Standing over a large, deep fat fryer in London restaurant Ichibuns, executive chef, Brendan Fong and I are discussing the weirdest things we’ve ever fried. Watching bubbles form in the hot oil, I start relaying a regrettable story about battering slices of Tartiflette, a dish made of potatoes, pancetta, and Reblochon cheese. Fong looks at me with … disgust? Horror? Fear?
“That sounds fucking amazing,” he says.
It’s clear that Fong really, really likes frying stuff—the weirder the better.
Today, I get to watch him cook one of his more unusual fried creations: a cheeseburger spring roll. It may only be 9 AM, but Ichibuns isn’t half-hearted with its menu of American-junk-meets-Asian-food.
“As much as I've made them, I still don't get sick of them,” Fong says, cutting through one of the finished crispy rolls to expose the gooey, meaty, cheesy innards.
To make the rolls, Fong begins by crumbling a cooked beef burger and mixing it with gherkins and onion. He then adds a landslide of fast food condiments. We’re not talking a dash here or there, he squeezes a mountain of mustard and ketchup into the mix. Then, it’s time for another crucial ingredient
“Diced American cheese,” Fong says, smiling as he throws in the yellow cubes. “The real shit one.”
But how, exactly, did he come up with the idea of stuffing a burger inside a spring roll?
The answer lies in postwar Japan, when US soldiers sent to the country brought American foods with them, resulting in a mash-up of East Asian flavours and Western fast food. Food writer Bee Wilson explains this period in her book, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. “Japan’s adventurousness about food was partly a consequence of American postwar food aid. In 1947, the occupying US forces brought in a new school lunch program to alleviate hunger among Japanese children,” she writes.
RECIPE: Cheeseburger Spring Rolls
Of course, the cheeseburger spring rolls are also about what you can do after five pints and two tequilas, a 45-minute drunk argument about the B-Side to Carly Rae Jepson’s Emotion, crying, having a nap, crying again, and intensely asking your Uber driver what he thinks of the Brexit Irish border situation. Otherwise known as: a massive night-out.
Fong explains why this small bite of salty, meaty goodness is better than a regular fry up.
“When I’m hungover, I like to go to Maccy's and have a cheeseburger and one of my favourite things is Chinese food.”
The oily, crispiness also really helps save your pathetic, hungover self.
“You always want something fried,” Fong says. “It's just that familiar flavour of the pickles with the mustard and that raw onion kick, which is the exact reminiscence of a cheeseburger, plus the crispiness of a spring roll, that works.”
Then we get onto Fong’s weird food hack.
“The spring rolls are even better when cold,” he explains. “Like a cold cheeseburger.”
“What? I don't think I've ever had that,” I say.
“Yes you have. C’mon. You're home, you're so shitfaced, you fall asleep with a Maccy's bag on the table … ”
“… and you wake up and have it the morning after" I finish.
“Yes, that's it!” Fong exclaims.
The chef is clearly in his element cooking at Ichibuns—even if the job did happen by accident.
“I just came to help and move on to do my own restaurant, and then I just fell in love with the building and the concept,” he says. “I'm from Sydney originally. I was supposed to open another restaurant and then the founder of Ichibuns asked me to help out with the food, and then I kind of built the team and stuck around.”
Although the restaurant only opened in September, Fong is keen to continue reinventing the menu. You know, just in case an American quarter pounder with cheese stuffed in a Japanese spring roll isn’t strange enough for you.
“We're shifting towards a more Japanese profile,” he explains. “In Japan, they're doing a pizza steamed bun. So down the track, I'd like to do that.”
It’s like the cold hamburger moment all over again. I’m not sure how keen I am on the idea of a pizza in a steamed bun.
Fong is undeterred: “We’ve also got a vegetarian steamed bun coming on the menu that's curry vegetable with cheese. It sounds funky, but it's fucking good.”
Ichibuns, he explains, has a “fuck it” attitude when it comes to the limits of cuisines.
“I wanna do something different, something really stupid,” says Fong. “It seems so wrong yet so right.”
You can say that again.