Nick Mosley talks to Benji Hinchliffe to discover why he’s enjoying la vida loca as head chef of Brighton’s La Choza restaurant.
Your name age and some background about you
I’m Benji Hinchliffe, 37 and head chef at La Choza on Gloucester Road in Brighton. I’ve worked at the restaurant for eight years but I’ve been in the head chef role for six years now.
Previous to that I’ve worked in a wide range of restaurants in the UK in both city and rural settings and I worked in Ibiza for a while.
What is your restaurant called, where is it and when was it established?
La Choza was set-up by friends and business partners Aoife Sweeney and Annie Gelpy ten years ago. The restaurant is representative of not only their passion for quality Mexican food but also they wanted a fun and affordable restaurant that is accessible to everyone from families and couples to students and friend groups on a night out. The restaurant name is a translation of ‘shack’ which relates to our no-nonsense, no-fuss approach to the food and drink we serve and the atmosphere we want our guests to enjoy.
Annie and Aoife took me to Mexico about five years ago for a research trip where we sampled both street food and fine dining. We all wanted to ensure that the menu at La Choza was a genuine reflection of the varied Mexican kitchen, whilst also benefiting from ingredients that we can source here in Sussex. I can hand-on-heart say that we’re most definitely on the right track.
Over the years, we’ve gained a great reputation and have many regulars who dine with us weekly. We’ve enjoyed both regional and national awards and accolades, including Tom Parker Bowles in the Daily Mail who said that we were producing ‘true Mexican magic’.
Tell us about the food you serve…
Our dishes are not only tasty but also visually exciting. All of our main dishes are ‘build-your-own’ bowls where guests can choose a base – for example, crispy tostada, rice or soft burrito – then from a choice of slow-cooked meat, fish and vegan fillings. You can have a great meal for less than £10 which, lets face it, is a challenge in many restaurants nowadays.
Of course we use ingredients that are core to Mexican cuisine such as chilli. There are literally hundreds of varieties so its always interesting sampling their unique flavours and heat levels to ensure we get the right chilli for the dish. We’ve also got seven salsas of varying heat on our standard menu.
We pride ourselves on our specials which change on an almost daily basis. It’s our opportunity as chefs to get creative and experiment with fusing traditional Mexican style dishes with seasonal British produce. We are really lucky to have so much choice in fresh seafood here so cerviche [fish cured in lime] regularly pops up on the menu.
Mexican food uses a lot of animal fats so that is one thing we’ve had to adapt for the Brighton market. We’ve always got a really good selection of vegan dishes so everyone can enjoy the La Choza dining experience.
To complement our food, we’ve got Mexican beers and Annie and Aoife are always rustling up new cocktails with tequila taking centre stage. For the Bite Sussex food and drink festival in September, we’re going a little off-piste with a really punchy chilli vodka produced by the Arbikie Estate in Scotland. They even grow their own chillis there.
How have you coped and adapted during the pandemic?
Without doubt – due to Covid and Brexit – some of our ingredients have become more challenging to source over the past 18 months. All things considered though, La Choza has weathered the pandemic storm quite well. After the initial panic period of a week or so, the team sat down and we planned what would be achievable; when we reopened we were flat out!
Alongside many other friends in the Brighton restaurant scene, we sent our food to frontline NHS workers.
What are your plans for the future?
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to do lots of extra fun ‘La Chozary’ things including cooking at Glastonbury, restaurant swaps, chef partnerships and competitions. We’ve recently been involved in a new project but the bosses say I can’t talk about that just yet. Annie and Aoife definitely keep us on our toes.
La Choza, 36 Gloucester Road, Brighton BN1 4AQ