Chef Isaac McHale is way less brooding than the black-and-white picture accompanying his World’s 50 Best Restaurants profile (his London restaurant, The Clove Club, is this year’s number 26). In Hong Kong last year for a few nights to cook at Amber, the sandy-haired Scot is jovial and down-to-earth despite nursing a cold. (Nothing a hot toddy won’t fix, he says.)
McHale, 36, hails from Glasgow and, before opening The Clove Club in trendy Shoreditch, honed his cooking techniques in some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants. The modern restaurant set a new trend with its informal vibe and classy cooking that puts British ingredients in the spotlight. But his own cooking journey began with some decidedly Asian flavours.
There’s this fabulous story, one of your earliest cooking memories, when you were about seven years old and making Singapore chilli crab from brown racing crabs you caught with your dad. How does a boy from Scotland get Singaporean cuisine on his radar?
I got this [Singapore Airlines] Silverkris Food of the World cookbook, probably from the ’70s. It had a couple of dishes from every country in the world and it had Singapore crab. But I went to Singapore a few years ago and tried the real thing and I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. I’m sure it was a lot more authentic, but I wanted it to taste like this dish I’d had in my head for 20 years!
You always had an interest in food. Where did that come from?
As a treat in Glasgow we would have pakora and I wanted to know how to make something so different. I went to the library – this was before the Internet – and I asked one of my Indian teachers at school and then just followed the recipe.
Cooking has been your whole life then?
Oh yes. While the other boys were playing football after school, I was going to the cash ’n’ carry and learning the names of Indian spices.
Are you surprised in any way by your success?
Having recognition for what you do, rather than your ability to do someone else’s food, and finding myself with some of the best chefs in the world knowing my name and having me on speed-dial on their phones, is crazy to me. Some of these people I’ve been looking up to for the last 20 years.
What was your hardest kitchen experience?
It was a long hard slog in some tough kitchens. The kitchen of Tom Aikens in London was a tough one, and The Ledbury was a tough place to work, but that’s the making of you. You raise your game to those standards.
With The Clove Club you’ve said you set out to create a casual vibe with “serious gastronomic intent”. How did you arrive at that?
It was a stylistic choice but as well it was what we could afford. We were self-funded, we crowd-funded. We opened without a lot of money.
Yet you’ve set a real precedent for change.
There are definitely lots of people copying us, yeah [laughs]! I think, everywhere in the world, and especially in London, there’s a tendency towards fine dining without the pomp and circumstance. We were at the forefront of that.
You really highlight veggies. What’s your hot tip for making vegetables the star of a dish?
It comes down to peasant cooking. Season a lot of vegetables with something strong. Two oysters can flavour a large vegetable dish for 10 people. Chorizo does the same. As a canny Scot I like being able to know I can feed everyone without going broke.
You just opened the all-day Italian restaurant Luca in London, which fuses pasta dishes with British ingredients, especially fruits and vegetables. What’s “Best of British”?
Gooseberries I like – they are a very British thing – and parsnips and Brussels [sprouts]. I’ve got this great book called Forgotten Fruits and Vegetables of Great Britain. It tells the story of things like Cox’s orange pippins.
Haven’t lot of traditional British varieties almost died out?
There’s hundreds and hundreds of crossbred varieties, Kelvedon Wonder peas, Musselburgh leeks, Marketmore cucumbers – all these brilliantly eccentric names of things – which it became illegal to sell unless you paid £300 or £400 to have them tested and registered on the EU seed register. The UK’s got great market-garden traditions, allotment traditions, people seed saving, vegetable-growing competitions where people would go and try and have the biggest, best marrow.
Will you restore some of those forgotten fruits on your new farm?
A farm might be ambitious wording, but we just started, in March, growing a few little things.
What do you turn to as comfort food?
I love biryani. I love rice and noodles. At home we have a stupid electric cooker. I still have the wok I’ve had since I was seven but I can’t actually use it. It’s stuck on a shelf. My girlfriend wants to throw it out!