He started out in God’s own county but went on to travel the globe as a chef. Rod McPhee met Lee Bennett as he makes a culinary comeback in Leeds.
Lee Bennett is the new executive chef of two of the most-anticipated restaurants in the Trinity retail and leisure development in Leeds.
Craft House and Angelica - the first regional outposts of London-based D&D - will be unveiled along with the rest of the showpiece city centre project next month.
It’s quite a coup for Bennett, 32, who is returning to his home county after 15 years in which he went off to work in Dubai, Paris, London, and Singapore.
As a result of his success he has also appeared on the BBC’s Celebrity Masterchef twice, in 2010 and 2011, and represented Yorkshire on the Beeb’s The Great British Menu in 2010.
“My philosophy on life is simple: work hard, play hard, succeed. If you get the balance right then life is pretty much guaranteed to be good.
The best piece I have ever received is this: there are no problems, only solutions. This gem was given to me by the award-winning chef, Jason Atherton. I worked with him for four years including two at the Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Dubai. We’ve remained friends ever since and he’s still someone with whom I like to spend time and discuss ideas. The ‘No problems, only solutions’ advice is advice which I always use – from designing menus to working with a designer on the best way to use space and where to place equipment in a new kitchen. Over the years I’ve always found it can be applied to every aspect of my life.
“What’s the best thing about Leeds? I appreciate it’s a bit of a cliché, but the friendliness of the people is definitely the best thing about people in Leeds and across Yorkshire. It’s simply brilliant. It may sound like a cliché but there really is a great difference between the experience you have in London and the experience you have when you come up north. When my wife and I came back to Yorkshire after Christmas it was the first thing we noticed – how everyone, in shops, restaurants and even strangers are happy to have a nice chat and are not afraid to talk to strangers.
“My first job as a chef saw me start my career working in the kitchens at Rags Restaurant and Expanse Hotel, both in my home town of Bridlington. It was there that I learnt all the basics whilst still at college. After that I went to Hazlewood Castle between York and Leeds to train further, before setting off for London and around the world. I’ve been lucky enough to share worktops with culinary kings including Jason Atherton, Mark Askew and Marcus Wearing. I’ve also worked in numerous famous kitchens ranging from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay to the Savoy Grill. For me coming to Leeds is a rare opportunity to be able to run the kind of operation I have been accustomed to running, yet it also means I can be in my home region.
The one thing in my life I couldn’t live without would have to be my wife and my favourite crisps, Frazzles.
“My first love was my wife, of course. I have a very happy marriage and I’d like it to stay that way.
The last time I cried? Well, I’m from Yorkshire so that would be never!
What do I do to relax? In Singapore and Dubai it would be drinks by the pool - I did try it in Brid last week but for some reason it didn’t have quite the same feel. At the moment with the launch of two new restaurants there is no time to relax apart from about 20 minutes of watching TV before I end up falling asleep. These are exciting and busy times but I’m looking forward to late spring and early summer when I should be able to spend some time in the Yorkshire Dales, just walking about and enjoying the peace and quiet. The scenery is so stunning that it just gives you time to reflect and recharge before returning to a busy kitchen. The time just feels right to return home with this wonderful site that D&D are investing heavily in. I’m most excited because coming back to Yorkshire will enable me to use some of the amazing produce the region is famous for.
“A fact about me that might surprise other people is that I can put my legs around my neck.
My childhood was really great as I came from a big family and we never went without. But because of the family size we were all encouraged to be independent and earn our own money as soon as we were old enough to do so. This gave me a really strong work ethic from an early age. I worked in my dad’s butchery factory on weekends from the age of 14 which helped kick-start my career and taught me everything I need to know about meat. “This training obviously gave me a great foundation for my career and it instilled a desire to use the best and freshest ingredients for every menu I have ever designed.
If I could meet anyone, alive or dead, it would have to be Albert Roux. I have had the privilege of eating at Le Gavroche in London and I’ve met his son, Michel Roux, many times. It would have been a great honour to meet the man who brought gastronomy to the UK and who set up that wonderful restaurant that still exists today, over four decades on.
“Tell us a funny story or a joke...I know it’s another cliché but I’m afraid I’m struggling to think of any clean ones...”
D&D’s Angelica and Craft House restaurants open in the Trinity retail and leisure development on March 21.
For more information visit: www.trinityleeds.com