Tapas chain La Tasca is negotiating a period of transformation, with development chef Antony Bennett at the wheel. Liz O’Keefe talks to the man – who has been behind many a retail brand – about how he’s taking the casual-dining sector up a gear
About 20 years ago, La Tasca represented a welcome addition to a minimal restaurant scene in the north, from where the chain sprouted. One of the original cook-by-numbers kitchens, where a centralised hub cooked and vacuum-packed prepared meals before shipping them out to the then Bay Restaurant Group-owned eateries, La Tasca did for Spanish food in the UK what Yo Sushi has since done for Japanese cuisine.
At that time – around 2008 – discount vouchers were king in casual dining and La Tasca was working its 34 restaurants to the bone for half of its previous profits. By 2011, an in-the-red La Tasca was demerged and sold to standalone business La Tasca Holdings Ltd. It was at this point that development chef Antony Bennett was brought in to make La Tasca the place to eat once more.
I meet Antony, now four years on from the start of his challenge, at the Covent Garden La Tasca, which thrives on being situated in a secluded lane occupied by various cafés and restaurants. This La Tasca makes sure it has the edge over the competition though. As I arrive, just before lunchtime on a Wednesday, a paella the size of a dinner table is being cooked just by the door, tempting passers by into the terracotta-clad restaurant.
From the way his staff and chef mill around him, you’d think Bennett was based at this restaurant, but he’s actually based in Southampton, where he has lived, since he gained his BTEC in hotel management and catering from City & Guilds in his early 20s. From the south coast, he travels around the country continuously monitoring, training and introducing new dishes.
“There really is a family atmosphere in all of the La Tascas,” says Bennett, whose official title is Head of Food – a role that encompasses being a development and executive chef, as well as food purchasing. “One of the outcomes from the demerger was that the business was going to be lean and mean – we have a few good individuals.”
It seems that when Bennett was offered the opportunity to take La Tasca by CEO Simon Wilkinson and “break the rules”, it was what he had been inadvertently working towards all his career. Whilst his BTEC chef peers were making their way to London’s Michelin-starred kitchens, Bennett mixed it up as a chef de partie in hotels, local restaurants and agencies, until he landed his first casual-dining gig at City Centre Restaurants. From there he became a name in retail and foodservice new product development, working for the likes of Somerfield, Bakkavor, Premier Foods and Sainsbury’s.
With a keen knowledge of what consumers want on their plate and an understanding of how to cook it economically for the masses, Bennett found himself back in casual dining. “Simon brought me in to understand the La Tasca brand, but also to spin it on its head,” he explains. “The job includes the full management of the supply chain, from developing the recipes and training staff to lots of research in Spain and then sourcing the ingredients myself.”
From the off, Bennett and Wilkinson moved from Brakes to Fresh Direct. “No disrespect to Brakes, it does a very good job for large companies, but for me it was all about fresh food and breaking the mould of a standard casual dining chain,” elaborates Bennett, who sources most of the producers, then gets Fresh Direct to manage the distribution of orders. “We have a particular specification for different products, so tomatoes need to be 80-100ml and a certain colour, for example, as all the La Tascas have to be consistent. If it is wrong, the chefs are told to ring up and question it.”
Bennett says La Tasca needs a constant supply coming through and to receive what it has requested. “I understand that seasons change, which is why I am more comfortable when get a yearly plan from a supplier, telling me when and where the produce is likely to come from and why,” he explains. “Then we are prepared, because we have been advised by experts.”
Returning to Spain
Bennett set out to re-engage with what was at the heart of La Tasca: tapas. From travelling to La Boquería market in Barcelona where he has had “some of the best tapas in the world” at restaurant El Quim, visiting Castilla La Mancha to source an exclusive Manchego cheese producer and even picking the brains of El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià and Arzak’s Juan Mari, Bennett continues to handpick most of the Spanish ingredients from specialist producers in Spain. Now the menu incorporates squid, micro herbs, langoustines, octopus and piquillo peppers, to name a few.
“I am very passionate about sourcing from and getting recipe inspiration from Spain,” reinforces the chef, who will pen a La Tasca cookery book next year, featuring his travels and recipes. “It’s all about good, honest food, but also real Spanish food. I met Ferran Adrià last year and he is a real inspiration. He now has his own brand of more quirky stuff and I buy popping chocolate candy [for a chocolate waffle dessert] and Crutomat [dehydrated tomato] from him. You wouldn’t expect that within a casual dining brand, but we are still not charging the earth for it.”
New menu, new philosophy
The new menu is live in all restaurants and will continuously change, as Spanish food evolves in an Anglo-Spanish fusion-style. Including perfectly sized and cooked padrón peppers, gordal olives, langoustines from Andalucía, gluten-free bread and, a new favourite of mine, slow-cooked pork cheeks, all recipes are cooked to order according to Bennett’s recipe bible, which holds the specifications for exact ingredient measurements and method.
“We have completely broken down the old, cheap model. We buy better ingredients and cook it ourselves in the restaurant kitchens. Our bread is still made for us, but it is made fresh and received every day. We don’t buy chopped onions and potatoes – potatoes used to come pre-cubed, but now its Maris Pipers, washed, peeled and diced on the day for the patatas bravas.”
Out of the new philosophy a La Tasca Academy was born, where chefs gain a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) with training provider, Lifetime, if they don’t already have one when they join, making the chain a destination for school leavers.
“A lot of what I have done has been around people: I think being a people person and not a screaming executive chef has really helped,” reflects Bennett, as the restaurant fills up around him for what looks like a busy afternoon. “La Tasca is now a different model; we have gone through, and will continue to go through, quite a journey.”
La Tasca educates
In addition to NVQs, La Tasca also offers apprenticeships at each restaurant with training provider Lifetime.
Apprenticeship courses available through La Tasca include:
Food & Beverage Service Level 2
Bar Service Level 2
Kitchen Services Level 2
Food Production & Cookery Level 2
Team Leader 2
Hospitality Supervision & Leadership Level 3
Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) Level 3
Experience the new menu:
What to expect: From the padrón peppers to the slices of 12-month matured jamón and Manchego cheese, to the selection of paellas, you can enjoy all-things Spanish in warming surroundings. The Victoria branch in London also has a mezzanine floor that overlooks the bar and some of the dining area, which gives it a real summery feel, even in February.
Couldn’t stop eating: Slow-cooked pork cheeks (inspired by Spain’s Castilla y León region), cooked down in Pedro Ximénez sherry, spices and tomato, served with skinny fries (£5.25).
What’s next? Smoked tomato salad with apple blossom.
Drink: An array of sherries, traditional and cocktail versions of sangria (including calimocho – red wine with coke] in jugs and by glass, as well as Spanish wines and beers. Cider, juices and soft drinks are also available.
Music: Traditional Spanish.
Extra info: The menu will reference any region in Spain to which a recipe is attributed. Bennett sources all the langoustines from one fishery, while his Spanish chorizo producer works exclusively for the brand. La Tasca also has five restaurants in the US northeast – two in Virginia, two in Maryland and Washington.
Profile: Antony Bennett
Having spent most of his career developing food for leading restaurants, supermarkets and consumer brands within the UK, Antony has won multiple awards including Acorn, The Restaurant Magazine Development Chef Award, Free from Food People’s choice and the National Food Service Competition of the Year, as well as several PAPA (Pizza Pasta & Italian Food Industry) awards.
He is recognised as one of the leading development chefs in the UK right now and has recently been invited to contribute to BBC Good Food’s UKTV online channel on behalf of La Tasca and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Antony’s love for Spanish culture and food has so far seen him travel to many regions in Spain, and visit artisan menu suppliers who he now classes as friends.
Antony recently completed a stint at the 3 Michelin-starred restaurant Arzak in San Sebastián with Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena Arzak who was recently named Restaurant Magazine’s ‘World’s Best Female Chef’.
Tweet: @LaTasca @Antony_Bennett