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Three top chefs on the food pilgrimages that shaped them

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Three major players in the London food scene tell Mr Hyde how a fact-finding mission proved hugely influential to their career

Every story starts somewhere before it takes on its own life, twisting and turning to become its own adventure. Mr Hyde spoke to three of London’s most likeable culinary geniuses to hear the genesis of their stories and what inspired them to become major stars on the UK food scenes.

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Pizza Pilgrims co-founder, James Elliot

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My trip with my brother through Italy was only supposed to take 10 days. But in a tuk tuk that only reached 18mph, it was more like six weeks. We knew we wanted to come back with better knowledge of the Neapolitan pizza. 

Unsurprisingly, we had our epiphany in Naples. It was in Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo, on Via dei Tribunali, when we had our first ever properly authentic pizza. It was such an eye-opener, in the form of a really simple margherita. We went out there thinking pizza is pizza is pizza, but trying it fresh out of the oven, with really fresh mozzarella from five miles down the road, and the perfect San Marzano tomatoes, was the biggest lightbulb moment.

The pizza that we’re most known for is an ’nduja. Back in 2012, this spicy spreadable sausage wasn’t really around in the UK, but in every region we drove through we wanted to find and taste the ingredients that make that particular area famous. We tried it in Calabria, right down in the toe of Italy. We met a ’nduja producer, and tried it in a pizzeria that night with him… and we were blown away. It was amazing. We had to use it. That was something we picked up on that trip, took back to the UK, and have kept on the menu ever since. We sell more ’nduja pizzas now than any other.

Campania is my favorite region of Italy – some of the very best southern Italian produce is from there, from mozzarella to tomatoes and flour. Naples, obviously, is a must hit. Get there, and eat at Concettina ai tre Santi. It’s run by Ciro Oliva, this young guy who’s quite new on the scene and a bit of a punk disruptor. He does really incredible margheritas, but celebrates the region with his other toppings too.

The Dairy head chef, Ben Rand

I went with a few chef friends to San Sebastián for a long weekend. It’s just a Mecca for food – and I’m talking about the bars in the old town, rather than the Michelin restaurants that are scattered around.

“Pintxos” is northern Spanish tapas. You go into each place and they’ll be full of food priced individually, and you take what you want. They’re either on bread, or have a skewer through them. You’ll see piles of wild mushrooms and they’ll go back and cook them for you, with an egg on top perhaps. It’s just incredible produce, cooked as simply as possible.

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There’s a massive confidence in that, just frying mushrooms and serving them with an egg and that’s it, knowing the produce is good enough for it to be incredible. You’ll be in a bar and see lobsters and turbot and langoustines, beautiful wild mushrooms, next to dark beef with golden fat – practically unheard of in the UK. That’s what makes it so inspirational. And all of this in really quite humble, unfancy bars? There’s no glitz, there’s no glamour, you feel like it’s a real salt-of-the-earth, working man’s hangout for the locals.

It really hammered home the importance of great produce for me, and that there’s nothing wrong with serving it simply. It doesn’t need foams or smears or a load of flowers to hide behind. As long as it’s cut sharply and on a nice clean plate, and it’s done with integrity, there is nothing wrong. That was a culture shift in my mind.

We did take one trip to one of the restaurants of accolade, called Asador Etxebarri. It’s a temple to simplistic food, renowned for its tasting menu. A lot of dishes going through it are small, but then the main course was this absolutely incredible big rib of beef. It was cooked phenomenally, and served with only a green salad from their garden. That just stood out. To finish a clever and dainty tasting menu on a steak and a green salad, it ticked all the boxes that you wanted.

We’ve adjusted our tasting menu slightly for that idea. We finish on a big show-stopping main course at the end now, rather than another small dish. That was a revelation

Smoking Goat head chef, Ali Borer

We went to Soei in Bangkok which was run by this former youth league football coach. All the parents of the kids he was training told him he needed to open up a restaurant, as he kept bringing incredible food to training sessions. We ate crispy mackerel heads there, and cured prawns, and got the idea for the deep-fried egg that’s on our menu. We went in, ordered a load of food and saw that they had these eggs on, deep-fried in pork fat. We ordered a few on a whim – how good could a fried egg really be? I tell you, they were absolutely amazing.

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I wanted to order more and more. When we started cooking our menu, we were ending up with a lot of rendered pork fat. The deep-fried egg instantly popped into my mind, as we could use that fat to cook eggs in. They cook so quickly that you’ve got this crispy porky outside, but a runny yolk inside, and a black vinegar, lime juice and chilli dressing with spicy chilli on top alongside coriander.

One of the big ones we went looking for was the tom yum soup. We tried it at a couple of places, but Jay Fai’s was incredible. She’s this 72-year-old street food seller who’s just got a Michelin star. She wears these huge goggles when she’s cooking, because the heat she uses is unbearable. She has four or five house fans blasting air into these charcoal flames, making it even hotter, and the heat would dry her eyes out. That’s where I learned just how ridiculously hot a wok needs to be for things to work properly, and to achieve the intense flavours.

Words: Francis Blagburn

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