Isaac McHale is peculiarly pleasant. Charmingly, jovially, swayingly pleasant. Or maybe it was the wandering conversation over pints that turned into a three-hour dinner of oysters, tartare and lamb heart. Or maybe it was the two bottles of wine that followed aperitif prosecco and charcuterie. Or possibly it was his infectious laugh alongside the after-dinner cheese, the sherry and the nightcap bottle of Madeira. Or maybe it was that everywhere we went, servers, cooks and even the fur-coated Magnus Nilsson stopped by to say hello. Either way, I was charmed by the Young Turk.
A founding partner of the pop-up professionals and part-owner of anticipated Clove Club in Shoreditch, London, McHale speaks a bit bashfully, picking up utensils, curling his finger around a napkin, and trailing off in the middle of statements. But his charming conviction for creating personal food is palpable.
I meet him on an autumn evening at the Hunter S. Thompson, a new, but seemingly worn and taxidermy-adorned London pub. Though he and fellow Turk James Lowe have split ways from their dual venture at Ten Bells [read our interview with the duo], the two still throw down on makeshift dinners including events at the recent Le Fooding in Brooklyn and forthcoming Terra Madre in Turin, Italy. Here,, McHale discusses how to collaborate in the kitchen, what to pack for a pop-up and how to land a staging gig at Noma.
“The Young Turks was a short-term goals thing. We wanted to get publicity and get our names out there with our food and be known for that so we could find people who wanted to open a restaurant with us. And also to put our stamp down and say this is the kind of food we like and the service we do.”
Go Your Own Way
“James [Lowe] and I have different ideas in food. We have a lot of the same ideas, but he’ll want something cut a bit thicker than I do, or I want a sauce a bit thicker than he does. He wants to use peaches and I want to use plums. We have different ideologies and different backgrounds. He’s proudly English, and loves English ingredients and wants to champion them, and I like Indian spices because I grew up with Indian food in Glasgow.”
“Going to Noma was a game changer. It was my first time at a Michelin-starred restaurant. I’ve always felt really socially awkward being at these places, and I feel like everyone in the room knows it. My mom tells a story about going to a new Chinese restaurant in a little town outside of Glasgow where she ordered mussels, and before they brought a bowl over to her with lemon in it, and she started saying, “I didn’t order this soup! I didn’t order this soup! Take it back! Don’t charge me for it.” It turns out it was the finger water. We just never felt comfortable with people serving us. But Noma was a place where everyone was really down-to-earth. I was a table of one after working a day in the kitchen. It just felt really natural. I had never dined alone during a long tasting menu. I tried to read a book! I tried to pop a book open with a glass of wine. I felt like, “What do I do? Should I stop and appreciate the food?”
“Last year I was buying presents for Christmas and I walked into a shop in SoHo, which turns out was the shop where Harry Potter bought his wand in the movie. It’s actually called Shipley’s, a famous old bookshop. I didn’t end up buying anything, but I found a bookmark with a painting by Pierre Bonnard that said, ‘I do not wish to belong to any school. I just want to do something that is personal to myself.’ I grew up in inner city Glasgow with more Indian and Pakistani food than I did haggis and whisky or some romanticized Scottish food that doesn’t exist in urban areas. Using these flavors is me being more true to me. I just want to do something that is personal to myself.”
Outside of the (Pizza) Box
“Things changed with the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurant Awards. It turned the very stuffy, very slow to react Michelin Guide on its head and giving credit to the growing appreciation of lowbrow food — the feeling that there is a value in doing burgers, but making a better burger. There’s value in making the best pizza you can. There’s no sense of failure, like you didn’t make it in the high-pressure fancy chef world if you want to make those things.”
Asking For It
“I think the long-term unpaid internship is wrong. However, I think for chefs who are cold-called by kids saying, “I really want to spend time with you because I love what you do,” is like kids calling up Steve Spielberg and saying, “Can I come work on your new film for two weeks?” Every internship or stage I’ve had — at Noma or Eleven Madison Park — I’ve just written them, and asked. You figure it out. Some places you can get accommodations or stay with friends. I’ll have some money saved up and stay for as long as I can.”
Perfection in Impermanence
“I’ve made so many mistakes. I would be a lot further along in my career if I hadn’t had so much fun. Do what’s going to make you happy. Some people really want a permanent space and to put down roots, and some want different spaces. We were renegades that didn’t want a restaurant. We loved pop-ups. We didn’t want a place, we just wanted to find places. More than anything we just wanted to get all of our stupid, weird ingredients delivered to where we were working. What guy delivers meat to a car park in the deepest South London, one-off, at the exact time of day that you need it? As well as some weird fish guy and some mushroom guy? Your food gets better because you have to think about logistics too.”
“When you’re doing the battle kitchen set-up on tour, don’t forget to bring spoons — a load of spoons for plating stuff up, sauce and everything else. Dish towels and hand soap too.
Heroes of Humble Origins
“When I first started, I looked up to the cooks that fried the chicken pakora in the Indian restaurants in Glasgow. I didn’t really have any heroes at first. Maybe my English teacher who was Pakistani and made the most amazing pakora, a North Indian street food, like latkes, but with spices and chickpea flower instead of potato. Now it’s people like Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal and Harold McGee.”
It’s All in a Name (sort of)
“It’s a story of two chefs doing something that had imagination. Our name was unusual, almost like the name of a band, as opposed to the name of a place. Most restaurants are named for their location, by street or by the chef’s personality, which is projected onto the space. The name was like a band. We both had great CVs. We did some odd pop-ups, but we did them very very cheap. We did a thing on a rooftop two weeks after the riots last year. For 26 quid you got 30 dishes served sharing style. Really, we weren’t messing around. We had really high standards.”
Read the previous Savoir Faire: John Besh Is A Business, Man, Not A Businessman