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Ones to watch: Neil Bentinck

Ones to watch: Neil Bentinck

by Pete Dreyer 01 April 2019

Neil’s ambitious, dynamic menus at Skosh have helped transform York into one of the UK’s most exciting and progressive food cities. Pete Dreyer caught up with the chef to dig up the roots of his worldly influences. Photography by Karen Turner.

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As Neil and I chat over the phone, I’m struck by the different worlds we live in. The weather is the same – bright sunshine and blustery winds – but whilst I can see treetops swaying through office windows, Neil is out walking his dog on the Yorkshire Moors. ‘I’m looking for wild garlic!’ he says. ‘I know it’s around here somewhere – I want to do octopus with a wild garlic nam jim (a Thai-style spicy dressing). It should be pretty tasty, as long as I can find some.’

Neil’s forward-thinking small plates at Skosh have gained a bit of a cult following in York. There was a time when this sort of exploratory cooking would have struggled outside of the capital, but York today has a vibrant food scene – one that has thoroughly embraced Neil’s wide range of influences. From pork belly vindaloo with yoghurt rice to salt-baked celeriac glazed in teriyaki and served with leeks and furikake (a dry Japanese seasoning), Neil’s globe-trotting style takes inspiration from India, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas, often in the space of a single menu. ‘It is different,’ he admits, ‘but that’s what I want it to be. It’s my food – if I want to do pork belly vindaloo and miso-glazed cod then I can!’

Neil’s obsession with exotic flavours goes way back to his childhood. The son of a Yorkshire mother and an Indian father, Neil grew up on an eclectic diet of stew, apple pie, dal and curry (though not necessarily all at the same time). His dad in particular was a keen cook. ‘He loves food and gastronomy,’ says Neil. ‘I remember him braising beef cheeks, cooking lamb racks, that sort of thing. I think his excitement about food rubbed off on me.’

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Though he grew up surrounded by food and enjoyed cooking, it would be years until Neil realised he wanted to be a chef. He worked in a few kitchens as a teenager, but at the age of twenty he went abroad in search of a new adventure. ‘I was a bit all over the place,’ he laughs. ‘I lived in Australia for a while and travelled around Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Australian food is so diverse with all these Asian influences. I was tasting all these new things, and that's when it hit me – this is what I want to do.’

Neil returned to the UK with new vigour and took a job at Ye Old Sun Inn at Colton with head chef Steven King. ‘Steven had travelled around the world too so we had lots of different influences on the menu,’ he says. ‘It was great, but unfortunately he became ill about a year later, so they handed the pub over to someone else.’ Neil spent another formative year with new boss Ashley McCarthy (who still owns the pub to this day) before moving on, and working his way around a variety of different hotels and restaurants in York. He spent a year with James Mackenzie at The Pipe and Glass Inn, then two as the head chef of Van Zeller in Harrogate. ‘That must have been seven or eight years ago now,’ he says, racking his brains. ‘I left Van Zeller knowing that I didn’t want to work for anyone else – I wanted to do my own thing and see what I could accomplish. So I left, started my company, Skosh, and worked as a self-employed chef.’

Self-employment ought to have meant a bit of flexibility and extra time, but things only got busier for Neil. He was still working full-time in the kitchen – first with Lisa Goodwin-Allen and Nigel Haworth at Northcote, then with Steve Smith and Andrew Pern at The Star Inn at Harome – but simultaneously Neil was writing his business plan for Skosh, setting the scene for his own restaurant in York and preparing with his wife for the birth of their first child. ‘It was mental, yeah!’ he laughs. ‘But I have a very understanding partner, and it really felt like a now or never situation. She was like, ‘you keep talking about it – you’re just going to have to do it!’ So that’s what we did.’

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Cauliflower manchurian (an Indo-Chinese style of cooking)
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Galician octopus with pear and black bean
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Pork belly vindaloo with pickled carrots
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Custard bun with apple, white chocolate and matcha

It took a couple of years to pull it all together, but in 2016 the dream became reality and Skosh opened its doors for the first time on York’s Micklegate. ‘I wanted to go a little bit out of town just because the rent was cheaper,’ he shrugs. ‘The shop itself was an old letting agents – just a completely empty office – so it had the potential and enough space for thirty to forty covers. It took a year just to get the extraction built in, but it was worth it.’ Once upon a time, Micklegate was a prime stag and hen do destination – now it’s the heart of York’s dynamic food scene, thanks in large part to Neil and his team. As you might have guessed, dinner at Skosh is not for the unadventurous. The current menu features homemade sourdough with acorn dairy butter and a topping of crunchy Indian ‘gunpowder’ spice, chawanmushi (Japanese steamed egg custard) with white asparagus, hazelnut and black truffle, carrots with pomegranate and dukkah, and pork loin ‘hoi sin’ with rhubarb, sprouting broccoli, Sichuan chilli and peanut.

It’s ambitious, innovative stuff – even those who go with a wide culinary vocabulary and an open mind are bound to discover things they never knew existed. Anyone who has eaten Neil’s scallop sashimi pizza can attest to that. ‘I did it for New Year’s Eve – it was a crispy Indian ‘roti’ flatbread with creme fraiche, raw scallops, shichimi pepper and black truffle on top. It took people by surprise but it was so popular we had it on the menu for about a year!’

Alongside a bevy of local awards, Skosh won a Bib Gourmand in 2017 and has blazed an exciting new trail in York for adventurous diners ever since. It has given Neil a little breathing space at least – he finally has time to spend with his young family (four-year-old Henry and newly-born Arthur who is just turning one) and his labrador, Brian, as well as focusing on his restaurant. As for any bigger Michelin-sized ambitions, he remains unconcerned. ‘We just do what we do,’ he shrugs. ‘I’m not really sure what Michelin look for these days, but if they like scallop pizzas, who knows?’

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Ones to watch: Neil Bentinck

 
 

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