Neil Rankin: The Good, The Bad & The Eggy

pub & bar

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Neil Rankin on Smokehouse and The Bad Egg

Related tags: Public house, Egg

Neil Rankin, the chef behind Smokehouse and Bad Egg talks about his latest ventures, his eclectic menus and turning pubs into restaurants.

The chicken burger at Bad Egg has to be the messiest to eat in the UK. Period. The fried chicken, guacamole, sriracha and fried egg filled bap is a six or seven napkin job depending on how big your bites are; by the end it looks like you’ve got involved – and lost – an egg-based food fight. It’s also something of a surprise given that the chef responsible, Neil Rankin, has previously worked in top Michelin-starred kitchens including Pennyhill Park, Gary Rhodes 24 and Chez Bruce. The Noble Inns-owned diner is not so much a departure for Rankin, therefore; it’s full-on expatriation.

It hasn’t exactly been a bolt from the blue, however. Rankin may have cut his teeth in some of the UK’s top kitchens but his more recent roles, at the meat-focused Barbecoa, Pitt Cue and latterly Islington pub John Salt, all demonstrate a penchant for a more primal style of cooking, of which he has shown himself to be more than capable. Indeed, with Smokehouse, of which there are now two in London, and Bad Egg,
Rankin has built himself a reputation of being a smoking supremo.

Arms tattooed and rarely without a trucker cap, the 39-year-old chef looks much more at home behind a barbecue than a water bath. And, after a number of relatively short-lived restaurant roles, finally seems at home with his current company Noble Inns. He has worked with the gastropub group, which also runs The Princess of Shoreditch, and The Pig and Butcher in Islington, since the first Smokehouse opened, also in Islington, in 2013 and has since been promoted to group executive chef. Under Rankin’s food direction, both the original and new places have flourished.

A new breed of barbecue

Smokehouse Chiswick
Smokehouse Chiswick

Barbecue restaurants are now springing up across the country and Rankin has been at the vanguard of the movement since his Barbecoa and Pitt Cue days. With Smokehouse, he moved it on by reconnecting pubs and smoking, albeit of a different kind this time round. However, the Smokehouses that exist today – the second opened earlier this year in Chiswick – aren’t quite what Rankin and Noble Inns founders Scott Hunter and Maria Larsen had in mind when they tried to create a pub/smokehouse hybrid.

“Smokehouse is a restaurant, but it was intended to be a pub,” says Rankin. “The only real pub in the group is The Princess. Ultimately the customers dictate to you what it will be.”

Smokehouse was designed to have a 50-cover dining space at one side with a bar and garden on the other. A strong craft beer selection, with 20 on tap, was designed to bring in the drinkers. However, it soon morphed into a 120-cover restaurant with few people using it as a traditional pub space.

Rankin recalls a review on TripAdvisor where someone complained that they couldn’t sit down for a drink at 5.50pm despite the fact that there were empty tables everywhere. “We were fully booked and would have been packed by 6.30pm. We didn’t want to give someone a table and have to kick them out after half an hour.”

While a packed-out dining room might seem like a good problem to have, the set-up wasn’t ideal. “If we’d have known the food would be so popular, it would have been one massive dining room. We would have knocked through and made the kitchen huge, but we thought 50 covers would be big enough,” says Rankin.

The reason for its popularity is simple: the food. Praised in an early review by Fay Maschler, Rankin’s cooking quickly captured diners’ imaginations with its wide-ranging cuisine, much of which is given a kiss of smoke. Far from being a US-inspired barbecue joint, Smokehouse takes inspiration from across the globe for a menu that is as eclectic as it is mouth watering.

“People tend to define barbecue as the American style,” he says. “I take a dish from anywhere and see what it’s like with beautifully smoked meat. Take our ox cheek bourguignon. We use smoked meat and serve it with mashed potato and gravy. I like the idea of taking Korean, Thai or Mexican food and seeing what it’s like with smoked meats.”

Rankin’s other trick lies in his technique, with the smoking done outside rather than in the kitchen. “We do it all over coal and wood, and do it outside, which means it’s done properly,” he says. “If you run a smoker inside, you need ventilation and extraction and that ends up taking all the smoke away. Smoke is designed to come up and blow around the smoker and the meat, giving it a smoky taste, but in most places it goes straight up and out without having much contact with the meat. Barbecue places are using authentic American smokers, but they’re not getting the same effect.”

Rankin uses an off-set barrel smoker whereby smoke circulates in a corkscrew motion around the meat, as well as Big Green Eggs, which are predominantly used for short ribs. The ribs go in at 9am and come out at about 5pm to 6pm, after which time some of the other meat can be finished off in the ceramic barbecue. Meat is smoked daily but, because the restaurant can’t smoke overnight, dishes such as short ribs are only available for dinner.

The second Smokehouse, in Chiswick, is of the same size, and poses different challenges. There’s a bar area for drinkers, but people expect to eat there, says Rankin. “The problem with Chiswick is that nobody books. You never know what you’re going to get. You could have 30 people booked and do 30 covers that night, or you could do 120.”

For some, Chiswick seemed a bit of a gamble with numerous people telling Rankin it was a tough location, but Noble Inns were confident from the start. This confidence has paid off, with the team resolutely sticking to their tried-and-tested format rather than modifying it for the west London crowd.

“People said we’ve got to do this and that to appeal to the Chiswick crowd, things like being child friendly, but we just wanted to do what we’re good at. We knew we had people from west London come to Smokehouse in Islington and that it would work there.”

There have been some kickbacks about its approach, which is described as being child tolerant rather than friendly. “We’ve created a space that is adult friendly but where they can bring their children if they want. We have a children’s menu and we give out crayons but we don’t want them running rampant. We’ve spent a lot of time developing the garden and putting in flower beds and bushes, and we don’t want children charging through them.”

Rankin sees the potential for about five Smokehouses in London, with leafy – although not too leafy – locations being targeted. Clapham, for one, is an area where he believes it will work.

“The pubs have to have a certain look and feel to them, they need a good outside space for a start.” 

The business is also considering a central London location. “It would be more like a smaller Goodman. It wouldn’t be a fast-food place, that’s the space Bad Egg fits into.” 

The reluctant egg man

Bad Egg dish

Back to Bad Egg then, the more casual food string to Rankin’s and Noble Inns’ bow. The concept came about after the company wanted to expand the business at a quicker rate than opening in pubs might allow.

“Noble Inns didn’t want to do another Princess or Pig and Butcher. The problem with pubs is they cost a lot of money and the beer ties are prohibitive. We wanted to do something where we could take on an A3 unit.”

Bad Egg’s all-day diner approach takes inspiration from Chicago and restaurants there such as Little Goat. “We saw a gap in the market for all-day dining,” says Rankin. “I was frustrated that I’d go out on a Friday or Saturday night, get a bit squiffy and then get into town the next day at about 2pm or 3pm and everywhere would be closing.”

The menu has been an organic process. At the start, Rankin created a range of dishes but then  handed them over to chef Daniel Merry, formerly of Per Se and The French Laundry, to give his interpretation of them. The result was that some dishes envisaged Rankin’s way made the cut, while others followed Merry’s take.

While the customers may have dictated the overall approach taken at Smokehouse, it was the name of Bad Egg that came to define its style. 

Dreamt up by Rankin one night and chosen because of its cool-sounding quality, Bad Egg was never meant to be an egg-focused restaurant. However, an early Daily Mail article with the headline ‘It’s no yolk! Barbecue chef opens new restaurant specialising in EGGS’ soon put paid to that.

“First of all it’s not my restaurant, it’s Noble Inns’,” he says, with a shake of the head. “And secondly, it wasn’t meant to have an egg theme, we just wanted to do a few egg dishes.”

Like the food, the theme stuck, with Rankin finding himself in the frustrating – and rather comical situation – of having to change the menu to match the name and to meet customer preconceptions.

“We had complaints from people saying that, for an egg-based restaurant there weren’t enough egg dishes. It was ridiculous. We had to add more egg dishes because of people’s expectations. It ended up defining us, which is kind of annoying.”

Bad Egg can’t be criticised for its approach to the ova now. Its menu features things such as pulled pork and kimchi hash (with a fried egg), egg-based baps, omelettes, ham and eggs and huevos rancheros alongside dishes such as nduja cheese and fried-egg fries. There’s even an entire ‘with eggs’ section lest anyone dare complain about the paucity of the egg offer. Moreover, the diner has inadvertently pioneered an eggy trend; chicken and egg restaurant WingsEggs has just opened in Fulham, and Soho House has launched Egg Break in Notting Hill and is soon to open its first Chicken & Egg Shop in Balham.

The menu has also changed thanks to the restaurant’s popularity. The team didn’t expect it to be as busy as it is, meaning that certain dishes that didn’t sell as well and which slowed service down had to be dropped. “There was no point having three styles of tacos because they were slowing the kitchen. The whole menu has changed into something else over time.”

A second Bad Egg is on the cards and more are likely to follow, although Rankin says he and the team need to fully define it first before it expands. “We’re still fiddling with it, but it’s been a good test. The original menu would have worked in Soho or Shoreditch but now we have something that would work in Canary Wharf as well as Soho.”

As for the longer term, Rankin would eventually like to have his own restaurant. “I think I’ve got five or six more years in me when I can be in the kitchen and really go for it. I’d like to get my name on the map for just one restaurant. It will be a bit like a Smokehouse, maybe, but that’s not just me. I need something that’s only me.”

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