I push open the heavy wooden door to Hill and Szrok, stroll up to the counter, and ask: "Can I please punch a big dead cow like Rocky Balboa?"
The chef's face barely flickers.
"There's a pig in there if you like," he says, nodding at a giant cold store embedded in one of the pillars. "And some cows. We can hang Luca up and you can punch him if you like."
Luca, of course, is another of the Hill and Szrok team. The chef, I notice, is smashing the shit out of a large slab of ox heart with the bottom of a saucepan.
"Yeah, myself and my fellow chefs are often to be found punching meat," he says, a smile barely creeping across his mouth.
The Hill and Szrok Public House in Old Street, East London is the latest venture by the three-man team Luca Mathiszig-Lee, Tom Richardson Hill (the butcher), and Alex Szrok (the chef). The trio already proved a hit on the glamourous, gluttonous Hackney eating scene with the Hill & Szrok Master Butcher & Cookshop on nearby Broadway Market, as featured in a recent, saki-fueled episode of Chef's Night Out. The Public House—or pub, to its friends—is a significantly bigger space than the cookshop but the ethos, it seems, is much the same. Party at the front, simple, satisfying, no-shit food at the back.
Settling down at a huge wooden table with the lads, in front of a sizeable oxtail sandwich with slaw and fries (let's be honest—nothing's really worth doing on an empty stomach), I begin by asking that most important question. Is it size that counts? Or what you do with it that matters?
"We were just getting so busy at the cook shop it just seemed sensible to take on a bigger space," says Hill. "It's double the space so we're going to have two chefs. That's the way we've worked it out. Alex is used to doing everything on his own so now, with more staff, he should be able to cope."
As he says this, I look over at Szrok who is scribbling furiously in a notebook with a finger almost entirely wrapped in blue plaster and tape. He's coping, sure. But he seems to be slicing off body parts as he goes.
"Doing lunches will be new to me but the menu is super simple," he says, looking up. "At the moment, I'm getting the team doing loads of butchery. I want us to be properly clued up and on it."
Knife-wielding butcher Hill is the man for the job.
"If they're coming in as a chef they'll have some knife skills, which is pretty basic," he explains. "If not, you've got to make sure they're wearing a chainmail glove."
I like the sound of this. I'm also pleased to hear that Hill learned his particular knife skills "from a man called Eddie" at Allens of Mayfair.
"You usually start people with something that's either reasonably simple, like taking the legs off chickens, or something they can't fuck up," he tells me. "If you're making sausages, you'll get them de-boning hands of pork because even if they slash it to pieces, it doesn't matter. But although you're always learning stuff, once you've cut up 10,000 chickens it becomes less exciting." I can imagine.
The Hill and Szrok boys make much of their nose-to-tail approach, but I wonder—just how much of these animals are they using?
"Well, take a pig as a good example of that," says Szrok. "Tom will break it down, take the skin off the lot of it and I'll use that for scratchings. Then I'll render the fat and use that lard in pastry and cakes, or to fry bread. The hands of pork are minced and used to make sausages and pork pies. We'll use the lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys along with that minced meat to make faggots. Ears often get brined and fried. And tonight, we've got ox heart and chicken livers on the menu."
Faggots were one of those innumerable brown concoctions my grandmother would produce from her one-two-punch combination of deep-freeze-and-AGA for a Saturday night dinner. How are they going to present their faggots here?
"I usually do it with pease pudding or a swede mash, with a rich liver gravy," says Szrok. "It's very trad."
Serving up faggots and pease pudding in an East End pub leaves them open, I venture, to that old criticism that "hipsters have moved in and ruined this pub by doing posh versions of East End food."
Szrok disagrees: "We're not doing it very posh, really. We're doing it with decent quality meat. How posh is buying a bag of split peas and stewing them in stock? The majority of the menu is cuts of meat and sides. Yeah, we use gremolata and paprika, but who gives a shit? You can get paprika from McDonalds."
It's also, I think, nice to see an East London pub at least stay a pub, rather than getting converted into yet another unaffordable set of buy-to-let apartments to profit an out-of-town investor.
"Exactly," says Hill. "And it's not like we're not doing a deconstructed faggot where they're crystallised in sugar and thrown at you. It's just meat and potatoes."
Eating in a butchers is, for me, an inherently Italian idea. Late last year, I had the most incredible meal in a tiny, marble-topped trattoria in Florence, where I ate chicken breasts drenched in brown butter and watched great slabs of meat get cooked on an open fire below the butchery hooks.
"I suppose it comes through subconsciously in the food a little bit after working with so many Italian chefs in the past," says Szrok. "How they do very little to the meat—unless it's a stew—but make quite a lot of the vegetables. They really go to town on the sides."
If this all sounds like a Stanley Kubrick quantity of blood, then fear not. The boys have thought about vegetarians too.
"We've always done a seasonal hot vegetable starter that I could do large as a main," says Szrok. "I'm also doing a set vegetarian main. It'll be whatever's growing in the season, given some smoky, charcoal flavour by either roasting or grilling it and then serving it with some nuts, grain, barley, goat curd—that sort of thing. There won't be nut roasts or stuffed peppers of anything like that. No bowls of raw couscous." And thank Christ for that.
Hill and Szrok are not linked to any particular farm but, as far as they can, choose local, free-range meat.
"I know a pig farmer just outside Brighton so that's who we get our pork from," says Hill. "He works with a couple of abattoirs, who deal with a lot of small farms all over England. So he picks beef and lamb that he knows I like, which means a good amount of fat. It's a sign that it's had a good life. You know, before they got shot."
What's the biggest animal you think you could take on in a fight, I ask, before even realising the words have come out of the mouth.
"Well, if I had to run it down, not much," says Hill. "A tortoise? Possibly?"
"You'd have to twist its head around. Or open him up with a can opener," chimes in Szrok, helpfully.
When it comes to booze, the theory is a little more simple, says Mathiszig-Lee: "It's pretty much the same theory as we had before. Just Malibu and Archers." I blink. "No, no, with wine it's like the meat: low intervention, sustainable vineyards, looking towards organic but not too much. Classics. It's designed to go with the food. In the restaurant, you're not going to get a menu with 15 different cocktails. We're going to look into classic breweries, rather than the London craft beer scene. Old school ales and things like that."
It sounds—dare I say it—refreshing.
"The IPA is going to be £3.80 or £3.90 a pint," adds Mathiszig-Lee. "Just like we don't source a lot of rare breed meat—those weird lanky cows that have got one really nice fillet—it'll be the same with the wine. We go for classic, functional things that have been around a long time."
Functionality isn't something that I often hear chefs praise. And yet, to these men, it seems a particular point of pride.
"I love it," says Szrok. "If you look at a really good quality greasy spoon—the way they get it out for you is fantastic."
"We're not going to do something that's cool for five years and then do something else," adds Mathiszig-Lee. "A pork chop will never be super fashionable but people will always want it."
If all this sounds like a "lads, lads, lads" approach to wining and dining well, it sort of is. But perhaps that's no bad thing, in a food landscape like East London, where pop-ups and food stalls can seem to spend all four seasons reinventing the wheel.
"I've gone out to a lot of restaurants and spent a lot of money on lots of small plates of food and I don't necessarily leave feeling satisfied," says Mathiszig-Lee. "That's what I like to offer here: you can eat as much or as little as you like but you're going to get fed."
Tom the butcher looks up from his sandwich.
"And it will still be an actual boozer," he adds. "If you want to just come here, sit at the bar, and have a skinful then you can. I mean, we will."