – regionality, seasonality. I didn’t know what chervil was. I was in the fridge for half an hour looking for it! Morston also broadened my horizons in terms of what the world of hospitality had to offer. It was so much bigger than the pub.
Mr Roux taught me hospitality. So did my Nanny and Grandad.
When I was twenty-two I worked at the Waterside Inn and met Michael Roux Senior. I thought I’d be lucky if I lasted six months but I was there more than four years. It was my version of going to university. It gave me the foundation I needed. It taught me structure, the importance of a clean, organised kitchen and how to make people feel at home. Like how my Nan always made sure people were fed, or how when my Grandad walked into a pub, he warmed up the room.
Kevin Thornton taught me you could tell a story through food.
The ingredients you choose and the way you present them on the plate. This resonated with me as I had dyslexia. It’s like Nanny Bush’s Trifle, my signature dish – that’s a story about me and my family.
I’d always had a dream to open my own restaurant and this space was everything I’d ever wanted.
When we opened Benedicts, it was twenty years (to the hour!) that I walked into my first kitchen job at the pub. I remember being fifteen and walking down St Benedicts Street with a can of Fosters in my hand, on my way to the Arts Centre. Today the street is small, intimate, with a strong sense of community. We spent six weeks doing the space up and we lived upstairs for a year. We were doing twenty-hour days. There was so much pressure to make everything right.
My high expectations bring out the best and worst in me.
Our business plan was to create the kind of space that we would want to come to as a family. We always have room to evolve, but I can now say I’m proud. I won the Great British Menu in 2015 and everything exploded after that. It just got better and better.
I’ve always believed in small, achievable goals.
I’ve scarified a lot to get to where I am today. I was always the underdog so I knew I had to fight for what I wanted. We learn every day and we get stronger as a team. Katja is a massive driving force for the business. She is our all-seeing eye. I look after the day-to-day, she sees the bigger picture.
Norwich is more like a village than a city.
It’s a breeding place for creativity – from art to food. Everyone here is trying to do their best. Norwich people like good value and they want to feel comfortable. We try to make that happen at Benedicts. Our menus aren’t complicated. We celebrate the bounty of the county. Norfolk is like the champagne region for barley. Japanese whiskies are made using Norfolk barley.
The restaurant is not about my ego.
It’s all about enjoying other people’s company. We’re a neutral zone here. These four walls help me forget the world around me. We’re moving into our most exciting phase of Benedicts over the next four years. There’s so much I want to do; I’m like a firefly.