Kingdom of Cooks: Neil Rankin of The Smokehouse, London
Andy Lynes - April 15th, 2014
London is currently having something of a love affair with American food, and Edinburgh born chef Neil Rankin has been the matchmaker. As opening chef of Pitt Cue Co in Soho in 2012, he helped the capital get its appetite for pulled pork and ribs, then at John Salt bar in Islington he drew on his wide-ranging kitchen experience from pop-ups to fine dining (including a stint with Adam Perry Lang at Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa) to produce wildly creative dishes like crab and fennel salad served on a huge curl of cured, dehydrated, and deep-fried pork skin.
Now, at Smokehouse, a handsome red brick gastropub in Islington in north London, Rankin is cementing his place in Britain’s culinary firmament with his most sophisticated menu yet. Rankin’s barbecue flair and his growing love of Asian flavors is expressed in a chopped brisket “roll” where the smoky, tender flakes of beef cooked over a Big Green Egg ceramic barbecue are formed into a rissolé, panéd, and deep-fried and served with some startlingly orange gochujang sauce made with Korean fermented chile paste and mayonnaise.
In her Evening Standard review of Smokehouse, London’s top restaurant critic, Fay Maschler, proclaimed, “This is the place to show us why man discovered fire.” And yet incredibly, apart from a temporary job at Burger King before finishing university, 37 year old Rankin has only been cooking professionally for seven years.
“I didn’t really have any idea when I was younger what I wanted to do. I was good at physics and math, and I was a guitar player in bands. I had an idea I wanted to be a sound engineer and got a place at Manchester University in the mid-90s studying acoustic engineering.”
After graduating, Rankin worked as a sound engineer at corporate conferences for the likes of Shell and Greenpeace until a visit to his parents in 2000, who were living in Australia, led to an abrupt change of course. “I saw this great sandwich franchise and thought I would bring it over here and do something with it.”
The move into catering didn’t come completely out of the blue. For a time, Rankin’s family ran a successful greengrocers business in Edinburgh, and as a teenager and then university student, he was a keen home cook.
“I bought the franchise for next to nothing and opened up just outside of Glasgow in Bellshill in a business park. There were no other food retailers in the area, and that did really well. I sold it for a lot of money and opened up three other franchises in Scotland. I then went into a business partnership with a guy from The Royal Bank of Scotland, and we opened up three in London.”
Although the shops were in prime sites, opening during the European-wide recession of the early 2000s ultimately proved to be a mistake, and Rankin sold the business. “I got back exactly what I invested in it, but it gave me a huge lesson in property and money and how to deal with them. It also brought me closer to food. I realized I had a little bit of a flair for it. I would always create stuff that people wanted to eat—even just simple things like salads and sandwiches. I always had an idea of what the trends were, what was delicious and what wasn’t delicious, and what would entice people to come in, and that was definitely the first stepping stone of my career as a chef.”
That career began with an extended stage in the kitchen at The French Table in Surbiton, a well regarded neighborhood restaurant. He then took an intensive course at the Gordon Ramsay–co-owned Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Surrey. In order to gain experience at the top level, he offered his services free to Michelin-starred restaurants and chefs, including one memorable stint at The Loft Project, a pop-up event run at the home of Nuno Mendes, now of Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone. “Working with him one-on-one was good, but I was shit. I nearly burnt his flat down at one point cooking some mushrooms, which I still feel really guilty about. I don’t think he has ever really forgiven me for that. He kind of gives me this look sometimes as if to say, ‘I remember the mushrooms!’”
Already in a little way over his head, Rankin’s next move was a conscious decision to go well and truly in at the deep end. “I phoned up a recruitment company and said that I wanted to work in a horrible kitchen, one of those places where you get six hours’ sleep a night and they treat you like crap. My theory was if you can survive that, everything seems easier from then on. I also thought that, at my age, I had to learn really fast, and if you work two months in a place where you work six days a week doing 18 hour shifts, you’re doing as much work as some guy doing seven hour shifts for a year.”
Rankin got his wish, and his first paid job as a chef was in two Michelin-starred chef Michael Wignall's kitchen at Pennyhill Park Hotel on the outskirts of London. “It was really hard. During service, I have never heard anything like it. He’s obscene and cruel and horrible, but during the off times, the time when you’re actually creating food, he’s amazing. He’s a mentor; he really backs you up and teaches you about everything. It was incredible detailed food. It was more like doing arts and crafts. There was me, this big guy doing things like juicing beetroots for jelly that would set on a tray and then be rolled up. It wasn’t the sort of food I wanted to cook, so I wasn’t trying to learn recipes but I did want that sense of quality and that standard. I think that’s what I have picked up from him.”
Positions in Michelin-starred kitchens in London followed including Chez Bruce and Rhodes Twenty Four. Rankin looked set to follow the well-trodden path of a career in fine dining, except fate intervened in the shape of Adam Perry Lang and Barbecoa, his joint project with Jamie Oliver.
“It just sounded like something I wanted to do. The idea of Jamie Oliver was negligible, really, but the idea of working somewhere with a butcher’s shop and doing barbecued food and this guy from America who sounded really cool—it was a really interesting concept that has kind of been a blueprint for a lot of the restaurants opening up now.”
On the face of it, barbecued food sounds more straightforward than the intricacies of haute cuisine, but Rankin says he’s never worked harder in his life than his days on the grill at Barbecoa. “It was my first experience of opening a restaurant, which was really interesting but really hard. We had 10 cooked meat items coming off that grill, and we were doing about 800 customers a day. It was relentless. You had to concentrate on 50 steaks and how they’re cooked. There’s 400 degree heat coming off this thing, you’re sweating, you have someone shouting in your ear, and you have to come up with everything on time.”
One service in 2011 was particularly hard for Rankin. Ramsay was about to open his restaurant Bread Street Kitchen, across the corridor from Barbecoa in the One New Change building behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and came to check out the opposition, along with his executive chef and now managing director of Gordon Ramsay Holdings, Stuart Gillies. “I cooked them a fillet and a sirloin, and I cooked them perfectly. I put them on the pass, turned around to do something else, and the senior sous chef sent them off to a different table. I was forced to redo the order quickly and ended up sending a Michelin three-starred chef a tough steak.”
Rankin’s time at Barbecoa provided invaluable experience for his first head chef position at Pitt Cue Co, Tom Adam’s food truck that moved to bricks-and-mortar in Soho in 2012, with the backing of Richard Turner, executive chef of Hawksmoor restaurants. Despite opening to almost unanimously positive reviews, Rankin says the kitchen was not firing on all cylinders at the start. “We were terrible. When I think about the barbecue that everyone was raving about, it speaks volumes about what the barbecue in the rest of the country was like. We were quite shocking in that first week, but everyone was lapping it up. The barbecue sauce wasn’t right, the beans weren’t right, the pork was a little overcooked—it just wasn’t right.”
After some trial and error, Rankin decided to cook most of the meat in the restaurant’s smokers, then chill and vacuum-pack it. “That gave us the ability to deal with a lot of customers and make the food really good as well. We didn’t have a lot to focus on—there were only about six things on the menu, so it was quite easy to get those things consistent and right.”
Rankin’s time at Pitt Cue Co came to an end when a promised second site failed to materialize. “I didn't want to work another summer in that hot, cramped kitchen. It was horrible. Our fridges were at one point 35 degrees Celsius (95°F) during service. We had kind of done everything in there that we wanted to do. We needed to get a second site, and it just never happened. So in the end I quit.”
Rankin’s next move put him in the limelight at last. As head chef of John Salt, he received his first proper reviews, with raves from the Evening Standard and The Independent, among others. “I had a big kitchen there and a good team, and we were just playing around with things that we wanted to do and finding a style, I suppose. I didn’t want to do the Pitt Cue thing any more because it didn’t have any meaning for me. I think even now it has been a bit overdone. I want to get the essence of it and just use real coal, real wood, and get that flavor profile that you get in Texas or Argentina or Malaysia.”
If the restaurant had a signature dish during Rankin's tenure, it was whole honey-glazed poussin, smoked over apple wood and deep-fried in beef fat and garnished with slices of green chile, although side dishes such as chicken skin hash with Yukon gold potatoes sautéed in beef fat, peas, sweet corn, and nuggets of delicious fatty skin and a perfectly poached egg yolk for extra richness were equally eye-catching.
John Salt was never going to be a long-term shopwindow for Rankin’s talents. The venue worked perfectly as a lively bar for drinkers but was unable to offer a comfortable enough environment or adequate service for diners. Fortunately for Rankin, Scott Hunter of the London-based Noble Inns pub group was already waiting in the wings, ready to make an offer.
“Scott had come in to John Salt quite a few times, and he just approached me. He’d been looking at a pub site in Islington and didn’t really know what to do with it, but he was into barbecued and grilled meats and wanted to go in that direction. I went around to the Noble group and spent a long time testing them out and eating with them and checking what the staff was like, what the food was like, and it was all pretty good. The customer service side was there, and I thought, ‘If I can put my food with that…’”
The result was The Smokehouse, where Rankin finally looks settled in for the long haul. Although he initially experienced problems attracting staff, he’s so happy with his current team he even felt comfortable enough to take the night off when a very special guest arrived for dinner. “René Redzepi was in, and I didn’t come in. I was like, ‘Fuck it, what am I going to do?’ I’m not going to go in there and teach them how to do what I’ve already taught them to do. There wasn’t much point in me being there. Plus, I’d ordered Domino’s pizza, and I didn’t really want to leave it!”
Rankin also says the settled kitchen team has freed him up creatively, and he’s particularly proud of some of the latest dishes to be added to the menu. “The new duck dish is the best we’ve had on here. We smoke the breast to medium -are and then we chill it back down. Then we cook it like a normal duck in a pan and then just grill it. It’s got a sort of Chinese sweet-and-sour glaze on it with garlic, ginger, apricot jam and soy sauce. There’s a potato cake made with half-roasted potatoes that we’ve grated and made into little cakes with shallots and then put a duck egg on top and some home made kimchi around the side. It’s really intense, but the flavors work really well. I don’t go for dishes that are overly balanced. I look for a dish that I enjoy. A lot of chefs now do this thing where you’ve got to have everything on the plate—some sort of acid on there, you’ve got to have this, you’ve got to have that, and I don’t think people eat that way.”
Hardly ever spotted without his signature baseball cap, Rankin has all the makings of the U.K.’s next celebrity chef, with appearances on British daytime TV already under his belt and a featured role in the current series of the BBC’s long-running Great British Menu program. But with a fierce independent streak and a restless creativity, Rankin is unlikely to get swallowed up by the mainstream any time soon. At the time of writing, Rankin has just returned from a culinary tour of Austin, Texas, and is no doubt full of inspiration for new dishes at The Smokehouse. Whatever emerges next from Rankin's kitchen, it’s bound to be smoking hot.