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Ben Tunnicliffe

Meet the man cooking soulful food in a 300-year-old Newlyn pub
Ben Tunnicliffe

Tolcarne Inn’s chef patron Ben Tunnicliffe is all about down-to-earth food served with heart, discovers Kirstie Newton

Ben Tunnicliffe has enjoyed an impressive pedigree in the Cornish food scene – including previously holding a Michelin star at The Abbey in Penzance – but he’s found it’s in the humble surroundings of the tucked‑away Tolcarne Inn that he’s happiest.

I don’t care about Michelin stars and being number one on a list,’ he insists. ‘I just want to bring a smile to people’s faces.’

It’s a modest ambition for a man who is into his third decade in the industry, during which time he also launched the food offering at Scarlet Hotel.

In 2012, ready to be his own boss again, Ben sought a location where his cooking could take centre stage, and he found it near Newlyn’s fishing port and market at Tolcarne Inn. It has proved to be the ideal spot for a menu dominated by the fruits of Cornish waters.

‘When I opened, it was the only fish restaurant in Newlyn,’ he says. ‘But I didn’t want the pomp and ceremony of fine dining. This isn’t pretentious or flash – it’s food on a plate, in a very simple 300-year-old granite pub.

By his own admission, Bournemouth‑born Ben fell into cheffing by accident. ‘I got no qualifications at school and it was a case of doing retakes. Then someone said, “You were good at home economics – go to college and do that”. I’m still doing it at 53, so I must be half decent.’

Self‑promotion doesn’t come naturally. ‘If I’m under the radar, it’s because I don’t really do social media,’ he says. ‘I just get on and do what I do, and if you know it’s there, you know.’

Yet, despite a distinct lack of social media presence or even signage from the main road, plenty of people do know. You might get lucky off‑season with a last‑minute table, but if you rock up without a booking at Tolcarne Inn between April and October, it’s likely to be a different story.

Tolcarne Inn
Tolcarne Inn

The pub may be just down the road from where the fish is landed at Newlyn but what’s available each day depends entirely on the weather. In such an environment, a chef needs to be prepared, agile and intuitive. ‘I have to work with what there is,’ he says. ‘Yesterday’s menu included sea bass with fennel and salsify, lemongrass and dill cream sauce and was based on what I had in the kitchen.’ Spring is a welcome arrival following lean times. Pushed for a favourite ingredient, Ben plumps for asparagus as the epitome of the season. ‘It’s around for five or six weeks and then it’s gone.’

Spring is a welcome arrival following lean times. Pushed for a favourite ingredient, Ben plumps for asparagus as the epitome of the season. ‘It’s around for five or six weeks and then it’s gone.’

He recommends serving it simply with olive oil, lemon and parmesan; or with tartare crushed potatoes – preferably Cornish earlies – and a chive beurre blanc. For a real treat, visit Tolcarne Inn for a dish of the delicately flavoured spears with turbot, home‑smoked shrimp and preserved lemons.

Ben’s just negotiated a new lease on the pub, and is hoping to extend the dining room to include a sea view, and convert the upstairs space into ensuite accommodation. But the chef’s most ardent passion is to continue to be ‘emotionally charged’ when customers express their pleasure with a dish. He doesn’t often read reviews, but was moved to tears upon discovering glowing endorsements online. ‘I took a screenshot and sent it to the kitchen team, with my thanks,’ he admits, lump in throat.

The beauty of what I do is that it brings joy to people. Someone comes in feeling miserable, they have a lovely plate of food and it changes their day. To be able to do that is priceless.’

Supported by
Indy Cafe Cookbook Volume 2
Churchill Recreate
South West 660
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