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Norwich. A city of mavericks and makers, creators and trail blazers. A big-hearted city beneath even bigger skies, and open air, open minds. In Norwich, everyone has a story to tell. And we’ll be sure to tell it. Every month, we’ll be sitting down with local writers, designers, makers, artists and influencers to discuss life in Norwich. This week we’re joined by Richard Bainbridge, Chef Patron of Benedicts Restaurant in Norwich.
A self-proclaimed Norwich boy through-and-through, Richard grew up just outside of the city before leaving to travel the world. It was on his travels that he honed his culinary skills, working for Gunter Seeger in New York, Kevin Thornton in Dublin, and Michel Roux Senior at the 3 Michelin Starred Waterside Inn.
Flash forward to 2020 and Richard is the Chef Owner of Benedicts, a 3AA Rosette restaurant in the heart of Norwich that was named in The Times ‘Top 100 restaurants in the UK’. Richard opened Benedicts in 2015, the same year he was crowned champion of BBC 2’s Great British Menu. Since then, Benedicts has become a favourite amongst Norwich locals and visitors alike, winning multiple awards and pleasing thousands of customers. We sat down to discuss all things food and drink in Norwich, life in lockdown, and that time he almost became a Plumber!
How did you get into your chosen career/profession, and why did you decide to pursue this in Norwich?
I grew up in Hellesdon in the 80s/90s and was kind of pushed to the bottom of the pile at school as I’m Dyslexic. Children with Dyslexia were seen as a bit ‘thick’ back then and unfortunately weren’t as supported as they are nowadays at school. So I thought to myself, I need to do something with my hands, something I can get recognition for! My mum used to work in The Bull, our local pub in Hellesdon, and just after my thirteenth birthday she got me a job as the wash-up in the pub. Literally, from the first day of walking into that kitchen – the buzz, the clattering of pans, the camaraderie – I loved it all! So I said to myself, “I’ll give this ten years and I’ll give it everything I’ve got”. If I wasn’t successful in ten years then I’d give it up and look for something else. My mum wanted me to be a Plumber, which I did think about for a bit …
So on that ten year journey I went to Norwich City College, got my qualifications and moved onto Morston Hall in North Norfolk. Morston really taught me about great food and a philosophy of seasonality. The importance of great local produce.
I then moved to work in America, and on to Australia, New Zealand, Dublin, and then back to the UK, spending time working in London. But Norwich was somewhere I really wanted to come back to. Somewhere to show the people from school who didn’t think I was worth anything, that ‘boy had done good’! And I also knew that Norfolk was the perfect county to settle down and bring up my children.
What do you love most about Norwich and why?
For me, Norwich is first and foremost a beautiful city – it’s like Trumpton! It has that village feel, but at the same time is a very cosmopolitan city. The buildings, the architecture, the river. It’s just a beautiful city, so that’s definitely one of my favourite things. But also the sense of community and the sense of artistry here. I felt that St Benedicts Street was a really bohemian part of town where we felt we could be who we wanted to be, and not be judged like you would be in other cities. Norwich is a very open city where we could spread our wings and bring the hospitality and food we wanted to bring, and the city has really embraced us, which I love! The sense of freedom and community here made it the only place that I wanted to have my restaurant.
Favourite place(s) to eat in Norwich?
Obviously Benedicts is at the top of my list! I love it, for obvious reasons! But I also think Norwich Market has exploded over the last few years, with its street food offering. It’s really evolved and developed a diverse food scene, it’s fantastic! For a quick, snappy lunch there really is nowhere better. And the best thing as well, I can’t say what I like most because you can just turn up and try something new all the time which is great. I also love Grosvenors for fish & chips, Shiki for something fresh. Shun at Shiki (Head Chef) is such a funny guy, he just makes me laugh. He’s another guy who is passionate about great local produce and local people, but in a very different style that I love and really appreciate. I also really love to go to Bread Source for Danish pastries. It’s been a real relief during COVID, to be able to queue up at Bread Source, grab a pastry, grab a coffee and take a walk along the river to get a sense of ‘normality’.
Favourite place(s) for a coffee/beverage?
Bread Source. Don’t tell any of the guys at Benedicts but I do go there for a sneaky coffee in the mornings, just before going into the madness of what Benedicts is! You’ve also got Kofra, who do fantastic coffee. And if I want to buy fresh coffee beans then it’s Strangers, where you can watch the coffee being roasted and put straight into a bag to take home. I think that’s quite unique.
I love going to The Playhouse for a beer. If we’ve got some time after work we love to sit outside in the summer sun and have a drink. I also love going to Grain, you get a pint there that is very unique. It’s kind of got that ‘old man’ pub feel, and their sausage rolls are to die for! And I also love The Fat Cat. It’s been a real joy during lockdown to take my refillable bottle, go and get a top up a enjoy a few drinks at home.
What are you most looking forward to doing in Norwich now lockdown is easing? What did you miss most?
I’ve missed going out and meeting up with other business owners in the city. We used to go out for a beer or coffee and just have a chat to support each other. You can still do it over the phone but it’s not the same! I’m also excited to now be able to go inside some of my favourite restaurants again – it’s all about food for me, isn’t it!?
It’s nice to go back into the small, independent shops again too. During lockdown I’ve realised how many clothes I don’t own, so I’m looking forward to getting back to Working Title, Seven Wolves and DogFish to get new clothes. Places like that are what make Norwich so unique. I also love Jarrold too, I think it’s a great shop to wander around so I’m glad we can now visit again, and I can pick up some unique bits to treat my family and friends.
What was your experience of lockdown like, and do you have any lockdown tips/recommendations for our readers?
For me, lockdown was a fantastic opportunity to press the reset button on my mental and physical health. Just to readjust and take stock on where my life was going, so I think it’s been a really rewarding process for me actually. We have been selling ready meals from Benedicts throughout lockdown, so podcasts really kept me going and kept me positive while I was working. The Louis Theroux ‘Grounded’ podcast has been great, there’s been the likes of Lenny Henry and Helena Bonham Carter on the show and it’s been really funny.
If you haven’t watched it, I’d recommend Chef’s Table on Netflix too. It’s a fantastic series! You really get the gritty knowledge of the way that chefs think and the processes they go through. It’s one of my favourite go-to programmes. Killing Eve too, that’s been amazing. As a chef you don’t normally get to watch much telly, I usually watch like an hour a week. But during lockdown I had a real opportunity to catch up on some classic telly, which has been phenomenal! And also, the freedom to cook, you know? To have the freedom to make things like fresh bread, to look at what’s seasonal and go “what can we do with this?”. To say “right, the strawberries are coming in, what can we do different with them?”. Exploring and experimenting at home has been something we’ve done a lot of. Getting my girls up and cooking with them as a family has been great fun.
And finally, what does ‘Norwich’ mean to you, or can you tell us your favourite memory of the city?
Norwich, to me, is home. It’s part of my family and the fabric of who I am. Every time I drive into the city for work I look at certain corners of the city and remember being there when I was younger. Like looking at the Castle and remembering being there with my grandparents when I was four years old, and now I take my daughters there! I think there’s something really special about bringing your children up in the city that you grew up in, because I think you get fond memories of your time when you were young. Walking around a thinking, “that was the first place I had a sneaky cigarette”, “that’s where we used to stand on the market and have our portion of chips”.
The old library that I used to go to all the time with my mum when I was growing up, the double-decker buses. And Jarrold, again it’s just one of those places. I remember going to the canteen on the top floor in the 80’s and they had a fountain in the middle that you used to flick your 1p’s into! Now I take my own daughters up there to meet my mum, like me and my mum used to go and meet my grandparents. I just have so many beautiful memories of the city, I’m so glad to be back here going through those experiences with my children.
To me, Norwich is me! It’s an extension of who I am, and I think I’d be lost without this amazing city that made me who I am. I’m very proud of who I’ve become because of the city.