Meet NCOTY finalist Ben Drake, senior sous chef at The Elephant by Simon Hulstone, Torquay

Ben Drake

After leaving school at 18, Ben attended the Tante Marie Cookery School and from there he started cooking at the Artichoke restaurant in Amersham. He spent almost two years working there and learnt a lot as both Laurie and Ben were fantastic teachers and gave him the encouragement and guidance that he needed. The next move was to The Elephant in Torquay and he has spent the past four years there. Working with Simon Hulstone is great and he has moved up the ranks of the restaurant to his current position of senior sous chef. He feels it’s a fantastic family run restaurant, with a small team which has given him the opportunity to work closely with Simon which continues to be amazing.

What he enjoys most about having a career as a chef is the joy of being part of a team who are all working together to achieve the same goal. The team which you work with become a family, all wanting to provide a fantastic service for the customers. The excitement of service is something that never gets boring for Ben and it still gives him the same adrenaline rush which it did when he started cooking professionally seven years ago.

He didn’t always know he wanted to be a chef and after completing his A levels he had applied to do English Literature at university. However, the summer before he was due to start his degree gave him some time to think about what he wanted to do with his life. Realising university wasn’t for him, he considered what it was that he was most passionate about and that had always been food. It was a great decision and he now has a career which he loves.

Working with Simon Hulstone has been a massive help to his career. Ben says he has been able to not only learn so much from working at the restaurant but has also had the opportunity to go on some unforgettable trips, most notably to Israel and Thailand. Being a chef at the minute it is very easy to get inspiration from social media and TV too and this certainly keeps everything feeling fresh and exciting for Ben.

After a difficult beginning to his career at The Elephant, one of the most memorable working days was a Saturday night when he says he finally cracked it and had a great service. This was a fantastic feeling and made all the hard work that he had put in worthwhile. The adrenaline on a busy Saturday night when you know you have the weekend to look forward to is still something which he finds very exciting. Luckily, most of his shifts go pretty well nowadays!

He decided to enter NCOTY this year because he wanted to give himself a new challenge. It was a competition he had been considering entering and COVID-19 gave him a fantastic opportunity to give it the time it deserved and to create something that he was proud of. Working with Simon, he has seen the fantastic opportunities NCOTY can provide and this certainly inspired him to give it a go. COVID-19 was actually a blessing in disguise for Ben as it gave him time to think about the brief that had been set and give it the time and attention it deserved. On the flip side to this, it was a difficult time for his mental health, as it was for many chefs. Being away from work and having so much time, which he was not used to, was quite difficult to deal with. NCOTY did help with this and gave him something to work towards and focus on.

For some of the lockdown, Ben was back working at the restaurant to help Simon with takeaways. This was following a fantastic response from the local community. At its peak, they were doing up to 250 dishes a week and this gave Ben some structure back in his life and also kept him cooking. Lockdown also gave him the opportunity to explore Devon, which he wouldn’t usually do during summer as it is so busy with tourists! It was great to visit Dartmoor and some of the local beaches which are on the doorstep in Torquay. This was certainly one of his biggest positives of lockdown.

For Ben’s NCOTY second stage entry, it felt important for him to do a dish that was inspired by the local ingredients that they have in Devon and the meals out that he has enjoyed in recent years. Eating out has become a massive part of his life since becoming a chef and it makes all the hard hours worthwhile when you sit the other side of the pass. Working as a chef, certainly makes him appreciate how hard other chefs are working to provide your dinner and these experiences are something that really motivates him. The scallop on his dish was certainly instigated from living in Devon and working in a restaurant where fresh hand dived scallops are delivered the morning they are dived for. The freshness and quality of these local scallops are something to truly appreciate and respect.

Winning National Chef of the Year would be a dream come true. Knowing the pedigree of chefs that have won it in previous years, it would truly be an honour for Ben to be on the same list as them. Winning in 2020 would also be particularly sweet with the uncertainty Ben has felt this year. It would be a massive validation that he’s in the right career and hopefully will become as successful as some of his idols one day.

To succeed, Ben thinks the hard work and determination that all chefs must have is key as well as having a genuine passion for food. From enjoying other restaurants, to following the latest trends on social media, all of this becomes important. He feels that cooking has to be the main focus of your life and this makes going to work every day with a smile on your face a lot easier and probably gets you through some of the tougher days. The three words that most describe his style of cooking are fresh, local and British.

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