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Isaac McHale on his new 'Britalian' restaurant Luca

By Stefan Chomka , 11-Jan-2017
Last updated on 12-Jan-2017 at 10:33 GMT2017-01-12T10:33:47Z

Robert Chambers with Isaac McHale. Pictures: Mat Quake
Robert Chambers with Isaac McHale. Pictures: Mat Quake

The second restaurant from the team behind London’s hugely successful The Clove Club might be Italian with a British accent, but it’s no new, crazy concept.

For a neat shorthand to describe the cooking at Luca, the newly opened restaurant from The Clove Club eam in London’s Clerkenwell, then you can do worse than the portmanteau ‘Britalian’. That’s at least what chef-owner Isaac McHale thought when he casually used it to describe his team’s cooking of Italian food using British seasonal ingredients, although he now admits that it’s already become something of a bête noire.

It wasn’t even his idea but rather it came up in conversation with hotelier Nicholas Rettie, who declared that Britalian food was what they were doing and McHale thought it sounded good. And it did, he says, until the first weeks of opening when chef friends had a gentle and friendly word in his ear that ‘the food is great, but drop the Britalian stuff ’.

“People think we’ve got a concept or that we’re trying to do something clever, but we’re just trying to open a nice restaurant that makes people happy,” McHale says rather wearily. “We haven’t come to show everyone some new style of cooking we’ve invented. We wanted to do a restaurant and have a bit of fun with it and not be chastised for being non-traditional Italian.”

Whether you like the term or, like many of McHale’s industry friends, think it’s egregious, it’s apposite for what he and his two partners, Johnny Smith and Daniel Willis, along with head chef Robert Chambers, are doing with their second project.

“It’s a restaurant that follows in the long tradition of The River Café, Jamie Oliver and Theo Randall, of Brits cooking great Italian food. There’s lots of British seasonal ingredients that you never see in Italian restaurants here, but if they were available in Italy, would be used all the time. We wanted to cook Italian food but have the freedom to use British ingredients. It’s not going to be anything crazy. People who have come in without an agenda or having read about us will have a great time.”

The second coming

The fact that people have picked up on the Britalian angle shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Whatever the trio behind The Clove Club did next was going to come under scrutiny given their pedigree and the fact  that their highly ambitious debut restaurant is currently ranked as the 26th best in the world. They had first spoken privately to people, including Restaurant, about wanting to open an Italian restaurant with a British twist more than two years ago, and intrigue as to how this might manifest itself had grown in the intervening months.

When McHale, Smith and Willis launched The Clove Club in Shoreditch in 2013 under the company St Vibes, having successfully crowdfunded the project, there was always more than one restaurant planned. “One restaurant is not a pension plan unfortunately in this day and age,” says McHale. “We are not out to make loads of money, otherwise we wouldn’t be in restaurants, but we realise that we need a few things to make it stack up, especially with three working partners.” The more casual nature of Luca is more surprising, however.

With The Clove Club, the trio have built a tasting menu-only restaurant that now sits on the same list as fêted dining rooms such as Eleven Madison Park in New York, Osteria Francescana in Modena and Tickets in Barcelona, and have made their high-reaching culinary ambitions well known. Here, diners have to pay in advance for a meal that can be £110 per person (excluding drinks) and features a nine-course tasting menu as well as a selection of snacks to start. Many people believed their second outing would be along similar lines. 

Yet McHale and co didn’t want a competing restaurant but one that would complement The Clove Club rather than force them to take their eye off it. He also wanted a restaurant that would satisfy his passion for Italian food. “I’ve always loved Italian food and pasta but it’s felt wrong to put a pasta dish on at The Clove Club – that’s always slightly irked me.”

By the same token, the à la carte-only approach at Luca enables the team to use the same beloved ingredients as The Clove Club but in different ways, something that McHale says he is relishing with each new season. “At The Clove Club, we use a lot of super seasonal ingredients like wild fennel, elderflower, spring ransoms and morels and we’d love to use them in a different way. At Luca, I can do a great à la carte dish of duck egg with loads of morels or morels on toast, which is something we can’t really do at The Clove Club.

“The way we do a crab dish at The Clove Club is trying to perfect the way it is cooked and served to make, so far as it is possible, everything a fucking knockout. We want people there to eat and go ‘wow’ and stop talking, that’s its function. Whereas at Luca it’s more about people sitting in a nice room with friends having a nice time and eating something that’s simple and delicious. To be able to explore those ingredients at Luca in a different context is very exciting.”

The prospect of playing with non-Italian ingredients also appeals to the creative sides of McHale and Chambers, who previously worked with McHale at The Ledbury and again at The Clove Club and has also had time at The Square, Locanda Locatelli and the RAC Club. British-born Chambers was brought up by his Italian nan, who instilled in him a passion and understanding of Italian cuisine, and his dual British and Italian heritage has no doubt helped with Luca’s ‘British seasonal ingredients through an Italian lens’ approach. 

While Italian purists, and even Chambers’ nonna, might baulk at the use of English cheese in a risotto (Britalian being a good indication that Luca is not for purists), the Scottish chef believes there is no need to be restricted by tradition. “I read an article in [US magazine] Lucky Peach about the joys of inauthentic cooking. David Chang, for example, cooks great American-Chinese even though he’s Korean. People are not striving for authenticity but striving to do their own thing.” For this reason, he breads pheasant rather than veal for Luca’s Milanese dish and has swapped pasta for potatoes in its potatoes ‘cacio e pepe’ while ravioli comes filled with grouse when in season.

This doesn’t mean the restaurant is going to stray too far into the unknown and it will respect its culinary roots. “Italian cuisine is one of the great foods. On one side it is great to be able to put gnocci with butter and a sprig of rosemary rather than sage, even though every book I’ve ever read said it has to be sage butter, or use a splash of cream in a dish even though everyone has been told by their granny that they can’t do that, but part of the beauty of Italian food is that it’s a country of many tribes. The story of pasta is the story of politicians, priests and lovers, enemies and friends, family traditions and recipes passed down. There is pasta shaped as tall hats because people in that particular region wore hats of that shape.

"There is so much history and tradition to it and we respect that. We’re not going to cook alphabetti spaghetti with space sauce. It will be grounded in some kind of reality.”

Luca’s approach has already had its early detractors, more publicly than the occasional whisper in the ear from a well-meaning friend, in the form of the restaurant critic. In her Evening Standard review, Fay Maschler made note of Luca’s mains being accompanied by vegetables, pointing out that in Italy “the main course will often be just a piece of protein served proudly unadorned” and also reported her dining partner’s comment that “the fish has been served the wrong side up”. These are words that have stung. “It’s just the game,” says McHale with a flash of teeth. “To say that, in Italy, they don’t normally serve garnishes but a lemon wedge – if we just served a piece of protein we’re be damned for being too simple and people would say ‘then I had to buy two expensive side portions’. It’s a lose, lose situation.

“As for the fish being served the wrong side up – fuck off. Somebody’s told you not to fry the fish on the skin blood line side, the chevron side, and that’s correct, but we didn’t fry it that side. We baked the fish skin side up so that the skin melts onto the fish and protects it while it’s in a hot oven. Then you peel it off and sprinkle a bit of lemon on. It’s something I’ve been doing for 25 years in restaurants and it’s a great but underused technique. Stupid things like that are annoying. But there’s no right of reply and you don’t want to reply.”

A Glasgow boy destined for greatness

Born and raised in Glasgow, McHale developed a love for cooking and food early on, teaching himself how to make curries, Chinese and southeast Asian food from the age of seven onwards – “it always baffled me that I could cook better Chinese food at home than I could get anywhere in Glasgow”.

His first job was working in a fishmongers because he didn’t want to have a paper round in rainy Scotland. “The idea of cycling around in the pissing rain at 5am didn’t appeal to me, but shoving my hands into freezing cold boxes of ice did,” he says. “I also got to learn a lot about fish.”

This interest in food continued through his school years, with McHale routinely going to school with a huge Gustav knife in his bag – in the days before Glasgow schools had metal detectors – not for any nefarious reasons but so that he could leave his classes at five past three and be in the kitchen at the restaurant in which he worked by half past.

Cooking temporarily took a back seat when he enrolled on a food chemistry course at Glasgow University with the aim of being a food product designer but he dropped out after only one year to cook full time, instead moving around restaurants in Glasgow before getting on a plane to Australia to work for Mark Best at Marque. On his return to the UK, he did a year with Tom Aikens at his Elystan Street restaurant, which he describes as the SAS of kitchens. It was here he met Brett Graham, who did a few shifts there while waiting for his new restaurant The Ledbury to open, and thus left with him to become part of the opening team at the Notting Hill site.

McHale worked at The Ledbury for six years before undertaking stages in Noma in Denmark and Eleven Madison Park. He then joined up with chef-friend James Lowe for the Young Turks cooking project, which saw the pair cook above an east London pub in the restaurant space Upstairs at the Ten Bells. It was around this time (2012) that he met Willis and Smith, and when Lowe left the Young Turks to explore new opportunities, the threesome joined forces to continue the restaurant. The Clove Club then followed and the rest is history. 

With a place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, an enviable number of top international chefs that he can count as friends and now a second, smart restaurant, did the boy from Glasgow ever believe this would be his destiny?

“I’ve always had a misplaced self-confidence – maybe it’s self belief,” he says, acknowledging his success thus far. In fact, McHale’s confidence in himself has turned out to be well placed, although even he laughs at his early displays of chutzpah. The first time he cooked his own food after leaving The Ledbury, he recalls, was for a three-day stint at Nuno Mendes’ Loft Project in Dalston, east London, that coincided with the awards ceremony for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. So he decided to invite the top 10 chefs in the world to come and eat his food in someone else’s apartment. It didn’t happen in the end, but the following year he would serve a roster of top international chefs at Upstairs at the Ten Bells. “That belief was there before we’d even opened The Clove Club. I believe that I have something to say in the world of cooking.”

Cynics might argue that it is McHale’s hobnobbing with the 50 Best elite that led to The Clove Club eventually joining the list. Yet anyone whose eaten his food over the years will acknowledge that his cooking style, attention to detail and culinary curiosity make him worthy to rub shoulders with others on the list. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together. But how does he feel about being mentioned in the same
breath as three Michelin-starred chefs when his restaurant has the one?

“I do feel imposter syndrome and ask myself, should I really be here?,” he says. “I’m still slightly stunned to have people like René [Redzepi] and Massimo [Bottura] say The Clove Club is the restaurant they’d like to have opened and that people who I’ve looked up to and who are my heroes are talking about my restaurant. But then take I step back and think ‘why not? We are doing something that’s good’. And we do want to keep getting better and better.”

McHale believes The Clove Club can get a second star “but not yet” and says it can progress further in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

“We have to work on our experience there. What’s amazing is that our beat-up restaurant, which we didn’t have much money to open, where we couldn’t afford a designer or a vac pac machine for the first two years, has been named as the place where people had one of their most memorable seven meals in the past 18 months. It goes to show that you don’t need all the toys and to be a three Michelin-star restaurant in an amazing building on a hill to make that happen.”

With Luca up and running, McHale will turn his attention back to The Clove Club and says more things are planned to push it forward. “I want to make it the best restaurant in the world,” he says. “I’m just getting started.”

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