Rupert Bates Summer 2020
It was in December I first met Richard H Turner at the Hawksmoor restaurant in Borough opposite the famous food market. There was only time for a coffee, as Hawksmoor, like many restaurants in the countdown to Christmas, was fully booked.
Purely for research purposes I then dined at other Hawksmoor restaurants in London, taking in Air Street and Knightsbridge. The fire was alive, the meat sublime and all was right with the world.
It isn’t now and Hawksmoor, like so many restaurants, was forced to temporarily close its doors in the teeth of the coronavirus. Hawksmoor will be back.
Here is my interview with Richard before COVID-19 struck and hopefully a flame to pierce the suffocating shadow of this devastating disease.
Stay safe and much love and thanks to the NHS and all the other care workers, not to mention all those keeping the food chain going – be it farming, cooking, supplying, delivering, or serving. Heroes every one of you.
Picture the scene. It’s Le Gavroche in London’s Mayfair back in the day when it was run by Albert Roux and Michel Roux Jr.
There’s a VIP in the restaurant – no names, no pack drill – but a name that requires a private security detail to dine on a neighbouring table, eyes peeled over the peeled prawns.
Richard H Turner – once of the Parachute Regiment – was ever vigilant and professional in this role, but he couldn’t help noting how good the food was. It was a Damascene moment for a man who is now one of the most feted open fire chefs in the country – king of the London carnivores.
Hawksmoor, Turner & George, Meatopia – wherever fire meets food, you’ll likely to find a Turner signature seared somewhere.
“One day I approached the Roux family to work in the kitchen, but was told no,” says Turner.
“I kept asking every time I was in the restaurant and eventually got a job. My mum was a great cook, but I didn’t know my shallots from my onions, or how to hold a knife let alone cut with it. Somehow I survived a year there.”
That wasn’t enough for the ambitious Turner. He went on to work for Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire in Chelsea and Harveys, a Wandsworth restaurant then run by a young Marco Pierre White, with an even younger Gordon Ramsay on the kitchen staff.
“A tough start, but not bad as mentors!” You suspect the shouting and swearing was water off a duck’s – a whole poached duck in a light consommé probably – back for the commis chef who spent seven years in the Paras.
This soldier son of an Essex banker, who only joined the army boxing team because you got steak for breakfast, wasn’t content with this tuition. He went abroad, working with legendary French chefs Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse.
Turner, who was born in north-west London, went on to run The Albion pub in Islington, but despite his formative years amid Michelin stars, he quickly cultivated his own but traditional English style. Hopes and dreams soon turned to meats of every cut and part – nose to tail eating. His book Hog, for example, is the ultimate homage to the pig.
“My hero is actually Fergus Henderson (founder of St John restaurant in Clerkenwell). I tried to be like him. I put a big charcoal grill in the beer garden and started learning, but making my own rules and experiments, realising the importance of fuel as an ingredient, not just to start a fire.”
Turner likens a great barbecue to “a religious experience”.
“That balance of smoke and fire. The salt to sear the meat, the charcoal, the aromas – slow-grown meat, slow-cooked, for flavour is time. Cooking over live fire is primal.”
Hawksmoor was next on Turner’s meat journey and menu having originally admired it as a customer. He joined Hawksmoor when it was just one restaurant in Spitalfields. It is now currently eight, including Manchester and Edinburgh and another steakhouse is set to open this year in New York.
“One of the first times I ate at Hawksmoor they messed up my steak twice, so I sent it back – twice. General manager Nick Strangeway (who came up with the name after walking past Christ Church Spitalfields designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor) arrived with a raw steak, apologised and asked, as I was a chef, if I wanted to cook it myself and I gave their chefs a grilling lesson” says Turner.
He returned many times with the meat getting better and better and then heard the restaurant was looking for a head chef. The rest is history and the evolution of a British steak institution.
The Pitt Cue Co, which started as a barbecue shack, Foxlow and Blacklock are all in his culinary cannon – temples of fire with the fingers and tongs of Turner in many (mostly meat) pies.
But to Turner, provenance and sustainable farming and sourcing of meat are far more important than any chef, restaurant or recipe.
Turner has this covered too, having founded the London butcher Turner & George with James George.
“It started as an online business, delivering to houses,” says Turner, with their butcher’s shop 373 doors down from St John restaurant and wholly committed to ethically reared meat from British native breeds on independent farms.
“We dry-age in-house on the bone for flavour; make our own sausages and burgers and combine it all with a contemporary knowledge of taste and cooking,” says Turner.
“The best butchers will tell you what cuts work best for what you are looking to cook. At Turner & George we go to the farms. If it says it is a purebred Longhorn carcass we want to make sure it is – traceability and tracking is difficult but so important. We want farms that stay with their animals, know their names.”
We are having coffee at Hawksmoor in Borough, the converted Victorian hops warehouse opposite the Borough Market kitchen – that wonderfully eclectic mix of London street food epicures.
I don’t know why I made our meeting morning coffee rather than blagging myself some Old Spot belly ribs for lunch. But this was just before Christmas and there wasn’t a table to be had.
Then out of the blue Turner announces: “We eat too much meat, way too much meat.” I snorted like an Old Spot and the turkeys on London’s festive menus started high-fiving, or rather three-toeing.
He explains his rationale. The influx of cheap meat means something unsustainable and unethical is going on. “If meat is that cheap to produce and sell it is being bred in a bad way in a bad place. You have to ask where has it come from and how?”
Turner, who lives in Deptford, is mainly in the carnivore business but is an omnivore. He recognises the importance of ‘plenty of vegetables on plates’ advocating more of a ‘flexitarian’ approach to diet and gets hugely frustrated by how the debate has been hijacked by extreme views. Debates, like diets, need to be balanced and informed.
Turner the trencherman was born to wear a butcher’s apron. But just when you thought you’d gone through the entire menu, you realise there is more – much more.
Meatopia is now in its eighth year in the UK. Held at Tobacco Dock in London’s Wapping this festival of meat, drink, fire and music was brought over by Turner from the USA, having been founded in New York by the late, great food writer Josh Ozersky.
The menu over three days (September 4-6) is curated and unique dishes cooked in front of you by leading chefs from around the world. For 72 hours the meatbuck is the only currency worth trading in.
“The real hero of Meatopia is the fire,” says Turner.
It is an extraordinary spectacle of live fire cooking and all senses are assailed. In American Pie Don McLean sings that ‘Fire is the devil’s only friend.’ You suspect if Lucifer got hold of a ticket and a plate of clinched salt-aged shorthorn beef he’d be in heaven.
Turner has written five books. As well as Hog there is its beef equivalent Prime; the Pitt Cue cookbook and he co-authored, alongside founders Huw Gott and Will Beckett, Hawksmoor at Home, as well as contributing to the Hawksmoor Restaurants & Recipes book.
Turner is plain-speaking – the army and running kitchens are not for shrinking violets – but modest about his achievements. So let’s leave the last word to one of his mentors, the three Michelin starred Pierre Koffmann.
“I would trust Richard with my trotters. He’s the master of meat.”
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