While Ben Palmer’s culinary story is not a typical one, it speaks to both his adoration of his home county, and the inspiration he takes from its seafaring heritage in his cooking.
An award-winning chef at a gourmet restaurant in Plymouth, three years ago Ben made the decision to return to his hometown in Cornwall to start a very different kind of restaurant.
The Sardine Factory in Looe caters to all: from couples celebrating a special anniversary to sandy-toed seaside excursionists looking for something to eat after a day on the beach. At its heart is an ethos of keeping things simple and showcasing the best in fresh, seasonal seafood that Cornwall has to offer.
The restaurant is aptly named in recognition of its past life as an old sardine factory, with traces of its past remaining throughout. “The big windows were where they used to have the cranes that pulled in the sardines,” Ben tells us.
He speaks fondly of his memories fishing outside the restaurant as a child when the building was used as fishermen’s stores. The restaurant is part of a regeneration project completed in July 2018 which also saw a museum put in downstairs.
The restaurant is set in a light, large, open and modern space on the first floor of the building. Ben believes the Sardine Factory is a unique place in what is otherwise a fairly quiet fishing town. “There are a load of really cool little restaurants around Looe, but we’re the only restaurant this size to do what we do and it’s been really well received.”
Describing his inclusive vision for The Sardine Factory, Ben said “I just wanted to create a restaurant that was really relaxed”, contrasting somewhat with the fine dining experience of his last restaurant, The Greedy Goose, in Plymouth. “I wanted it to be a place where people felt comfortable coming straight from the beach in their shorts and t-shirt.”
The relaxed atmosphere aligns with Ben’s approach to his menu. “It’s fish and chips but done really well. Some of the simplest things can be very hard to do well.”
“I’ve come full circle in my career. I’ve done fine dining restaurants, I’ve done all the breakfast shifts at hotels, as well as weddings, I’ve tried all the crazy, weird and wonderful stuff like chocolate and blue cheese ice cream.
“But now I just get a great piece of fish, great vegetables from a local grower and simple herbs and spices, and people are always satisfied.” Keeping things simple and fresh and letting the flavours speak for themselves is what this restaurant is all about.
The best way to maximise freshness is to buy local and minimise food miles. “We use Nippers crab and shellfish across the harbour in Looe. We use Kingfisher (who prioritise locally sourced fish) in Brixham. 95% of what we bring in is local and we’ll always try to champion Cornish produce.”
So, what’s a favourite on the menu? “We sell a huge amount of crab linguine, like kilos and kilos. It’s very light, very quick and very simple.”
But it’s seasonality, rather than crowd favourites, which plays the more significant role in defining the menu here. This sometimes means having to take their namesake off the menu. “If the fishermen can’t catch sardines, we can’t put them on! We have to diversify, which is good because it keeps the chefs on their toes.”
The Sardine Factory has gone from strength to strength. In 2020, it received the Michelin Bib Gourmand accolade in which Ben and his staff take great pride and work tirelessly to retain. But there’s little room to expand, sandwiched between the heritage centre, a climbing wall and the upstairs fishermen’s stores which have remained a fixture since Ben’s childhood.
“We’re looking at a site just across the river for a smaller restaurant. It would be more of a fast food, takeaway kind of thing. A fish and chip shop but that does fresh oysters, local scallops, whitebait, squid… We just want to showcase what Looe has to offer.”
Serving oysters and scallops in a cardboard takeaway container that people can take with them to the beach, rather than served on a plate at a sit-in restaurant has the potential to overturn people’s expectations of a fish and chip takeaway. It makes less conventional but locally sourced, fresh fish more accessible to a greater range of people.
And that’s not the only thing Ben is doing as part of his mission to make local seafood more accessible. “People are put off by cooking with fish. So, we’re doing a seafood cookery demonstration in a couple of weeks’ time with around 30 people where we’ll show them how to cook with different varieties of fish… I really enjoy cooking and presenting seafood that people wouldn’t usually eat.”
Summertime is officially here, so you can now go and experience a taste of Looe for yourself! The Sardine Factory opens five days a week from Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm to 3pm for lunch, and 6pm to 9pm for dinner.
Sign up to our monthly newsletter! We promise we’ll never send you any spam, and we won’t share your information with any third parties.