Over Turkish kebabs, the three young chefs hatched the plan to quit their steady gigs at some of London’s top spots (St. John, Tom Aikens) and unite under the banner The Young Turks for a series of dinners that some prefer to call pop-ups. The goals were simple: be creative (two had Noma on their résumés), throw out the white table cloths, forage a little, play loud music, get people to remember their names. We now know all about The Young Turks: Isaac McHale, James Lowe and Ben Greeno. (Greeno has since left to run Momokufu Seiobo in Sydney, effectively revoking this YT players card.) But are they for real?
Like moths we work our way through a spirited Spitalfields crowd towards a neon Young Turks sign and ascend a creaky set of stairs that leads us to the dining room. On this Wednesday evening in March, the Turks are running their first night of service in almost a month at the 200-year-old Ten Bells pub, their home since late last year. While McHale and Lowe work through our five-course tasting in an attic kitchen, we sip a Campari and blood orange cocktail and await a meal that blows us away in both simplicity and execution. The critics are bloody right! Bites of lardo, hay-smoked mackerel and radishes dipped in earthy Celtic mustard land on the beat-up table. We’re stoked.
A dry-aged beef rib tartare arrives dotted with oyster aioli. Yes, aged and raw and unbelievably good. Salsify, cow’s curd and hazelnuts mingle for a middle course. Mutton, perfectly tender and gamey, is served in a rich jus topped with seaweed. The Stones, Pulp and Black Keys blast out over the sound system. More neon — a piece by Tracey Emin — hangs on a wall as a sort of mantra: “Keep me safe,” it reads. A deconstructed rhubarb tart closes the deal and I head upstairs to grab McHale for a chat in the “private dining room”—which also serves as the owner’s apartment. There’s a Banksy on the wall behind us.
So on the topic of the term pop-up...
We didn’t do this because we wanted to do pop-ups. We did this because it’s a way to do our food. Otherwise, you either work for somebody else or try and get backing to open your own. This is a way of getting our name out there.
Can you be here forever?
We were meant to be here for three months, until the end of January. Then it became the end of February. Then we were going to finish at the start of March so we could go to Omnivore Festival in France. Then we decided to stay on until the end of April.
How did you all get together?
So the Young Turks was me, James and Ben [Greeno of Momofuku Seiobo]. We all wanted to leave our restaurants. We were bored with the old guard. We didn’t want to work for a restaurant with the tablecloths. We’ve worked in great places. We know how to cook. We know how to operate with the standards required for good food. And, now, there’s nothing really like us in London.
That must have been a little intimidating to walk away from your jobs.
This is a complete tipping-point, revolutionary, Malcolm Gladwell whoever the fuck that guy is moment. It’s become acceptable to do a really amazing pizza restaurant as a chef with a good restaurant pedigree. Then there’s the guy whose going to do burgers out of a van. There’s no stigma of failure attached to doing food more low-brow. You don’t have to do the bourgeois, fine dining, really expensive caviar, foie gras business.
You guys are doing a lot of dry-aging, which is pretty ambitious for a pop-up. Why do it?
Because it tastes so much better and people don’t realize that. It’s just the thing we’re interested in—making food taste better. Making simple food with three or four elements on the plate to work together.
Where do you go out for cocktails?
We went recently to Center Townhouse and really liked it. I love Milk and Honey. I’ve yet to try Century. Quo Vadis has been taken over by Jeremy Lee and is this institution in Soho. Things are starting to get interested again.
What is your choice drink wise? Kentucky bourbon? Gin?
I never drink Kentucky bourbon being a Scotsman. I do like Buffalo Trace though.
Scotch stuff, where are you from?
I’m from Glasgow. Whisky, you mean. Don’t call it Scotch. Whisky with no “e.” My favorite is Highland Park.
What is next?
Moving forward the plan is that me and James both want to open restaurants on our own and get a friend of ours to carry on here at Ten Bells. It’s such a cool spot, same relaxed service. We might make it à la carte instead of a prix fix menu.