These Chefs Are Swapping Kitchens to Reimagine British Mexican Food
“We try new stuff but we don't give a shit about what people say about us. We just want to learn more,” says Mexico City chef Jorge Vallejo, as he works on a taco and langoustine studded menu with The Clove Club’s Isaac McHale.
The combination of Mexican and British food sounds like a recipe for a culinary travesty but Jorge Vallejo of Mexico City's Quintonil (just anointed the 35th best place in the world to eat) and Isaac McHale, chef/owner at the Michelin-starred Clove Club in London aren't ones for battered sausage enchiladas.
The pair have been taking over each others' kitchens as part of a cultural exchange programme but first met three years ago.
"I was lucky enough to be invited over when Quintonil had only been open for a month," remembers McHale. "I went straight there from the airport. That was my entry to Mexico."
At the time, Vallejo had just finished a stint at noma, after many years spent in the kitchens of his native Mexico City, including the much garlanded Pujol. Not long after, Clove Club provided his introduction to London's food landscape.
Sitting in the restaurant's serene dining room, McHale and Vallejo interlace sentences as they navigate their cooking histories and the Quintonil-steered menu they'll cook tonight. The aim: to negate the tired but stubborn idea that the Tex-Mex dishes served in the UK bear any relation to the elaborate patchwork of regional food cultures that form the UNESCO-protected cuisine of Mexico.
"I want to give diners a little more context of Mexican food," says Vallejo. "It does involve tortillas but maize comes in different forms and you can do many things with it."
Both of Vallejo and McHale's restaurants claim to exude a homely atmosphere, albeit the kind of home in which one dad is rustling up "raw orkney scallop, clementine, brown butter, and Perigord truffle," while the other gets busy with "roasted pork in cold avocado pipian, chicatanaant, grilled onions, and fava beans purée." (Basically, the ideal home, then.)
"We try to make food that is delicious but healthy and makes sense with the environment, society, and our traditions." Vallejo says as McHale nods along. "We try new stuff but we don't give a shit about what people say about us. We just want to learn more, have fun in the kitchen, and cook delicious food."
McHale's preparations for the Clove Club-inspired dinner at Quintonil took him to Mexico City's biggest food market.
"It has some of the best ingredients you can get and some of the worst as we're a poor country with too much inequality." Vallejo says. "I go there to keep up with what's in season. We also work with farmers but the main idea of Quintonil is to use ingredients that poor people in the countryside eat and put them in the context of a fine dining restaurant."
He also sent a wish list over for McHale to order in.
"I wanted to try game season so we're cooking grouse tonight with mole," says Vallejo. "Also cobnuts are in season so we have them and really great langoustines. I'm using stuff we don't get in Mexico and then taking my approach into it."
Despite the relative abundance of foods, some minor illegal activity had to be undertaken to ensure the core flavours of each location were properly represented.
"We had to rustle some haggis into Mexico under the guise of it being vegetarian." McHale recalls of his trip to cook at Quintonil. And as for Vallejo: "I came [to the UK] with ant eggs, escamoles. I was thinking, What am I supposed to do if Customs asks, 'What is this? Rice?' But it's funny for Mexicans that it's become super trendy for people to use insects in kitchens as we've eaten them forever. I'm not doing anything avant garde, it's traditional."
Those (definitely not trendy) smuggled ant eggs are set to wind up on a salbuto (a puffed tortilla) also bearing British mushrooms and honey. The transnational theme continues in an albacore ceviche made with horseradish in place of chili while the grouse will be cooked on the bone and smoked at the table with a British spin on almendrado, a mole reserved for special events.
"Instead of almonds, I'm using cobnuts, puréed raisins, and spices from here: cinnamon, clove, and old spice." Vallejo explains.
But the dish that really lights up McHale's face is the Scottish taco.
"Ever since I heard that people make reindeer blood drop scones in Finland, I've wanted to make them," he says. "So tonight, we'll serve pancakes made of buckwheat flour, blood, and the spices of black pudding, topped with suckling pig, bean purée, and pickled onion that you can pick up and eat like a taco."
And of course, no Mexican feast would be complete without mezcal, here to be accompanied by chocolate orange bon bons topped with worm salt before single malt whisky finds its way into the cafe de olla (a.k.a. coffee in a clay pot) as the finale to this international kitchen swap.
All photos by Edward Henry James.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.