Instagram has become a very important tool in deciding where to eat these days. When deciding where to eat, many go through Instagram to see what kind of food the restaurant offers, what ambience the venue exudes, or if you’re a bit more invested, who the chef is. For Holywings Backyard at Kemang, Chef Ben Leek’s persona is almost synonymous with the brand’s name. Gracing Holywings’ Backyard Instagram page every so often, Chef Ben might have made his way onto your screens already! Some of his notable creations include the viral Nasi Goreng Jutawan. “The Nasi Goreng Jutawan is served with 1,2 kg Tomahawk steak, making it the perfect dish to share with your friends,” a bemused Chef Ben tells us about the menu that was Instagram-famous a while back. Holywings Backyard first opened its doors in February 2021, and has since grown a steady stream of fans and followers.
“During the first three to four months, there were a lot of trials and errors. We started off leaning towards more of an American-style barbeque, but have since discovered a middle ground that can be enjoyed by locals and expat customers alike,” explained Chef Ben. “At Holywings Backyards, it’s really a nice relaxed place to kick back and chill out. The whole concept is backyard with elegance, which is highlighted by the gorgeous sunset in the afternoon,” he continued.
At Holywings Backyard, it was a series of tweaking recipes and finding out what works before finding the key flavors. “At the core, Holywings Backyard is all about smoked beef: brisket, short ribs, pork shoulders, pork ribs, and many more,” shared Chef Ben reciting some of the house favorites.
For the smoked beef brisket, as it is used in the majority of the dishes offered, Chef Ben prepares it in a bigger batch, “Normally, we go through two to three loaves every week. I’m sure we’ve gone through more than 657 kg since we first opened.” When preparing the smoked beef brisket, Chef Ben starts at 8.30 AM and prepares for a long day of smoking. “I start by trimming the fat off the loaf, then seasoning it with blackpepper powder, salt, cumin, garlic granule, and a generous lathering of cracked black pepper.” For Chef Ben, cooking is a game of taste, touch, and smell, “Before we pop it into the smoker, we wrap it in butcher’s paper then leave it in there for up to eight hours.” A loaf of brisket that is prepared early in the morning, will only be ready the following morning, “Once the smoking process is done, we’ll save it up in a cooler box for easier use during service throughout the week. We don’t slice it right away as it will lose the juice,” he shared.
Prior to his current position at Holywings Backyard, Chef Ben had spent a few good years working at Bali. Perhaps his affinity for venues that remind him of the Balinese charm we know all-too-well roots from his first culinary experience in Indonesia. Back then, a friend in London was looking for a sous chef to join them at ULU Cliffhouse. Chef Ben then travelled halfway around the world to start a culinary career in the island where he rose through the ranks, into being the head chef, before moving to Hatch in Uluwatu, where he worked until October 2020.
Born and raised in Swansea, Chef Ben started his culinary career by a peculiar incident. At the age of 14, Chef Ben left school to pursue a military career with the British Royal Navy, “During the period of waiting for the Navy’s basic training, I was working at my Dad’s friend’s restaurant as a dishwasher.” As chance would have it, one day during a bank holiday, the chef didn’t show up, “So Uncle Dean, who was the head ched, asked me if I was up to fill the shoes of the chef, and thereon after I picked up the prep for breakfast and evening services, as well as the bakeries.” It was the first experience that cemented Chef Ben’s interest in culinary. Following the first stint at the restaurant, he moved to another bistro in Swansea and totally forgot about his Navy career, that was yet to begin.
After that period of initial exposure, he ended up working at Jamie Oliver Barbacoa, “That was also a funny story, as I was just casually scrolling through Instagram and sent a DM to Adam Perry Lang expressing my interest in working there.” So he did. For three years, Chef Ben learned the tricks and trades of smoking meats and barbeque, “There I learned that practice is key.” Recalling his childhood, there was no particular experience that lured him into the culinary world. Growing up in a humble household, it was him, his brother and sister, and his father, “It was always a simple, typical British household with lots of fast food and takeaways. There was a lot of fries and mashed potatoes,” he reminisced. However, Sunday roast at his grandmother’s was something he always looked forward to.
Now, Chef Ben’s day starts at around 9 AM where he prepares to smoke meats: seasoning, brining, before spending the next four hours to do mise en place, stocking and organizing, as well as general preparation. With Holywings Backyard, Chef Ben is up for the challenge of expanding the restaurant, “We’re excited to grow Holywings Backyard as a venue of casual dining, so next up, we’ll be exploring barbecue of different countries using a variety of meat: wagyu, dry aged, chops, kebabs.” Along with the expansion of the menu, Holywings Backyard will also expand its outlet size to entice more customers in the area.
Finishing our conversation, I asked Chef Ben if there’s anything he misses from home. Without missing a beat, he answered, “I do miss a good British Sunday’s roast!”