Since the late Seventies, Bell’s Diner has been a stalwart of Bristol’s food scene. Starting out as a bistro style diner, it grew into a fine dining restaurant; the sort of place, at least for my friends and I, we would go to mark a special occasion. In its latest incarnation, the starched tablecloths have gone to make way for a more relaxed vibe and feel. The food continues to be some of the best in town, with seasonal small plates or sharing platters bursting with flavour: think salt cod fritters with pungent aioli; slow cooked cauliflower in yoghurt and cumin; delicate pumpkin ravioli in resinous sage butter and lamb chops deftly grilled with a sliver of charred fat and thick spoonfuls of minty tzatziki. Front of house also have a happy knack of making you feel welcome; the sort of place you might arrive feeling jaded, yet leave with lighter shoulders and a spring in your step. Nowadays, I seem to go there more often….
Although very much a team effort, I caught up with Sam Sohn-Rethal head chef at Bell’s Diner, to ask him a few questions.
WM: What are your earliest memories of cooking and eating?
SS-R: My earliest memories of food and good eating were during the summer holidays of secondary school when we would be taken to places like the south of France, Galicia and Greece. Although I probably didn’t appreciate it enough at the time, my parents took us to some amazing local restaurants and food markets every day. The holidays were very much based around buying ingredients, cooking and eating.
WM: Do you remember the first dish or meal you cooked by yourself?
SS-R: The first time I cooked on my own without the supervision of my mum, was when my sister, brother and I would return home from school hungry. I would pull down her River Cafe and Nigel Slater books and cook pasta, noodle and rice dishes from them, before mum got home to cook us dinner.
WM: When did you decide to become a chef and how did you decide to go about it?
SS-R: I came to Bristol to study media at University. I finished the course but on the last day of the final year, I went and asked Barney, the owner and chef of the brilliant restaurant Quartier Vert which used to be on Whiteladies Road, for a job in the kitchen. All I wanted to do was learn how to cook well.
WM: Of the kitchens you have worked in, are there any in particular that have influenced you and if so, how?
SS-R: I have worked in some amazing restaurants: Moro taught me about the importance of the quality of the ingredients and how to keep up standards during extremely busy and stressful services. The best restaurant I have worked in, is Flinty Red. Matt the head chef is the best cook I know; he taught me the importance of cooking perfectly every day and every service and, about consistency in the kitchen.
WM: Bell’s Diner in its various guises, is a Bristol institution. Did you feel at all daunted taking over the mantle?
SS-R: Bell’s has always had a brilliant reputation. It wasn’t daunting taking over the kitchen, as I was taking over a success. It would be a lot harder trying to take over a failing restaurant, back to being successful.
WM: The small plates at Bell’s are so varied, but all seem to work together. How do you go about drawing up your menu?
SS-R: It’s important to have a balanced menu; there are the same amount of vegetable, fish and meat dishes on the menu at Bell’s. Some are fresh and very healthy, while others are rich and complex. We always start with what fruit and vegetables are in season and at their best, and then develop the dishes from there.
WM: Is there a particular season or ingredient that you enjoy working with?
SS-R: I always look forward to late summer when tomatoes are at their best. At home, we live off Greek salads and tabbouleh with fish and meat.
WM: I’ve eaten some of the best vegetarian dishes at Bell’s. What’s the secret to making vegetables stand out?
SS-R: We spend more money on herbs, vegetables and fruit at Bell’s than anything else. It’s so important to buy good quality and seasonal vegetables. Having a store cupboard full of spices, good quality vinegars and oils help as well.
WM: What have been the highs and lows since taking over Bell’s?
SS-R: The highs have been all the great national food reviews we’ve had, Observer monthly awards, the high scores in the food guides and having lovely customers returning on a regular basis. The bad is the few customers that turned up at the beginning, expecting the formal fine dining of the old Bell’s and leaving before trying us out.
WM: Finally, if you could eat anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?
SS-R: I would love to eat at Etexbarri in Spain. His way of cooking over charcoal really interests me.