In the next few weeks, students will be shipping off to university, many armed only with hand-me-down pots, pans and utensils from their parents’ cupboards, and a vague recollection of making runny béchamel sauce during home economics classes.
It’s not exactly a recipe for haute cuisine – and perhaps why so many young people fuel late-night study sessions with Pot Noodles and pizzas rather than whipping up something fresh in the kitchen.
However, Ben Lebus wasn’t like most students, and seeing his classmates struggle in the kitchen during his first few weeks at university gave him an idea for an online community that would help young people develop a passion for food.
He started sharing his knowledge by shooting simple overhead videos showing the most novice chef how to cook a tasty meal, and after sharing his guides online, popularity for his recipes soon started to grow.
Today, MOB Kitchen is one of the most popular websites for students and young professionals hoping to find easy-to-follow, affordable recipes – more than a million people now enjoy Ben’s dishes.
MOB’s online back catalogue has been adapted into five books, including the latest, released this month, Comfort MOB.
“My dad ran an Italian restaurant for 15 years, so I’ve always been into cooking,” explained Ben. “I never actually worked in the kitchen – I worked as a waiter – but just being around the food, and seeing people enjoy their meal, had a really big impact on me.
“I’ve always loved food and cooking. I remember watching one of Jamie Oliver’s early TV shows where he was pottering around his garden, cooking lots of nice dishes. I always found that show incredibly comforting. Just very easy to watch and reassuring.”
The theme of the new book is particularly relevant for now, Ben admits, and follows the same ethos of affordability and accessibility, which are the key ingredients of MOB’s online guides and previous cookbooks, including MOB Veggie and Speedy MOB. However, it’s not just comfort classics as there’s a few healthy options in there, too, as well as chapters covering everything from “Indulgent” dishes to “Old-School Bangers”.
He explained: “We wanted a book filled with comforting dishes that would make people feel good, especially during a stressful moment. That was the key motivation. Two chapters that I really love are ‘Fresh’ and ‘Nourishing’. In a comfort cookbook, we have mac & cheese, spaghetti Bolognese, and big, hearty comfort food, but we wanted lighter dishes, too.
“The miso cabbage poke bowl, for example, is totally plant-based, and something I’d eat every night. Sriracha crispy tofu is on the lighter side, and one of the dishes you could imagine eating much more regularly.
“We decided every recipe in this book needed to earn the tagline, ‘food that makes you feel good’, and the recipes that are in Nourishing and Fresh do make you feel good but in a different way to, say, the slightly more indulgent food in the other chapters.”
Having inherited his passion for food from his dad, Ben says no comfort cookbook would be complete without one of his recipes.
He continued: “Comfort food brings up nostalgia and memories, and my dad cooked puttanesca for me and my brothers every Sunday when we were growing up. It’s a super simple sauce made with garlic, anchovies, capers, kalamata olives, tomato sauce and parsley, tossed with spaghetti. It’s a beautiful dish.”
Now he’s galvanised a new generation of chefs, does Ben see himself and MOB as the next Jamie Oliver? He laughed: “Well, we were actually ahead of him in the bestseller charts yesterday, so I feel we’re already there.”
The stickiest wings
A popular Chinese dish from the ’90s that we’re bringing back with style. Unlike most wing recipes, these are cooked on the hob with the Coca-Cola reducing down to make the stickiest caramalised sauce. Use full-fat Coke as you need those essential sugars.
Cooking time: 50 mins
- 1½kg (2lb 12oz) chicken wings
- Thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
- 2 tsp chilli flakes
- 500ml (17floz)
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
- 2 spring onions
- Neutral oil, such as vegetable, sunflower or groundnut
- Salt and black pepper
Cut the chicken wings in half at the joint then pat dry with kitchen paper. Season with salt and black pepper. Thickly slice the ginger, leaving the skin on.
Get a large wok or frying pan over a high heat. Drizzle in a good glug of oil. Add the chicken wings and fry for around 15 minutes, flipping regularly, until evenly browned. Add the ginger and chilli flakes to the pan. Stir and cook for a further 30 seconds.
Pour in the Coca-Cola, soy sauce and Shaoxing wine or sherry, and give everything a good mix. Bring to the boil then cover the pan with a lid, and lower the heat to medium. Leave the chicken wings to simmer away for 15 minutes, then remove the lid and turn the heat back up to high.
Cook for a further 15 minutes until most of the sauce has evaporated and the wings are sticky and tender.
Give everything one final stir then pile on to a large serving plate. Thinly slice the spring onions (green and white parts) and scatter over the top. Serve at the table for people to help themselves.
Comfort MOB by MOB Kitchen, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99, out now
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