In the last two years, as part of the British collective The Young Turks, Isaac McHale has staged temporary dinners in the London pub where Jack The Ripper found two of his victims, a funky rooftop with a massive grill, and a restaurant that would turn into a raucous dance party after service. Because of his and partner James Lowe's antics, the duo's been invited all over the world and become a fixture of the international food festival scene. Now, the two friends have decided to give The Turks and each other a break to focus on their individual projects. It's time to open up proper restaurants.
In the following interview, McHale talks about his experience in The Young Turks and explains what's going on for him. He's currently in charge of the kitchen above the Ten Bells, where he and Lowe last cooked, but the main item on the agenda is the restaurant he'll be opening in the remodeled Shoreditch Town Hall. He reveals the restaurant's name, The Clove Club (they're using crowd funding for the project), as well as a few other things.
[Photo: Per-Anders Jorgensen]
Where did you cook before you started The Young Turks?
I started cooking when I was still in school in Glasgow, Scotland. I worked at a restaurant called Stravaigin and then various other places in Glasgow. Then I moved to Australia to work for Mark Best, in Sydney, for a year. I then went to London for the first time to work at Tom Aikens, which was a tough kitchen, to say the least. My longest job was at The Ledbury, where I was part of the opening team and stayed on for six years. In between that, I staged at Noma, In De Wulf, some places in New York, and tried to open up a place with some friends, but that fell through. I hooked up with James [Lowe] about eighteen months ago, and that's when the Young Turks stuff started.
Tell me about the Ledbury, since that's where you stayed the longest.
I was junior sous chef, then left to open that restaurant with my friends, and then was invited back to be development chef, which I did for like eleven months before going to the Turks full-time.
The Ledbury's where I learned the most in my career. It's based on French technique, it's a tough but fair restaurant, and they teach their staff extremely well. That's where I learned to be a good cook.
Why and how did you decide to leave?
James and I had done about four or five events, and it just got bigger and bigger and more successful. We had taken all these unpaid holidays from work, it was exhausting, and we realized that it was time to go off and do our own thing.
Before getting into your current plans, let's talk about The Young Turks and something you've brought up before: the question of developing an identity without having a set space.
When you have a building and a physical space, you become intertwined with it. You react to it and the possibilities and limitations of it as a cook. To an extent, it will shape your food. If you have a tiny kitchen, the odds are your food will be a lot more simple. If you have a large space with a large room to fill on a busy street, you might do something more casual because people might not want to pay for luxury ingredients. It can define you and determine what's in and out of your control.
Because we didn't have those constrictions — our venue changed all the time — from all the limitations of all the dinners we did, we took different ideas and different recipes and brought them into the next context. So we might be in a new place where the limitations from a previous space don't exist, but we have a dish that those previous conditions inspired.
But what do you mean by all of this giving you a sense of identity?
So people began to know us — James, as well as Danny and Johnny of Clove Club from the front of house — and trust us. You go back to a restaurant because you know it and you trust it, be it The Dutch or Le Bernardin or whatever. You have less trust with a pop-up, since the space changes and you have all of these challenges. But people began to trust us and get excited for the next event in a way you don't see with a lot of these kinds of dinners.
And how do you achieve that when there's more than one chef or vision involved?
No two people are the same. Me and James both have strong personalities, but when we originally came together — before The Young Turks started — we realized that we wanted to do something different and true to ourselves individually. We learned that we had a lot in common, and through a dialogue that went for like six months, we saw that although we had some varying views, there were a lot that were the same. We didn't write up a manifesto or anything like that. We just talked and sorted it out.
A key moment was when we decided to collaborate on every dish instead of each one of us being in charge of a particular one. Because of that, lots of ideas got nipped in the bud, but also lots of ideas that may not have developed turned into something good because there were two people working on it.
Why separate, then?
It's been a lot of fun, but we've always known that we would end up doing our own thing. I want one thing and James wants another. Neither of us can fully realize our dreams or ambitions if we continue sharing, so we wouldn't be true to ourselves.
What do you want to do?
There's this great quote I keep coming back to from the French painter Pierre Bonard. He said, "I do not wish to belong to any school. I just want to do something that's personal to myself." That kind of sums it up. I want to tell my story. Being Scottish, I've grown up with more Indian food than Scottish food. I feel more comfortable putting Indian spices on something than doing haggis, whiskey, or something like that. I'd love to have a kitchen garden or a plot of land, since great vegetables are really hard to get.
We're also going to do meatless Mondays. I have a slight social conscience. I do a job that has as its goal making people happy, but at the same time, it's unsustainable perpetuating this protein-centric idea. I'd like to focus even more on vegetables, though that's going to be a slow process.
Moreover, I want the place to have gastronomic aspirations while also being a place where my friends can come and hang out.
What specifics can you give me about the forthcoming restaurant?
We're doing it with crowd funding and hope to open in November. It's in East London, which is now the Williamsburg of London. It's full of hipsters and whatever else people think about those places. It's in the Shoreditch Town Hall, which is currently being reinvigorated. As buildings go, it's got great features that a few young guys trying to start a restaurant with no money wouldn't usually be able to have — high ceilings and all that. We just need to make it our own.
There's an amazing energy in London at the moment. It's been scarily quiet with the Olympics, but the country has sort of turned away from austerity for a bit and there is all this energy toward East London. It feels like a great place to be in the world.
Do you have a name yet?
The Clove Club.
Finally, are you a bit scared that the shit may hit the fan now that you're tied to a place and can't just hop on over to the next pop-up if something goes wrong?
Not in the slightest. I'm excited for the future. In terms of my life, there's been, since leaving the Ledbury, a massive upward trajectory. We've been invited to Paris, to Mexico for Mesamerica, to Shanghai, to Milan, to Turin, and we've gotten book and TV offers.
To finally get the chance to do the restaurant that I want to do — there's been this misconception that we never wanted to have the responsibilities of having our own place, but that's not true. We just didn't have the money. We both want to have our own restaurants and make them places that – knock on wood – stand the test of time.