Smoking Goat is one of those restaurants where it’s mandatory to sneak out of the office immediately at 5:30pm and pray the queue for dinner isn’t long.
It wasn’t always like that for the Thai restaurant, which opened its third site in Shoreditch, east London, in October. The restaurant was scraping by for its first 18 months in Soho – just about breaking even.
‘We were shit in the kitchen, getting food out slowly, and we simply didn’t have enough trade,’ says founder Ben Chapman.
He then went on a trip to rural Thailand led by Waniba Staveley – one of Smoking Goat’s team – to her family’s village. ‘The most instructive thing was how they used ingredients in homes and on the roadside, which you don’t see here. It switched us from making what we thought were Thai dishes to being completely ingredient-focused,’ says Chapman.
‘I wanted to use very high quality fish, meat and vegetables. But because I felt we had to do “Thai food”, I felt obliged to slather everything in “Thai ingredients”. In rural Thailand, they just grill something if it’s that good,’ he adds.
The team came back energised and revitalised the menu. Very quickly, people were ordering more food. More customers came in for lunch and it became busy on Mondays and late at night. ‘People really notice in Soho if you’re doing something good,’ says Chapman.
All of a sudden, the waiting staff were serving faster and higher calibre people were applying for jobs. In September 2016, it opened Kiln, its second site in Soho with more of a focus on rural Thai food.
Chapman became more interested in putting ingredients at the centre. He worked closely with farmers who grow fresh lemongrass, basil, coriander and chillies in polytunnels in Cornwall, as well as turmeric and papaya in Dorset.
He found a young pig farmer, a UK-based Japanese fish supplier, and even went as far as appointing an in-house butcher to work on using the entirety of an animal.
It’s required a change in mindset from that of a typical restaurant owner. Chapman now sees himself as a manager of a high quality and forward-thinking food supply chain.