When it comes to blending highly curated culinary art with farm-to-table cuisine, none are more equipped to tackle the challenge than Ranquilco’s head Chef Alexandra Bentham. Growing up in London, Alex has always been obsessed with food and the process of making it, taking any opportunity to make a meal for friends and family.
After attending the prestigious Ballymaloe Cookery School in September 2013, she went on to finish with their certificate in Food and Wine. It was idyllic, inspiring and truly perfect fit that solidified Alex’s journey as a chef. Here, she shares with us about how she uses her unique background in the culinary arts to take a sophisticated approach to rustic fare:
How did you get started working in professional kitchens?
One of my most memorable first dishes was grilled octopus, served with labneh (a middle eastern strained yoghurt), chopped salad with a tangy lemon dressing and a sprinkle of sumac – I was hooked. I was eating at my favourite restaurant in London – Moro. I asked if i could work for free (also known as a stage) for two months, just helping out. I was completely entranced by the delicious chaos, and had to get myself in. A month later I had a job and was working on the starters section.
What is the best culinary advice you’ve ever received?
Along the way there have been many highlights, however one in particular comes to mind. The executive chef of Moro, Marianna Leivataki, said to me when I first started working there, ’You should make every plate as though you are making it for the person that you love most in this world.’ I have never forgotten that and try my best to keep that in mind when feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
What are the biggest challenges that you face at Ranquilco and how do you overcome them?
Because we bring everything here on mules it is difficult to get certain things, like cream for example. We have a few dairy cows but to feed 20 volunteers and a number of guests, it is difficult to have enough. This means that we truly appreciate the fresh milk that we do get. Making some dishes can be hard or impossible, so getting used to that has been a challenge. We overcome those challenges with occasional treats for the entire community, Tom made a custard base ice cream for everyone last season, a very long process out here. We all appreciated it greatly.
You make quite the loaf of sourdough bread - Guests can’t get enough! What’s your secret?
Practice- I have been disappointed by lots of my batches of bread, determining which factors need to be changed has been a fun learning experience, especially when the next batch comes out better than before. Definitely no shortcuts are allowed, because that is a sure way to come out with a less good batch of bread. Cutting into a loaf is the best part – I am always excited. Somehow seeing all the air bubbles and how they formed is fascinating to me, and knowing that it's all natural makes it even better- I love it.
Is there a childhood comfort food that you think about? What comfort food do you like to make at Ranquilco – soup, bread, stews?
My mother used to boil asparagus and we used to dip the tips in a warm lemon and butter sauce, which is still one of my favourite things to eat. I often make stews at Ranquilco, and use lovely spicy malbec to slow cook the tougher bits of meat in. When we have guests coming back from long rides and pack trips, I think that a stew is comforting and they often delight in having a bowl of something warming after a long day out there. I also think that it doesn’t get much more homely than a loaf of fresh bread with butter.
How do you think meals help bring people together? What has been your experience with bringing people together over meals at Ranquilco?
At the beginning of each season, we have a group of at least 15 people who don’t know each other. I think that a lot of the bonding that happens between these people is over meal times.
What is your most memorable meal?
I was lucky enough to eat at The Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal on my birthday a few years ago, and it was such a magical experience. It was a sensory overload- and i remember my favourite dish was a dish based on a glass of sancerre. On the plate there were what looked like 15 grapes, every grape had a different flavour, but somehow they all related to the glass that went with it, it was real genius.
What is the most rewarding part about being a chef?
Instant gratification – being able to bring people together and make them happy.