Award-winning executive chef Ben Devlin talks to us about what his last meal would be, his favourite flavour enhancers and how he’d like to share fish and chips with Dave Chapelle.
Ask Ben Devlin about enhancing flavours and he swears by his caramelised fish sauce and duck fat to enhance the seasoning on any dish.
“It goes with most things!” he says.
Ben’s menu at his Northern Rivers-based restaurant, Pipit, is based around a wood grill with the food offerings wide and diverse, including duck salami, buckwheat waffle with smoked fish and dragonfruit with kangaroo.
When Ben opened the Northern Rivers-based restaurant in 2019 with his wife Yen Trinh, it fulfilled his long-time career ambition of having his own place, and his most satisfying feat so far. He admits that while small business ownership is tough for many reasons, the creative freedom they get from devising the menu make the challenges worth it.
Pipit is inspired by Ben and Yen’s coastal sense of place, creative process and wood-fired cooking, done in an open plan kitchen. Their menus are created to share the best of the Northern River’s local farmers, unique produce and sub-tropical climate.
Their approach to flavours is based on using sustainable fish recommended from the Good Fish Guide and native plants based in the heart of the Northern Rivers, including South East Asian and South American fruit. Ben likes to maximise the taste of the ingredients he uses to pack in the ultimate punch. He does this with a variety of techniques using fermentation and preservation and through wood-fire and charcoal cooking. This way of cooking combines drying, grilling and smoking food that gives meat and vegetables new depths of flavour.
Ben can still recall the thrill of making his first cake in a cafe and the way the raw ingredients came together to make something tangible and delicious. This same concept has stayed with him through all of the dishes he creates.
Ben was encouraged to participate in the Nestlé Golden Chef’s Hat Award by his boss back in 2005 and ultimately won Australia’s longest running culinary competition for young chefs, which gave him a massive confidence boost and made him feel part of a bigger industry outside the small kitchen he knew.
Now, with more than 18 years of cheffing under his belt, Byron Bay-born Ben has led award-winning teams, including winning 3 chef hats at Esquire in Brisbane and as executive chef at Paper Daisy/Halcyon House in Cabarita Beach.
Ben completed his chef training in Brisbane, before going to work overseas. He returned to the Northern Rivers in 2015.
While working at Paper Daisy, Ben built a reputation for intricate dishes showcasing the region’s bounty – tropical and subtropical fruits, pristine seafood and vegetables.
At Pipit, he’s taking his food a step further.
Along the way, Ben has developed his food using the lessons learned. While working at Noma, the experience taught Ben to look at suppliers, products and their by-products differently, showing him how to get the most use out of a piece of meat or fish.
He’s learned how to find or create luxury in everyday ingredients, and developed a mindset that recognises all ingredients as precious and valuable.
Ben gives the example of a piece of fish he might use, which he shares with interested diners in his own art and food classes. The fish is broken down into its parts, using the Gyotaku art process (papers and inks) on fish, using fish offcuts to make fish fat caramel – even using the fish bone to make ceramics tableware! The fish bone will also be used to make roasted bone flour or to make a broth.
Since cooking is all about sharing food and is very much a social experience, who would Ben most like to have dinner with?
Comedian Dave Chappelle and food writer Anthony Bourdain feature in his top 3 – but rather than one of his own dishes, Ben would love some decent fish and chips with an ocean view from Hasting Point Beach.
“Those two people would be smart, funny and make interesting conversationalists,” Ben says.
“And the third person I’d have to invite is Emma Wiggle for my daughter, Penny.”
And given his diverse love of food, what would Ben’s last meal be?
“It’d have to be a bowl of the popular sushi rice, chirashi, artfully decorated with raw seafood, vegetables and a soy marinated, wafer-thin egg yolk.”
Ben admires and draws inspiration from all kinds of restaurants – in particular, those that use similar cooking techniques. If he could be a fly on the wall, he’d love the chance to see how the chefs at Restaurant Ekstedt in Stockholm prepare their dishes in their fire pit and wood-fired oven.
Recently, he’s been following the work of chefs including Justin James, from the Botanic in Adelaide, and one chef leading the way in sustainability practices, Douglas McMaster, from Silo UK. Ben has previously worked with Vaughn Mabee from Amisfield, leading the way on the New Zealand dining scene.
More about Ben and Pipit can be found over on Instagram at:
More about Nestlé Golden Chef’s Hat here: https://www.instagram.com/golden_chefs/