CHEFS

A London Restaurant Crawl with the King of Convenience Food

Jowett Yu may be head chef at high end Hong Kong restaurant Ho Lee Fook, but he also loves microwave spaghetti and convenience store fish cakes. On Yu’s first ever visit to London, I joined him and chef James Lowe for a tour of the capital’s best...

by Johanna Derry
09 August 2016, 11:15am

"Jowett is the king of convenience store degustation," declares Jeff Claudio.

He's talking about Jowett Yu, head chef at Ho Lee Fook, a modern Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong. Yu is in London for the first time to cook a guest dinner at Shoreditch restaurant Lyle's.

Jowett Yu, head chef of Hong Kong restaurant Ho Lee Fook. All photos by the author.

It's four in the afternoon and Lyle's owner James Lowe and Claudio (an old compatriot of Lowe's from the kitchen pass and Ho Lee Fook sous chef) have decided to give Yu a guided tour of London's tastiest places. Invited to tag along, I'm wearing trousers with an elasticated waistband: the list of restaurants is long.

READ MORE: James Lowe's 127-Mile Quest into the Malvern Hills for Perfect Peas

From the off, earwigging the chefs' conversations is proving fascinating. These three have worked in some of the most well-known and prestigious restaurants in the world—places like noma, Fat Duck, and Rockpool—and yet they seem to have a deep affection for lo-fi foods like tacos, fried chicken, and kebabs.

Biang biang noodles and rou jia mo at London Chinese restaurant Xi'an Impression.

"In a 7-Eleven in Australia, you can get microwaveable spaghetti Bolognese, so I'd buy a pack of kimchi and stir it in," says Yu. "Or in Tokyo, you can get buckwheat broth and fish cakes. I'd start with that and get some onigiri and dump it in."

You could never do convenience store degustation in the UK, Lowe responds, telling a story of being so desperate to eat that he bought four sticks of cheese from a petrol station shop and wrapped them in reconstituted rounds of ham.

James Lowe (right), head chef at Lyle's in East London.

"Horrible. It was not good," he says.

We begin our London food tour at Xi'an Impression, an unremarkable looking Chinese restaurant slap bang opposite Arsenal football stadium. It's not what I would call an obvious start.

Xian Biang Biang

"I have to eat Chinese food wherever I go. I need it in my system," says Yu, ordering biang biang noodles, rou jia mo (a.k.a. a Chinese burger) and beef pao mo (beef broth loaded with a doughy torn bread), and diving straight in when it arrives.

"This is legit," he nods, noting the MSG in the broth making it taste so delicious.

I'd have thought these guys wouldn't approve, but Yu explains: "It's more comprehensive on the tongue. MSG automatically makes it more-ish."

Ho Lee Fook sous chef Jeff Claudio (left) with Yu at Black Axe Mangal.

Which is good because there's plenty more to come. Lee Tiernan—head chef at our next stop, Turkish restaurant Black Axe Mangal—steps away from the oven to greet us when we arrive, Pearl Jam blaring.

"I think this is the one that might take me down," says Claudio. "Everything's ON BREAD."

Black Axe onion lahmacun

Black axe glitter squid bread Black Axe Mangal chef Lee Tiernan's squid ink bread with egg yolk and glitter.

Someone pours shots of Jameson's and all concerns slide away. Plus, not quite everything's on bread—there's a rice and cabbage dish in the mix too.

But nearly everything else Tiernan conjures from the kitchen is dough-based: lamb offal lahmacun, another with sweet red onion, and a smoked cod roe and squid ink bread concoction with egg yolk and glitter. No one hesitates. The plates are cleared and Claudio suggests another shot of Jameson's "as a digestif."

Then it's back in the cab to Leandro Carreira's Portuguese residency at nearby pop-up restaurant space Climpson's Arch. My waistband elastic creaks a little as we start with more bread in the form of sandwiches loaded with anchovies and peppers.

"I bet this started out life as a snack," says Yu. "Mid-service where he pulled a few things together and thought, 'Hey, this is really good.'"

Apparently Yu is also king of snacks.

Anchovy sandwiches at Portuguese chef Leandro Carreira's East London pop-up.

"I love making snacks," he shrugs. "The first bag of chips I had when I first moved to Canada were hickory sticks for 75 cents. I was like wow. That bag of chips changed my life."

The conversation may have been on the cheap and swift, but our attention is on the good stuff on the table: roasted shrimp, raw potato salad with nasturtium leaves, grilled and deep fried sardines with onions, and a bowl of raw razor clams with mushrooms.

Carreira and Yu.

This last dish stops all three chefs in their tracks as they try to work out how something so simple can be so delicious. Yu tries to get Carreira to reveal his secret, but he's either being deliberately modest or secretive. In lieu of a straight answer, he brings out "pudding," a plate of bifana, toasted pork sandwiches, ("More bread," notes Claudio) and talk turns to the joys of tacos and fried chicken.

"Any type of fried chicken in whatever country," exclaims Yu. "Japanese chicken karaage, ayam goreng from Indonesia, jollibee chicken from the Philippines …"

Toasted pork sandwiches at Climpson's Arch.

"You've got to try Chicken Cottage. Shall we add it to our list?" says Claudio, before ordering a round of digestifs.

Happily, we give the cut-price chicken chain a miss and instead shoehorn in a trip to P. Franco, a wine shop and bar, where the conversation turns back to the razor clams.

"That ability to do something that looks very simple but tastes really good is hard. We're not good at it in the UK," says Lowe. "People see a picture and think they can do it, but they don't understand what makes it taste good. I feel they have that understanding in Australia."

Razor clams.

Claudio and Yu agree. Lowe continues: "Making it taste right is really hard. It's so fucking easy to do one dish and take a picture. To do that for 80 people every day, takes real skill."

The sun has set, and we are slipping behind our makeshift schedule but no one particularly cares. From the kitchens of P. Franco comes another bottle of wine, cured and torched blue mackerel with gooseberry puree and coriander stems, and a bowl of girolles and rabbit agnolotti.

Torched blue mackerel with gooseberry puree and coriander stems at P. Franco.

"It's a good job we're mixing up the cuisines," says Lowe to Yu. "Otherwise you'd just be getting plate after plate of seasonal mushrooms and peas."

There's no digestif here. The chefs hug out farewells and we're back into the warm dark of a late summer night and onto Sager + Wilde, our final food call.

Mezcal is served, then wine, followed by more plates, this time of deep fried sweetcorn and whelks, stir-fried pepper leaves, and cockles, peas, and whitecurrants.

Climpsons instagram

The chefs are constructing fantasy kitchen teams and teasing Claudio for being the Kevin Bacon of the cheffing world. He seems to have worked with everyone.

"I've lived and cooked in ten cities," he says, by way of explanation.

Chewing on the whelk dish, the conversation turns.

"All Western fine dining restaurants are a mix of super tender meat, purees, and rich sauces," complains Lowe. "Baby food. There's no appreciation of texture."

Whelks at Sager + Wilde.

It's different in Hong Kong, says Yu.

"The range of textures is encompassing," he adds, listing off examples: crunchy pig's ear cartilage, blanched chewy tripe, naturally slimy seaweed. Claudio adds gelatinous to the list.

"People love jellies and fish heads," he says.

On cue, the dish that proves to be the evening's showstopper arrives to the table: tuna, tomato, and gelatinous tuna bone marrow.

The chefs at Sager + Wilde.

"That is out of control," says Yu, in appreciation.

Claudio orders a round of fernet branca as a digestif, and reflects on how satisfied he feels. We've eaten around 20 different plates of food. My elastic is at full stretch, but Claudio has regrets.

READ MORE: This Cookbook Turns the Weird Tins From Your Cornershop Into Dinner

"If I'd have known I'd feel OK after all of this, I'd have had more at the start," he says. "Dumplings or something."

Three chefs in Clapton

The trio are out for the duration, but my trousers and I have to bail before I can find out if Yu can satisfy Claudio's prevailing hunger with some London-style convenience store degustation.

I doubt it—for all the eating and the talk of food, good, bad, and outright dirty, it seems a chef's hunger is never fully sated.