Neil Rankin arrived into the food industry “very late”. After deciding on a change of career at the age of 30, having previously worked as a sound engineer for a chain of sandwich bars, his path to author, BBQ restaurateur and appearing on popular food TV programmes such as The Great British Menu and Sunday Brunch has been somewhat unorthodox.
“I didn’t grow up on a beautiful farm”, the now 40-year-old from Edinburgh explains. He had no idea he wanted to be a chef, and his family weren’t exactly into cooking either, “quite the opposite”. He attended Tante Marie cooking school in Woking for a six-month course, but apart from that training, he learned his new trade through working in restaurants. “I’m one of these people, if I want to be good at something, I just go out and try and do it.”
Temper, a unique BBQ and open fire pit restaurant owned by Neil, opened in November of last year and he tell’s me a second will be coming to London in July. “It’d been a few years in the making”, talking about the concept, “and it was just a combination of ideas that I had”.
“I just felt that there are a lot of BBQ restaurants in London but nobody doing it the way that I wanted it to be done.” He said that they lacked the atmosphere that his previous venture Pitt Cue had, and this was something he had wanted to get back. He describes Temper as a “fun, party atmosphere. It’s not a serious place,”, it’s a place where hospitality and food quality are more important than “me showing of the next BBQ technique”.
The menu is simple, “it is what it is”. The Temper team buy beautiful meat direct from small farms and butcher it themselves. “We don’t buy cuts”, as Neil’s very much against unnecessary wastage and likes to have a very good idea of where the meat has come from, what it’s been fed on and how it’s been reared. “I don’t think you can say that for any other restaurant in London.” Perhaps one or two? But “none the size of ours”.
Sustainability is “hugely important” to Neil. “The meat market’s so fuelled towards the idea of single cuts being better than other cuts”, and “it’s unsustainable on a large restaurant level” as the quality dips. There’s only about six kilos of sirloin on every cow, I’m told, yet restaurants sell hundreds kilos of it every night. “It doesn’t make sense to me.” With Temper, Neil started experimenting with what they could do with the whole animal instead themselves, cutting out the need for a butcher and it’s been “quite successful”.
I wonder whether it’s the financial aspect why other restaurants don’t source their meat ethically. “No, I don’t think it is. I think it’s just that they don’t think about it”. But make no mistake, Neil isn’t being preachy here, admitting that the way he sources the restaurant’s vegetables aren’t directly from the farm. “That’s the next step for me”, he adds.
Asking Neil what it is about BBQ food that he loves. He quips, “what isn’t it about it that I love? It’s just much more exciting isn’t it?” At this point I look down at the plate pushed not to far away from where I type that once held my lunch of beans, cheese and toast – I then agree. “It’s the reason we eat meat at all. We’ve been cooking it [BBQ] for almost a million years now. It’s part of our DNA.” The admiration continues: “It smells great, it cooks great, it’s more exciting.”
To my surprise when I imply that it might be difficult for a BBQ fanatic to go vegan, he pauses in thought, as though it’s not the first time he’s mulled this over and it won’t be the last. “Vegan, no, but I eat vegetarian a lot of the time anyway.” He doesn’t eat meat if he doesn’t know where it comes from and he doesn’t eat it if he thinks it’s crap, “and most of it is crap”. If he goes to a restaurant, he tends to order fish or vegetables, presumably this is when if it’s not one of his own.
“I’m sympathetic to the vegan movement, but I can’t see myself ever going that way unless I’m forced to.” I describe veganism as a trend, and he jumps in to their defence. Not wanting to eat animals seems rational to him, but the idea that certain foods are healthier for you rather than just a balanced diet seems “kind of insane”. We settle on the explanation that veganism only becomes a trend when you’re doing it for a different reason than what it’s there for.
Neil brings up Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, a film that once convinced me – the founder of Not Plant Based, lol – to go vegan for a whole six months. Making me feel better about my failed veganism, he makes the very valid point that the film is about the US meat market, and not the UK’s. “The farms I deal with are not like that. These are places where plants can’t be grown, and you need the fertiliser [cow waste, basically] to feed the soil.” He adds: “I can’t demonise meat producers in this country, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years the right way and the honest way and it doesn’t disrupt the environment.”
We know that certain aspects of the meat industry are bad, especially with regards to mass production, but Neil argues that vegetables aren’t exactly the key of good health, either. “Most of that crap you buy from the supermarket that lasts weeks in your fridge has no nutritional value.” To feed yourself entirely on mass produced vegetables is potentially just as bad for you as a diet based on mass produced meats. “One’s not better than the other, it’s just different I think.” Neil says that it’s more important to look at our own consumption, how we buy our food and how we cook it.
“I think people have lost their passion for cooking food.” Neil believes that if we put more care into our food, we’d care for ourselves better. “As much as I admire Jamie Oliver, the 15-minute meal idea is just bullshit. I don’t get it.” If we look at the countries that feed themselves really well, even poor ones like Vietnam, there’s a passion and a history to the food they cook and eat and there’s an emphasis on sourcing and quality, “that’s what we [in the UK] do badly.” He believes we need to place more importance on food and make it more of a social thing. “Cooking something nice and simple over a long period of time and taking some care of it is probably the better way to go.”
On that note, I finish by asking Neil what his last supper would be. It would be steak and chips: “A good steak tartare and fries.” Nice and simple – just like his approach to everything else.