I wolf down a Pret baguette (posh Cheddar and pickle, in case you were wondering) only an hour before making my way to Middle Eastern mezze restaurant Berber & Q in East London. But after a few minutes of watching chef Josh Katz grill, chop, whisk, and sizzle pieces of the gastronomic puzzle that make his shawarma-style chicken thigh kebab, I'm soon ready for a second lunch.
Because this isn't just any shawarma. Katz's dish is a symphony of pickled cucumber and chili sauce high-notes, a herb salad riff, tahina sauce bassline, and saffron-infused chicken thigh rhythm—all riding on pillowy pita bread.
It wasn't easy for the chef to change people's perceptions of shawarma, though. The grilled meat-on-a-stick is most commonly known as being something you inhale while inebriated and loitering outside a neon-lit kebab shop.
"It's a challenge for me because shawarma has got this reputation of being a booze-fuelled, on-the-way-home-from-a-night-out food," says Katz. "I do love it in its original dirty format but I thought we could turn it into something a bit better by using quality meat and cooking it slow over charcoal and wood."
Katz, who trained at classic French bistro Galvin Bistrot de Luxe and then spent two years as a chef at Middle Eastern dining mecca Ottolenghi, opened Berber & Q in April 2015. The restaurant is known for its love of music as well as grill-centric meat dishes, but I've ventured here to learn why my late-night guilty pleasure can be so much more classy.
Enter the Berber & Q shawarma-style chicken thigh kebab.
As I follow Katz into the kitchen, there's not an unidentifiable meat spit in sight. Instead, he retrieves a huge tub of marinating chicken thighs from the fridge and plonks it on the work surface.
The chicken for this Persian-inspired joojeh kebab is an eye-popping yellow, thanks to the rich saffron and turmeric spice mix it has been swimming in for the past 24 hours. Katz grabs a skewer and starts sliding on the meaty thighs, standing in front of a spice rack of dreams. Each shelf is groaning behind him under the weight of jars filled with different coloured powders and kernels, labelled in both Arabic and English.
"I grew up near Golders Green in North London where there are a lot of Israeli restaurants and as a kid, my friends and I would go and get shawarma every Tuesday or Thursday after games as our once-a-week treat," remembers Katz. "We'd go to a place called Solly's [now closed] which did a pretty nasty version of a shawarma, I'm sure, but when you're 14 or 15-years-old, you're not very discerning."
But now, shawarma is serious business for perfectionist Katz. And it all starts with the perfect meat marinade.
"It's quite a process because you do a marinade and then try it out on the meat—slow-cooking it for four or five hours. If you think it's missing a bit of cumin, you've got to start again," he says. "It's taken about 15 or 20 times to get it right and we still tweak it every now and then."
I've already volunteered as taste tester when the chicken is placed on a rack above the kitchen's industrial grill. Stray marinade drips through and the coals sizzle, releasing that unmistakably aromatic saffron smell. I'm getting impatient for lunch part deux.
With the main event grilling, Katz removes some dill, parsley, and mint from their damp dishcloth beds and measures out by eye what will be needed for the herb salad. As he works, he tells me that he didn't set out to make Middle Eastern food his thing.
"As a young adult, I moved just off the Edgware Road [the famed Middle Eastern hub in Northwest London] and lived there for six years. I didn't plan to move there, it just happened and I started getting into that type of food," explains Katz. "I used to work at Galvin but I never fell in love with the French bistro-type cooking and was always drawn to the windows of Ottolenghi, which were piled high with amazing salads and colours. Cooking just felt more instinctive when I worked there."
You can take the boy out of Solly's but you can't take the Solly's out of the boy, and after the success of Berber & Q, Katz's next venture sees him opening a dedicated Shawarma Bar in London's Exmouth Market.
But it won't be a case of sticking some fatty meat, limp lettuce, and bland chili sauce in a cardboard-tasting pita for Katz. As he hails one of the chefs prepping for evening service for chopped green chilies to make the hot sauce, he explains that getting the right balance of flavours, textures, and colours is what really makes a good shawarma.
"You gotta get the right moistness, right amount of saucy elements, right amount of fat, a bit of crunch from the salads, and something with some bite because the meat is soft and the bread is soft," Katz explains. "You've got to have an element that brings a bit of heat and balance that out with some sour."
Right on cue, he disappears into the larder before re-emerging with a vat of mouth-puckering pickled cucumber. I have to eat a couple to keep my stomach from complaining too loudly.
We're nearly at pita-building time but there's still one more element to prepare: the tahina sauce. If there's one subject that Katz could wax lyrical about for hours, it's tahini. He tells me that the paste, which is made from ground sesame seeds, is like religion in Israel, where he has spent much time travelling.
"People have different theories about how you should make tahini sauce and in Israel, it's insulting if you make it the 'wrong' way," he says. "I once met a chef who said that if you have good tahini, you just need to add iced water to make the sauce so I took that as gospel. Although today, I'm adding lemon to give the dish a lift."
Gasp. What would the tahini gods say?
"But we get our tahini from a Lebanese wholesaler so it's proper Arabic stuff," Katz assures me. "I'm still not sure about the chef's logic behind using iced water but I think it makes it smoother."
I'm not questioning it because the smoky, golden chicken is cooked through and I'm dangerously close to shoving everything into the cavernous pita and making off with it like the Hamburglar of the East.
In an attempt to distract from my rumbling stomach, I ask Katz where he gets his pita from. He laughs.
"It was trial and error tasting our way through a lot. Nobody needs a soggy pita that falls apart. The best we could find was from an Israeli guy called Arik," he explains. "He's crazy but he makes amazing pitas."
Katz changes the conversation swiftly and isn't forthcoming when pressed for further details about the infamous Arik. But as he starts to layer up the sauces, pickles, meat, and salad like some kind of savoury trifle, I soon forget the subject.
"There's an order to build the pita. I sauce it all the way up the side and start with salad at the bottom then layer it up," explains Katz as he expertly demonstrates. "You need to make sure there's a bit of everything the whole way through."
Katz breaks the bread and hands me half to try. The fragrant still-hot-from-the-charcoals chicken and spicy chili sauce are tempered by the cool pickles and nutty tahina sauce.
I don't care where these pitas have come from. There's not a soggy bottom in sight.
Goodbye dodgy kebab shop on the corner. From now on, I'm a woman who demands a higher class of shawarma.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.