Isaac Mchale | Paving the way for London’s new wave of young chefs

22 Feb 2016
5 min read
Headstrong and resolutely against being pigeonholed, Isaac McHale is leading London’s exciting wave of young chefs at The Clove Club, Sophie Cater writes for FOUR International edition…
A Little Off Centre

As I walk into what was Shoreditch’s old Town Hall–now The Clove Club–Isaac is certainly staying true to his ethos of not wanting to be pigeonholed: he is standing on top of his pass, one hand on his hip and the other brandishing a saw. His team is busy working around him and he is staring out of one of the restaurant’s enormous windows. He may be posing for the photo shoot, but for a moment it’s a believable situation. Isaac exudes an almost ethereal, thoughtful quality that contrasts with absolute passion and resolute determination.

“My culinary identity is the story of my upbringing,” he begins. Born in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, Isaac grew up in Glasgow where his eyes were opened to the world of food. In particular, he became impassioned by Indian cuisine, which was prominent in the city; specifically a dish called chicken pakora –“a Northern Indian Pakistani snack, which is very popular in Glasgow.” Finding out how to cook the pakora kick-started Isaac’s culinary life. “I liked learning and it wasn’t something I knew how to do so I taught myself, read loads of books and went to the local cash-and-carry and learned all the Indian names of all the spices. I made pakora and other Indian dishes, and then got into Chinese and South-East Asian.” This inquisitive nature would stay with Isaac and is one of the main influences on his cuisine today.

Isaac’s love of food continued to develop through school and university. Unbeknown to his peers and teachers, he would wander through the school day with a sharp chef’s knife in his bag, ready for his after-school restaurant jobs. “It was much sharper than all the chefs’ knives,” he chortles.

Although “there wasn’t a strong sense of national culinary identity” while Isaac was growing up in inner city Glasgow in the eighties, he explains that ingredients like lemongrass and limes were becoming increasingly available. By working in kitchens, reading cookbooks, watching TV programmes and making the most of the more accessible variety of ingredients, Isaac learnt about the cuisines that were in vogue.

Having studied his first year of food chemistry at university, he took the decision to stop to embark on a full-time culinary career in restaurants. He began amassing experiences and knowledge from some of the world’s most exciting chefs, including René Redzepi at Noma. Isaac remembers: “More than anything else it was [great to see] the way they worked [at Noma], and their attitude to each other and to the food. It changed my perception of what could constitute a dish.”

Later, his love of Japanese cuisine took him to Sydney, where he hoped to gain experience at Tetsuya’s. Instead–because of visa complications–he found himself in Mark Best’s kitchen at Marque and among the launching team of the Four in Hand. “I had a great time there,” he tells me. “The overall standard of food and overall interest in food was much, much higher than Glasgow.”

After a year, Isaac returned to the UK to begin working with Brett Graham at The Ledbury, where he spent six years. Carving his own culinary path, he left and launched the Young Turks, a group comprised of Isaac and James Lowe (owner and head chef of Lyle’s). The duo moved through London’s coolest pop-up kitchens, including Nuno Mendez’ Loft Project and the Ten Bells, becoming more and more popular for their produce-focused cuisine. When I asked Isaac about his experience of the Young Turks, I got the feeling that he was weary of discussing it, testament to quite how much of a buzz it created. “I think both me and James need to talk about what’s going on forwards, instead of focusing on what happened,” he says firmly. “It was fun at the time and it’s important for us to develop our own identities now.” No pigeonholing Isaac.

Moving on, Isaac opened The Clove Club just over two years ago to a ricochet of excitement. But it’s not only London that fell head over heels with his restaurant. “We have a lot of guests recommended by Noma to come here, which is a great honour,” Isaac tells me. “We have a lot of recommendations from around the world.”

His cuisine is renowned for its high quality ingredients, which range from the homemade and traditional to the unusual and rare. “I’m just trying to do my thing that reflects my life and my journey,” he says. As a product of his experiences and his love of learning, Isaac’s food is full of flavour combinations that ignite contradictory ideas: they titillate familiar memories and set new ones on fire. “I like to do food which is familiar, which makes sense but is pushed a little off centre. Combinations that make sense: it might be tomato and goat’s cheese, but I might use goat’s cheese granite or an iced goats cheese soup. Or take a turbot with peas and morels that you may see in a three-Michelin-star restaurant in France, and serve it with a cinnamon and curry leaf foam.” What may be perceived as traditional dry cured old spot pork is paired with south Indian spices, including lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf. However, some of Isaac’s dishes remain true to what is deemed as ‘traditional’: blood pudding, Braeburn apple and chicory relish. “I’m not trying to fit into being ‘modern, British’ or ‘Nordic’,” he explains. “I want to keep developing the food here. I think we’re operating at a high level, but there’s a lot to do to make it a lot better.”

Dining in the restaurant, guests can choose from a three- or five-course menu for lunch or a five-course of extensive menu, with the option of a wine pairing. “We have such a small kitchen so the set menu allows us to serve people dishes that they might not have chosen if they we ran an à la carte menu. It makes for a far more interesting meal for people.” Working with available, fresh ingredients and flavour inspirations, the menu is a mix of new dishes and signature dishes. Isaac’s wonderful Yorkshire suckling pig and south Indian spices and Amalfi lemonade and Sarawak pepper ice cream dessert are near staples.

Constantly on the lookout for new things to learn about, there is a lot that Isaac wants to work on. Not only in terms of his cuisine, but the entire experience. Isaac and his business partners, Daniel Willis and Jonny Smith took over what used to be Shoreditch Town Hall and transformed it into a spectacular space that comprises the restaurant and bar, with high ceilings and white walls that are washed with streaming light from the colossal windows. Dark wood, leather, vintage chairs and hanging hams, sausages and salami pepper. “We were very lucky to find this building, but like everything it has its faults,” Isaac says. “We’re very happy.” However, it must not be a walk in the park logistically. Isaac explains “this is a listed building so it’s a long process. We opened with not very much money and we are slowly being able to [develop]. A year and a half in we bought nice cutlery from English silversmith David Mellor, we couldn’t afford curtains or blinds, so hopefully we’ll get them soon. We’re building it into what we want but couldn’t do from the start.”

Both the restaurant and bar have a distinctly rustic industrial quality. They balance a fresh and on-trend vibrancy with a homely and relaxed feeling. “We are lucky in that we have a restaurant and a bar,” Isaac says. Having both options opens The Clove Club up to a larger audience and makes the experience whatever guests want. The bar, at the centre of the first room that guests walk into, is adorned with cured hams and bottles. A bow-tie-clad barman shakes cocktails, pulls pints and chats jovially with everyone. Its own à la carte menu features flavourful dishes like the signature buttermilk fried chicken, sprinkled with pine salt, or what Isaac proudly tells me is the best dish on the menu: the raw Orkney scallop, hazelnut, clementine and Wiltshire truffle. Regardless of whether guests choose the bar or the restaurant, they’re in for an absolute treat.

Admitting that he’d “like to be one of the best restaurants in the world,” Isaac is resolute in doing it his way. “To quote the French impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard,” he explains: “‘I do not wish to belong to any school, I just want to do something that’s personal to myself.’”

Find out more about Chef Mchale