Isaac McHale is not one who bends to convention.
In 2010, the Scotland-born chef joined forces with two other big British names — James Lowe of Lyle's and Ben Greeno (formerly of Momofuku) — to host a series of experimental pop-up dinners in various locations around London. Called the 'Young Turks', the trio heated up London's dining scene, going about cooking elevated fare with a rock ’n’ roll vibe.
So successful was their run that it led to the creation of The Clove Club in Shoreditch. There, as head chef, McHale now runs a tight ship. The Clove Club was always an ambitious proposition – it was the result of a crowdfunding initiative, and was also one of the first UK restaurants with enough sass to introduce a ticketing system where diners pay for reservations in advance. And still, there's a waitlist for the one Michelin-starred eatery, located in the achingly trendy Shoreditch.
Only tasting menus are served at The Clove Club, which means it's pretty much chef's choice for your dinner. But McHale shares an inside tip if you’re looking for something extra special: Ask the staff for a selection of cured meats.
“We do just a little bit of charcuterie everyday for fun,” he says. “Ask the staff for some, because we don’t give them to everybody.”
Keyyes caught up with McHale when he was in town in late July for the Specialty & Fine Food Asia (2018) trade show. He joins the growing list of Keyyes Insiders such as Tetsuya Wakuda and Satinder Garcha as he talks about his his favourite food souvenirs, chef inspiration, and London’s best-kept food secrets.
The last thing I ate was…
Roti prata from Mr & Mrs Mohgan's (in Singapore). I had a plain and egg prata, with mutton curry and fish curry. It was very good. Not spicy, very nice. I’ve tried roti canai at S&M cafe in London, but it’s just not the same.
My chef inspiration is…
Brett Graham, from The Ledbury. (Graham) showed me that hard work and dedication is key in making your restaurant a success. What happens in restaurants is you make a dish, and you feel really happy about it. And then as time goes on, it slips a bit and the taste changes. Brett taught me that you need to be checking on things consistently. You make a dish less good by allowing five different lazy things (to be introduced).
One food item I can’t travel without:
Chewing gum. But I didn’t bring it to Singapore, I swear! (chuckles)
My must-have kitchen gadget is:
A gas cooker. For the last four years, I’ve had to use an electric cooker in the kitchen, and I miss using my wok which I have had since I was seven years old.
This wok has travelled everywhere with me. It’s a long-handled, very well-seasoned wok. Yes, I taught myself how to do 'wok hei' using this wok!
The first dish I cooked with it was salt-and-pepper wood pigeon with celery on my ninth birthday. All I wanted on that birthday was money to buy ingredients and cook food for my family and friends with my wok.
My most unforgettable dining experience:
It was at The French Laundry (in Napa Valley), five years ago. I remember the first soup that was served — parsnip soup with pecans. The soup spoon that was served with it was warm. And then the next piece of cutlery was a chilled bone spoon for a caviar dish. To see that attention to detail was amazing.
The standout dish that stopped me in my tracks was a very simple risotto with parmesan, and loads and loads and loads of white truffles. I’ve never seen so much white truffle on a dish before. There was just the right amount of fat in the dish to carry the long mouth-feel of the truffles. It hit all the right notes.
My secret hot spots in London:
Many know of Barrafina — the people behind it are amazing. But the long-time head chef there left to open Sabor, and Sabor is a must-go. It’s just off Regent Street, and has an excellent tapas counter.
The roast suckling pig cooked in a specially-built oven is also delicious. And then there’s a counter that serves the best jamon.
Another lesser-known place is Black Axe Mangle. It’s a Turkish kebab and grill restaurant, and Lee Tiernan, the guy who opened it, used to work at St. John. Most people who worked there will usually do something similar (to Fergus Henderson's style of nose-to-tail dining), but Lee makes this completely his own.
There’s a huge black pizza oven decorated with neon graffiti, tables covered with tropical mats, and stubby cans of beer and Jameson whisky. The menu has ideas from St. John, but instead of classic roast bone marrow, you’ll get it with Chinese spice; or smoked blood sausage, but served on flatbread with snails and butter. Black Axe Mangal is a true original.