FOURty seconds with Ben Orpwood of Sexy Fish

15 Oct 2015
5 min read
FOUR chats to Ben Orpwood, executive chef of Sexy Fish, London, ahead of the restaurant’s launch on Monday

Tell us about the concept of Sexy Fish?

Sexy Fish has been a long time in the making and will be an intoxicating mix of art and design, great food, cocktails and service and, most of all, fun!We have two of the biggest live coral tanks [in the world] downstairs in the private room. There’s also some extraordinary artwork from Frank Gehry and Damien Hirst, not to mention the stunning coral panelling by Michael Roberts on the ceilings throughout the restaurant. It is a feast for the senses and any words that I use won’t justify the beauty—you just have to see it.

What can we expect from the menu?

Our menus take their inspiration from the seas of Asia, with a focus on Japan. From the raw bar, salads, market fish cooked over charcoal, and meat, birds and fish from the Robata grill, to tempura, sharing platters, buns, skewers and dumplings, there will be great variety in cooking styles and techniques and our focus on presentation is as important to us as taste, sourcing and seasonality.Puddings also hint at Asia with combinations such as matcha and ginger marble cake with gingerbread ice cream and caramel and white and dark chocolate tofu with candied cocoa nibs.

What will make a Sexy Fish dish standout?

For me, there are two elements that are key. One is the authenticity of the dishes, and not only have I spent a great deal of time working with very experienced and inspirational Asian chefs in Istanbul, Dubai and Australia, but my team has a wealth of knowledge as well. And the other most important factor is the customer. The customer has a huge amount to do with what dishes we choose to put on the menu; customers today are much more discerning and knowledgeable so the dishes have no choice but to stand out. We are lucky enough to have existing supplier relationships throughout the group, and I have spent the last four months meticulously sourcing the perfect ingredients for our dishes.

Which Asian flavours will the menu focus on?

There really are too many to mention, but my personal crusade is to persuade the non-believers to get into tofu. Tofu is a much misunderstood ingredient, and because we make our own, we know exactly how good it can be. I’ve found lots of different ways to cook with it: our freshly cut crudités are served with whipped tofu; we have a “japrese salad” with sliced tomatoes, marinated tofu, shiso, sherry vinegar and soy; there’s a spicy tofu pea guacamole; and my personal favourite is the white and dark chocolate tofu with candied cocoa nibs. I’m convinced that hardened tofu-sceptics will soften when they try any of these dishes!

There has already been some hype and media coverage around the restaurant’s launch—does this add to the pressure, excitement, both?

We’ve had our heads down for so long, and now that the opening is just around the corner, it’s great to stand back and look at what’s been achieved. We have a great kitchen team of 40, all the boys in the upstairs kitchen, all the girls in pastry. The restaurant is magnificent; it’s gleaming. Our kitchens are state-of-the-art. Of course there’s pressure and expectation, but the whole team—front and back of house—is going to do their damnedest to make sure that we live up to those expectations. Exciting times!

The restaurant launches imminently, describe how you are feeling?

Pretty tired, if I’m honest. I’m working around the clock, with little time to see my lovely wife Nilar and even less to see my dogs (truth is, we’ve sent the dogs on sabbatical for three weeks with my parents in Cambridge, because we don’t want them to feel unloved!). But I have this rumbling excitement in my belly. It’s going to be a great team effort and I can’t wait for the 19th!

What was your initial reaction to the name of the restaurant?

I smiled.

Art plays a big part in the restaurant’s concept. Do you take a personal interest in art? What are your favourite pieces in the restaurant?

Wow, that’s a difficult question. All of the art is magnificent. Who couldn’t love the four-metre Frank Gehry crocodile menacingly sprawled across the north wall, or his Fish Lamps gleaming above the bar, swimming in the waterfall behind it? The Damien Hirst pieces are sensual and riveting. The Michael Roberts ceiling a modern day Matisse-esque Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t possibly pick my favourite… all of them, please!

What has it been like to work with Richard Caring?

Richard Caring is creative and confident in his convictions. It’s great not only working with someone who knows what they want and from whom one can learn, but also who’s also ready to listen. For me, it’s been enriching interacting with a visionary like Mr Caring. I don’t think that many people in this city have done what he’s done in the last 10 years for the restaurant industry.

You’ve worked all over the world. How has each location shaped you as a chef?

Each location has been several onion layers for me. Travels have given me a wider outlook on life in general, and I’m constantly curious to learn more. Nilar, my wife, is Burmese, and I’ve picked up many culinary techniques, tastes and styles from our extensive wanderings. I’ve been influenced by time in Burma—the food is as straightforward as the day is long. “Organic” is not a moniker there, because everything is cooked from freshly grown or reared produce, organic anyway, and goes straight to the street markets directly from the farms. My vegetarian passion took root in Burma as well, but my real holy grail is Japan. On our last visit there, we managed to get ourselves invited to the hallowed precincts of the “off limits” Tsukiji Fish Market and tuna auction. I even learned to cut sashimi while travelling extensively in Japan and learned about Japanese traditions and methods of food preparation.

Tell us about some of the most memorable kitchen experiences you’ve had?

One of my strongest, most lasting memories has to be meeting the Queen while I was studying at Queens’ College Cambridge. After The Queen Mother died, her patronage passed to the Queen who came to the college to accept her patronage, and we had the honour of catering for this momentous event. I vividly remember standing by the washing up area, turning around and seeing Her Majesty. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, if I was meant to bow or not and so I just stood there.Another memorable kitchen experience is during my time at Zuma. The whole team was so in synch and united that every day was exciting and enjoyable. I aspire to create the same atmosphere and bond at Sexy Fish.

Which chef has taught and guided you the most in previous restaurants?

Without a doubt, it has to be Colin Clague, who was my head chef at Zuma London (Colin is now executive chef at Jean-Georges Dubai). Together we opened Zuma Istanbul and Dubai. Colin has become my mentor. Whenever I have a problem, I call him and he has always given me the right advice.

What is the best single piece of advice you’ve been given as a chef?

“You get out what you put in,” which was given to me at my first interview.

Sexy Fish opens on Monday 19 October.

Sexy Fish,Berkeley Square House, Berkeley Square, London W1J 6BR