Frescobaldi: La Famiglia

The Frescobaldis are one of Italy’s oldest winemaking dynasties, with a lineage that stretches back to the Middle Ages and a fan base that included Henry VIII. Scott Manson meets the descendants of the Florentine family to chart their eccentric history, from the parties that scandalised the Vatican to the unveiling of their new London restaurant

A family tree in the walls of the Castello di Nipozzano
A Frescobaldifamily tree in the walls of the Castello di Nipozzano, the 1000-year-old fortress that’s home to part of the Frescobaldi’s wine production

The Frescobaldi family has long been regarded as something of a maverick. With a family tree – which visitors to its Nipozzano estate can see hung in pride of place on the villa wall – stretching back over 30 generations, this Italian winemaking dynasty has a history as rich as its famous ‘super Tuscan’ red wines.

For proof, look no further than the infamous ‘Angel’s Ball’, hosted by Bartolomeo Frescobaldi in the great hall at Villa Montecastello in Tuscany in 1672. It was a warm evening that night – so warm, in fact, that the entire party shed their clothes and, ultimately, their inhibitions, with the party descending into an orgy. “There was a crucifix on the wall of the hall,” explains Diana Frescobaldi, CEO of the brand’s retail and restaurants division, “and it’s said that Jesus had to turn his face away so he didn’t witness the wild goings-on. It cost us dearly though – we had to build 40 churches to make up for it.” 

The Frescobaldi brothers in the 1970s. From left to right: Leonard, Dino, Vittorio and Ferdinando Frescobaldi
The Frescobaldi brothers in the 1970s. From left to right: Leonard, Dino, Vittorio and Ferdinando Frescobaldi

Indeed, the pope at the time, Pope Clement X, made a Frescobaldi family member walk 150 miles to meet him in Rome, and then agree to fund 40 new churches in the Val di Pesa region, before walking 150 miles back home again.

“It was a high price to pay for a party,” laughs Diana.

Ironically, Frescobaldi wines had previously proved popular with the clergy during the 16th century. Original letters kept by the family testify that a former pope was among high profile people who purchased large quantities of their products. And as news of their winemaking prowess spread, even Henry VIII proved to be a fan – as a well-preserved parchment scroll detailing his wine order, held in the family’s private library, attests. 

The same period also saw famous artists, such as Donatello and Michelangelo, buy Frescobaldi wines or, in the case of the latter, sometimes trade them for paintings.

“We also have some artistic heritage in our family,” says Diana. “Dino Frescobaldi, a poet, was a good friend of Dante Alighieri and, after reading the first seven cantons of the >Divine Comedy, encouraged Dante to continue writing his epic poem.”

Yet despite its current success, the Frescobaldis’ operations have not been without their setbacks. Prior to winemaking, the family were prominent members of a wealthy Florence-based ‘magnate class’ – key players in the public affairs of the city during the 12th century. So successful was their banking operation that the family opened a branch in England in the 1270s and, within 20 years, the firm had risen to the position of royal bankers. Records show that between 1302 and 1310, the Frescobaldi bankers loaned £150,000 to Edward I and II, financing the wars of the latter and later serving as papal tax gatherers, helping to bankroll the Crusades. 

The chapel at Castello di Pomino
The chapel at Castello di Pomino

The result was that the Frescobaldi firm ended up with control of England’s revenues, including the mint and customs. It was a staggering situation and one that, ultimately, would prove problematic. As land, honours and privileges were bestowed upon them, Edward II’s barons grew increasingly jealous of the Italians’ power and they drew up ordinances forbidding the assignment of customs to foreigners. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Amedeo de’ Frescobaldi – the family head at the time – fled England, first to Avignon and then to Florence.

“The royal debt was never repaid, and we went bankrupt. This was the end of our banking career,” says Diana with a wry smile.

A second Frescobaldi bankruptcy followed some years later, which Diana attributes to the incompetence of a family member now forever known as ‘Stolto’ Frescobaldi (it translates as ‘stupid’). A string of bad investments, including the funding of a Florentine church, led to the family finding itself impecunious once again.

By the 1400s, however, the Frescobaldi winemaking business, which started in 1300, had become a success, and its reputation stretched beyond Italy, with orders coming in from Belgium and England. Meanwhile, back in Italy, the handsome castle of Nipozzano was transformed from a fortress into a stylish private residence and centre for viticulture, with wines from this estate still proving popular with oenophiles today.

The 500-year-old castle offers fabulous views of the surrounding countryside, framed by the Apennine Mountains, and welcomes around 8,000 visitors a year.“The demand is there for far more” says Giacomo Fani, a Frescobaldi spokesperson who works from the estate, “but Nipozzano is principally about the wine, not the tourist experience.” 

Those who do gain access to this atmospheric property are rewarded not just with tastings of its excellent output – from vibrant Chianti Riserva to the noble cru of Mormoreto – but also the chance to sample beautifully simple Tuscan home cooking. A typical lunch menu might include Angus beef ragu, served with tagliatelle, with the beef coming from cows on the estate and the pasta made from wheat that grows just a few fields away.

Similarly, the wild boar with potato cream is sourced from boar that roam in a nearby forest and potatoes grown in Pomino, another Frescobaldi estate close to Nipozzano. Wine buffs will also be familiar with Pomino’s beautiful red and white wines, from grapes grown in vineyards unusually located 700 metres above sea level, making for wines of extraordinary elegance and minerality.

“There are a few simple rules to our wine,” explains Fani. “We never buy or sell grapes. Everything is from our vineyards – the secret of great wine is in the vineyard, not the cellar. We don’t use all the grapes either as many are left to fall to the ground.”

An Aladdin’s cave of fine wine awaits those lucky enough to visit the cellars set deep in the heart of Castello di Nipozzano
An Aladdin’s cave of fine wine awaits those lucky enough to visit the cellars set deep in the heart of Castello di Nipozzano

This is a philosophy shared by Axel Heinz, head winemaker at the Frescobaldi-owned Ornellaia estate, a couple of hours drive from Nipozzano, and situated near the small village of Bolgheri. With its combination of warm temperatures, sea breezes and a mixture of calcareous clay and sandy soils, the estate is the perfect site to plant cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and a small amount of petit verdot, which are blended in varying amounts to make the estate’s namesake wine. Its debut 1985 vintage received widespread critical acclaim from international publications and wine guides, and nearly 30 years later it continues to be a favourite among wine lovers and critics, and a firm fixture on top restaurants’ fine wine lists.

The Castello di Nipozzano, built over 1000 years ago as a defensive  fortress and sitting in the heart of the Chianti Rufina area, is now home to the production of some of Italy’s finest wines
The Castello di Nipozzano, built over 1000 years ago as a defensive fortress and sitting in the heart of the Chianti Rufina area, is now home to the production of some of Italy’s finest wines

“Our hallmarks are passion and innovation,” says Heinz. “We are like musicians playing with flavours and always making a wine that is true to its area, rather than crafting a wine to suit the market.” Thanks to its combination of ripe fruit and wonderful structure, Ornellaia soon joined the ranks of the acclaimed ‘super Tuscan’ wines. In keeping with Frescobaldi’s maverick status, these are rebel wines that don’t adhere to the regulations that at one time governed the production of ‘quality wines’.

“Super Tuscans simply allow the producer to choose the best of what is coming from their plot,” explains Diana Frescobaldi. “Their success shows that if you have a good producer, then you don’t need an appellation to reassure buyers of the quality.” Indeed the success of Ornellaia is such that one annual release of 111 large-format bottles, with labels designed by notable artists and dubbed the Vendemmia d’Artista collection, saw a bottle of the 2010 vintage sell for £86,000 at Sotheby’s, with all profits going to charity. But with such success must come immense pressure to produce brilliant wines, year in year out? Not a bit of it, says Heinz.

“Winemaking is not stressful,” he laughs. “It’s a beautiful, collaborative process – a family affair. And, best of all, at the end we can drink the fruits of our labour.” 

Diana Frescobaldi can trace her winemaking ancestors back to 1308
Diana Frescobaldi can trace her winemaking ancestors back to 1308

For those who can’t make a trip to the source to sample Frescobaldi’s sublime wines, the family has opened a dining room, Ristorante Frescobaldi, in London’s Mayfair. This two-floor operation is the first joint venture between the Frescobaldis and Good Food Society, a new hospitality company launched by Levent Büyükuğur, a successful Turkish restaurateur, and entrepreneur Sanjay Nandi. It launched in Autumn 2014 and quickly has the capital’s foodies buzzing about its modern Italian cuisine, courtesy of head chef Roberto Reatini.

“Head chef Roberto takes traditional Italian dishes, and elevates them without pretension,” says Nandi. “The menu is wholesome, honest and very accessible. We change it seasonally based on the availability of ingredients, and are always bringing in new vintages of exciting wines.”

Among the standout dishes are the red prawn carpaccio with green apple and caviar and the veal cheek pappardelle with rosemary bread, the latter being an umami-rich feast in a moreish ragu. As you would expect, breads and pasta are made on site, while the wine list – not entirely Frescobaldi dominated, but pretty close – is accessibly available by glass for most options. There are small and reasonably priced pre-grouped wine flights, too.

With a vast wall of glass for the frontage, striking frescos of Italian renaissance characters painted onto the tiled walls and a cozily discreet downstairs bar area, it is little wonder that since opening, the restaurant has seen its reservations at bursting point. 

Frescobaldi, London
A wine rack at Frescobaldi, London

This success has surely been further bolstered by a series of exclusive Guest Chef collaborations, that see critically acclaimed chefs from around the world work with the kitchen over the space of a fortnight to create one-off Special Menus available only during this time.

“Previous Guest Chefs have included Inanc Baykar from Aman da Bravo in Istanbul, and Maurizio Locatelli from the Hotel Cala di Volpe in Sardinia,” explains Nandi. “Our next collaboration is with the head chef of the Aurora restaurant on the Italian island of Capri…Fans of their famous food include the likes of Giorgio Armani Jay Z and Beyonce.”

Frescobaldi, London
Frescobaldi, London

“I believe we are also quite accessible in terms of price,” says co-owner Büyükuğur. “Yes, it’s a competitive market, there are over 1200 Italian restaurants in London, but that’s because people like them. The city is also heaven for produce. You can get the best food in the world here, which makes menu planning a genuine pleasure. The key is not to be overly focused on cost and profit, but to simply deliver the best possible experience for customers.”

It’s a mantra that could have been coined for the Frescobaldi family itself.

This story is an updated version of an article that appeared in PORT issue 17. The Aurora special menu is available until Friday November 26 2016. For more info, see frescobaldirestaurants.com.

Photography Jasper Fry, Alessandro Furchino,Eva Vermandel, and Patricia Niven

Additional text Ray Murphy and Drew Whittam

Questions of Taste: Richard Turner (Hawksmoor)

Restaurateur and Hawksmoor executive chef Richard Turner discusses his passion for ethical butchery, what he learned from Fergus Henderson, and his new London restaurant Blacklock

Richard Turner at Hawksmoor, Spitalfields
Richard Turner at Hawksmoor, Spitalfields

Richard Turner is a chef with an all-encompassing passion: meat. But, unlike many flesh-obsessed chefs, it’s not just about the cooking.

Turner’s first fascination is followed closely by a second – where this meat comes from – which begins to become apparent as you learn of his commitment to ethical farming, and his plan to fight for the return of independent butchers over the monopolies of the supermarkets.

After leaving the British Army, Turner chose to enter the culinary world and worked under Michelin-starred chefs including Michel Roux Jr. and Marco Pierre White. Rather than following the fine dining path after his training, he struck out on his own, opting for a simpler approach, with small menus and dishes dictated by whatever produce was freshest at the time.

This simple, understated approach to cooking stayed with Turner as he helped to develop the popular steakhouse chain Hawksmoor; it has also become the main philosophy behind his new endeavour, Blacklock, which can be found behind an easily missed side-street door near the thriving heart of Soho. Not content with his successes in the traditional restaurant business, Turner also went on to found his own butchers, Turner & George, and a food festival called Meatopia, described as ‘a call to arms for all you judicious lovers of meat’.

Here, PORT talks to Turner about his route into cheffing, his interest in butchery and what he’s learned from Fergus Henderson and Marco Pierre White.

Inside Hawksmoor's Spitalfields kitchen
Inside Hawksmoor’s Spitalfields kitchen

When did you first start cooking?

I didn’t start cooking until after I left the army. I joined the army at 16, and was there until my mid-20s. I started cooking at Le Gavroche, asked them for a job, got turned down several times, and kept on asking before they eventually let me in the kitchen.

How did the army influence your discovery of cooking?

You travel a lot so on your time off, R&R, you get to taste different countries’ foods. I served in Hong Kong, I served in the Middle East, I served in America, so I saw a lot of different styles of food.

Some of your mentors included Michel Roux Jr. and Marco Pierre White. How long were you working under them, and what did you learn that’s stuck with you?

Michel Roux Jr. was just one year and Marco was about five years. It was pretty much about respecting ingredients, hard work, efficiency and keeping organised… but mostly hard work.

With Marco, I started at Harveys in Wandsworth, which received two Michelin stars. It was very complicated food at the time, and it was reckoned to be the best food in the country. Later on, I worked for him at the restaurant Marco Pierre White in Knightsbridge at Hyde Park Hotel – we got three Michelin stars there. That was the pinnacle of Marco’s achievements, I think; I was part of the team that won those. That was not such complex food but it was done to a very, very high standard… every day was bang on the money.

richard turner double portrait

When did you first break out on your own?

I started eating in St. Johns, London – Fergus Henderson’s restaurant (Read Fergus Henderson’s exclusive recipe for PORT here). I had a bit of an epiphany where I realised I wasn’t really a fan of eating fine dining or three-Michelin star food. What I really wanted to eat was more like the food that Fergus cooked. So I bought my own pub in Islington and started cooking proper English pub food.

How did that develop into the offering you have on at Hawksmoor and now at Blacklock?

I gained a name for meat while I had my pub, The Albion, and I had this idea that I wanted to do a steakhouse. When it came round to me looking for a site, I realised that Hawksmoor had already started to do a lot of the stuff that I wanted to do: produce-led, English, simple food. So I got in contact with the owners and asked if I could throw my lot in and they said yes, which was very good of them. Then I started working at Hawksmoor in Commercial Street and now we have six sites.

Somewhere along the line, I started getting interested in other things – I started Pitt Cue Co., I started Blacklock, started my own butcher, Turner & George, and my festival, Meatopia. Next year we move the festival to New York. I’m looking in various other places like Brazil and Australia and Spain as well, so it’s all there to be done in the next few years.

steak

What is the message behind Meatopia?

Ethical farming and ethical butchery. Not intensive farming and not mass farming of animals. It’s the antithesis of everything that supermarkets stand for. We believe in rare breeds being looked after, farmed properly, slaughtered humanely, and we believe in good quality meat.

How does your butcher Turner & George work? Does it supply a lot of the food to your restaurants?

We supply some of the food to some of our restaurants. We try not to get too heavily reliant on Turner & George because they each have a varied supply chain. We also use a lot of Ginger Pig up in Yorkshire.

As long as they’re good butchers, I’m happy to work with any of them – I’m not precious about that sort of thing. There aren’t that many good butchers to go around, that’s the thing.

macaroni

How do you go about creating your cookbooks?

It’s almost impossible to make a cookbook stand out, you’ve got to be quite lucky. I tend to write about what I believe in and what I’m passionate about, and if people get on board with that then all the better.

A lot of work goes into it and it’s very collaborative, it’s not about one person. I try to surround myself with good people and I work well with people who believe in the same thing I do.

How is your new venture, Blacklock, different from Hawksmoor?

It’s less reliant on steak. It’s a much simpler offering, but still charcoal grilled meat served on garlic trenchers – we call them the plates. There’s lots of chops. Simple starters. One dessert. Cocktails and wine by the glass.

richard turner double 2

What’s next for you?

I’m doing international Meatopias. I’m also looking at a television series and writing a book about beef – farming, cookbook, butchery… It’s a whole thing. All about beef.

Richard’s latest book, Hog: Proper pork recipes from the snout to the squeak, is published by Mitchell Beazley (with photography by Paul Winch-Furness). www.octopusbooks.co.uk

Photography Aldo Filiberto

Questions of taste: Paul Pairet

French chef Paul Pairet chats to PORT about the importance of execution, using multi-sensory technology to surround his food and cooking for more than 300 people at the Palace of Versailles

paul pairet look

Paul Pairet and his restaurants are impossible to classify, and this, it seems, is exactly what he wants. An illustrious career has taken him from his native France to Hong Kong, Sydney, Jakarta, and Istanbul, where he has transformed restaurants with his uniquely global style of cooking.

Today, Pairet has settled in Shanghai, where he has opened two very different restaurants: the modern French eatery, Mr and Mrs Bund in 2009, and in 2012, he cut the ribbon on Ultraviolet – a restaurant foucssed on immersive dining and his avant-garde values.

In Ultraviolet, Pairet – a former science student – uses ‘multi-sensory technology’ to accompany a 20-dish menu for a maximum of 10 diners per sitting. The idea is to create an atmosphere that unites taste with ‘psycho-taste’ – a phrase defined by the French chef as ‘the expectation and the memory, the before and after, the mind over the palate’. One dish in particular exemplifies this, says Pairet, is Cocotte Lodine, steamed lobster, and seawater-lime fizz.

Here, PORT speaks to Pairet about his formative years as a chef, the lessons he teaches now, and his recent collaboration with cognac brand Martell, which saw him apply the immersive ethos behind Ultraviolet and apply it them to a spectacular event at the Palace of Versailles.

portrait paul pairet pics

Where does your love of food come from?

If I tried to identify the starting point, I would date it to when I was nine years old. I would date it back to a time when I received a very important book. It was called Les Bonnes Recettes de Grand-Mère Donald, which roughly translates into English as The Recipe Book of the Grandmother of Donald Duck. It was a present. It showed me the first bit of potential I had to read, write and reproduce recipes. If it had been another book, I would have probably done something else.

Was there a key turning point during your early years as a chef when you decided on the cuisine you wanted to create?

An interesting point would have been my first cooking lesson with a fantastic French teacher called Jean-Pierre Poulain. He put three glasses of water in front of us: in the first glass there was a whole carrot; in the second glass was cut into slices; and in the third glass there was a shaved carrot.

In the first glass the water was crystal clear, in the second glass the water was light orange, and in the third glass the water was deeply orange. Just through those three little demonstrations he was trying to explain to us the importance of the different cuts when it comes to the diffusion between solid and liquid. I thought it was a very interesting approach. Rather than just trying to train us in learning recipe after recipe, we were learning by trying to understand principles.

paul pairet wall final edit

Why is the idea of immersive dining, like that offered at Ultraviolet, so important to you?

The most important thing behind Ultraviolet is that you are going to go through about 20 courses. To cook at my best there, we have 25 persons servicing 10 guests. You visit and you are going to go through a precise sequence that we have decided upon.

What this means is that we can serve each dish at its peak. We also try to push the relevance of a dish to the images we project on the walls surrounding the guests. The consequence of this is that you can master part of the atmosphere, which means it then becomes an immersive experience.

How did you take the principles behind Ultraviolet and apply them to Martell cognac’s 300th anniversary dinner at the Palace of Versailles?

What was very new for us at Versailles was the necessity to produce between 320 and 360 plates at the same time, send them out to diners altogether, and serve them inside the dining hall in just four minutes despite the 200m distance between the head of the kitchen and the last guests seat. Over six courses we tailored the story around Martell and its history.

Ultraviolet is the ultimate version of what we did at Versailles. The precision is extreme, the tempo is very important, and of course, 20 or more courses can get you a little bit deeper inside the different mood we try to create.

But Versailles was extremely fun and rewarding. Ultimately, that’s the way it should end, right? It’s very important, the end. The execution is the only thing that counts. It’s not about being creative: you can be creative every morning. Creativity is just judging the capacity to execute the idea.

Paul Pairet is the founder and chef de cuisine of restaurants Ultraviolet and Mr & Mrs Bund, both located in Shanghai

Ikejime: The fish and chip revolution

Yoshinori Ishii, head chef at Mayfair-based Japanese restaurant Umu, tells Conor Mahon why he’s bringing a ‘fish and chip revolution’ to the UK

Yoshinori Ishii in Umu, Mayfair, London
Yoshinori Ishii in Umu, Mayfair, London

In August 1999, Yoshinori Ishii left Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, and boarded a plane heading to Switzerland. Ishiisan was leaving a position as executive chef at Kitcho, one of Japan’s most famous restaurants, where he had spent the last nine years after graduating from Osaka’s TSUJI Culinary Institute. When Ishii landed in Geneva he landed as the official chef at the Japanese embassy to the United Nations, bringing with him fishing rods, kitchen knives and a holistic approach to Kaiseki – the Japanese equivalent to haute cuisine.

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During Ishii’s time at Kitcho, he slowly worked his way up to the position of executive chef. “Each year I did the same thing every day, slowly learning how to prepare food with great respect,” Ishii tells me over the phone. “During my first year, I would travel to the local farms in the morning to select the day’s vegetables. These farms grow traditional vegetables that you find only in Kyoto and have been there for thousands of years.” Basic duties soon flourished and began to interest Ishii outside of work hours. “Whenever I had extra time, I would go and stay at these farms and help,” he recalls with pride. “At the Higuchi organic farm in Kyoto, I learned that in truth, all food is connected.”

Today, Ishii acts as executive chef at Umu – a Kyoto-style restaurant in London’s affluent Mayfair neighbourhood – but during the five years Ishii has spent in London, he has also been organising an Ikejime revolution. If successful, Ishii’s movement will drastically change how we treat fish in the UK, from line-caught seabass prepared in Michelin starred-restaurants, right down to the newspaper-wrapped cod sold throughout the nation.

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A diverse range of activities have fed into Ishii’s unorthodox approach to food. It’s an approach that has seen him go beyond his station to cultivate mountain land owned by Kitcho, select flowers for dinner services and arrange the “cultural assets” of the restaurant’s interior. The results of this unique professional approach can be seen today in the atmosphere Ishii has helped create at Umu. Entering the dining room, guests will encounter the hundreds of pieces of pottery used throughout the Kaiseki service, each handcrafted by the head chef himself. Accompanying these ceramics are daily floral arrangements, picked and curated by Ishii.

When I ask why he chose to pursue a career in fine dining he speaks frankly, explaining that it is a combination of passion and practicality. “I love using my hands. As a child I would use whatever was closest to hand. I loved drawing, pottery and calligraphy… these were hobbies but my main love was fishing,” says Ishii. “Obviously when I caught a fish I’d need to cook it, so at the end of high school I realised that as a chef I could combine all of my passions.” When I ask if he considers his profession to be an art form, his response is quick and assured. “Yes, exactly that,” he says. “It’s all interpretation… you’re deciding by your fingers as opposed to your eyes.”

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It’s 24 years since he became a chef, but Ishii still remains grounded about his craft. “After a year you can do this job, but after a decade you are ten times better,” he says. “Even this morning I was learning; I received a beautiful wild sea trout which had spent its life climbing rivers to spawn, so I presumed the meat would be tough and require quite thin slicing.” He pauses then goes on to add: “Then I tasted the fish and it melted in my mouth. I haven’t prepared the trout, but later on I’m thinking of slicing it thickly because of this fatty quality and I’ve never done that for this type of fish before.”

It seems that everything about Ishii’s character and background merges to affect his cooking. At the epicentre of his method is a passion for good quality fish. “When travelling overseas I will pack my fishing rods in my bags before my kitchen knives,” he tells me proudly. “When I was in Geneva as chef to the Japanese ambassador, I would travel to Lake Geneva and speak with the local fishermen, fish with them and source the meals at the embassy depending on their catches.” After leaving Geneva, he worked for several years in New York before becoming the Omakase chef at Morimoto Restaurant. “I would use a lot of the local ingredients such as live fluke, live blackfish and other fish imported from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market,” he explains. “The fishmongers couldn’t provide me with good fish, but I could fillet live fish the proper way for amazing quality and taste.”

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After arriving in London to work at Umu, Ishii was less than impressed by the fish on offer. “There are a lot of boats in the UK who will catch a fish and put it into a container out on the deck, then they pour ice onto the catch. Having taken such a long time to die, the fish experience great amounts of stress. Adrenalin means more oxidisation of the meat and this will ruin the taste and texture,” he explains. “In Japan, good fishermen will kill immediately after taking a fish from the sea, they will also remove all the blood.” What Ishii really wanted to see was fish prepared using a technique called Ikejime. “For Ikejime, the fisherman puts a knife into the neck and tail of a fish then feeds a wire into the spine breaking the nervous system,” he says while demonstrating. “This way, the the brain cannot send a message to the meat and the freshness stays much longer.”

Refusing to accept the standard of fish that was offered by his suppliers, Ishii began to patiently climb the rungs of London’s fish markets: “I kept on complaining to sellers, yet no one could bring me the right type of fish.” He went to Billingsgate, the famous London fish market where “there were some good and some bad fish dotted around the stalls”, but “they couldn’t pick out what they considered to be the superior fish on display” so he decided to take his hunt outside of London and down to England’s southwest coast.

“I focused on Cornwall because it’s a long peninsula,” he tells me. “In Japan I would take the same approach, that’s where the best fish are.” Upon leaving the capital, Ishii’s efforts began to pay off: “I met a fishmonger in St. Ives who maintained a Cornish tradition of carefully handling fish, and so I started to buy from them.” Just like the farms he spent time on back in Kyoto, Ishii became involved with the inner-workings of the Cornwall business he was supporting. “I began to visit their premises and teach their fishermen Ikejime,” he says. “I asked them to use this preparation method for the fish that they supplied us at the restaurant.”

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It wasn’t long before Ishii realised that a single Ikejime supplier would not be enough for his needs; as his knowledge of the UK fishing industry grew, so did his aspirations to alter it. In order to do so, he began to contact every Cornish fisherman he could reach. “I made it my project to share this Japanese technique with English fishermen,” he says. “I went to Cornwall to teach those who were interested.” He named the project ‘the fish and chip revolution’, as his ambitions involve the eventual use of Ikejime at all levels of the fishing industry.

The Ikejime uprising is still in its early stages. Ishii travels to the coast to teach on the boats in person and also talks at both conventions and kitchens to spread the message among those at the forefront of fine cuisine. “It’s a long trip to Cornwall from London and if there’s a rough sea then staying upright on the boat is a challenge… let alone teaching,” he says. “But it’s great to see the local fishermen using different techniques to those I have seen in Japan. I learn so much from them.”

Assorted Cornish and Portuguese Ikejime fish sashimi plate
Assorted Cornish and Portuguese Ikejime fish sashimi plate

Ishii’s Ikejime revolution has presented him with highs and lows, and many chefs have been resistant at first to adopting his new techniques. “For some chefs, they will see our fish as damaged because of the cuts in the tail and neck. But for a year I have explained Ikejime to chefs and said to all of them, ‘if you want this quality then we can share’.” Throughout this campaign, Ishii has only bought his fish from certain types of fishermen and is wary of asking people to change how they earn a living. “I only focus on daily fishing, not the big commercial fishermen because I know that whole story,” he adds. “I know it’s how they earn their livelihood and I can’t ask them to change.”

The task that Ishii has set himself and the Cornish fishing industry is a large one, but I hope that with his years of experience, his determination and a lot of patience, this passionate and energetic chef will succeed in changing the flavour of fish in this country for the better.

Photography Jan Klos

Sake: the ‘rice wine’ renaissance

Sake connoisseur Rie Yoshitake speaks to Betty Wood about the renaissance that has occurred around the cherished rice drink over the past ten years

Omakase Sashimi prepared by Chef Yoshinori Ishii of Umu, with line-caught Cornish ikejime, streaked gurnard usuzukuri, stone bass, red mullet, mackerel, Icelandic sea urchin and toro. Plate: René Lalique ‘Coquille’ from 1910 Sakes: Bijofu Schwa (sparkling) Kamoizumi Nigori (cloudy/nigori) Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Daiginjo 50 (regular)
Omakase Sashimi prepared by Chef Yoshinori Ishii of Umu, with line-caught Cornish ikejime, streaked gurnard usuzukuri, stone bass, red mullet, mackerel, Icelandic sea urchin and toro. Plate: René Lalique ‘Coquille’ from 1910 Sakes: Bijofu Schwa (sparkling) Kamoizumi Nigori (cloudy/nigori) Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Daiginjo 50 (regular)

JAPAN WEEK: “In the past, it was true that sake was bad,” Sake Samurai ambassador Rie Yoshitake says. Known for its poor quality and potent hangovers, sake developed a bad rep, especially in Japan where it was deemed unfashionable – a blue-collar drink for the old. But like gin and craft brewing, sake has undergone a renaissance in the last 10 years and is now enjoying international favour as it moves into a new, premium market.

“Sake making is 80 per cent dependent on craftsmanship” Rie explains, “and 20 per cent on the quality of rice harvest. It’s the opposite of wine, which is all about the grapes. Sakes we’re drinking now are new products” Rie says, “sparkling sakes, aperitifs, low alcohol, cloudy (unrefined) sake called nigori. “Normal sake does not last, it is to be drunk fresh,” in keeping with the mentality of Zenism prevalent in Japanese culture: “Enjoy the moment, don’t think about the future.” Unless, that is, it’s new ‘vintage’ sake, matured for up to 20 years.

Innovations in rice polishing – traditionally done by hand, and mechanised in the 80s – has led to the creations of these ‘ginjo’ premium sake categories. “The more premium, the more polished” Rie explains. Polishing removes the husk of the rice grain, containing proteins and fats. In doing so, it’s given sake something its never possessed before – fragrance. “It’s revolutionary that sake now has to be drunk cold, so you can enjoy the aroma. It’s fruity, almost like pineapple, lychee and melon – like a wine.”

With washoku – Japanese cuisine – increasingly popular, there’s increasing demand for premium sakes. Umu restaurant in Mayfair has the largest selection of sakes in the UK, with more than 177 on their menu and their own sake sommelier. “Sake is very versatile; it can go very well with meat, rich flavoured food and fish, just like wine.”

Sake’s also become an international affair with The International Wine Challenge opening a sake category. In 2014, it had 700 entries from Japan, Norway, Canada, the US and Holland. “Eight years ago, I though sake should only be made in Japan by the Japanese, but now it’s time for a new world sake” says Rie.

We’ll drink to that.

Photography Victoria Ling

Special thanks: Rie Yoshitake of Sake Samurai Association, Chef Yoshinori Ishii; Ryosuke Mashio of Umu Restaurant, Mayfair

Ollie Dabbous: impress with less

Britain’s ‘most wanted chef’ Ollie Dabbous on the importance of exercising self-restraint in the kitchen

Photo by Joakim Blockstrom
Shavings of Tokyo turnip, marinated in manuka honey and lemon, served with flavoured mayonnaise toasted almonds and meadowsweet – photo by Joakim Blockstrom

Confidence and restraint are the hallmarks of a truly unforgettable dish.

What are you going to cook for dinner? How do you decide? What’s in the fridge? What if you could cook anything… anything at all. Seriously, what would you cook? But it’s not for you; it’s for your guests. They’re paying. You don’t know them. And they need to enjoy it and want to come back: because if they don’t, you will go bankrupt very quickly. Welcome to my world. That said, I find it a pleasure, and furthermore I chose this role. The sense of freedom of expression is more compelling than the pressure of the consequences of getting things wrong.

The ultimate goal is to create a dish that I consider a beguiling combination of simplicity and complexity. The appearance of effortlessness hides a painstaking thought process and intense attention to detail. I don’t serve what the customer thinks they want; otherwise the food would never exceed expectations. I want to give them something they didn’t know existed, or something they didn’t know could taste so good: something greater than they imagined or expected.

To me, the role of the chef is to highlight the very best ingredients in the most honest and concise manner. Some top chefs talk of challenging people’s preconceptions or evoking certain emotions through their culinary approach. It is their prerogative to do so in their own restaurants, but that subjugates the role of the ingredient to that of a tool. Would they feel the same way if they had to grow the vegetables, catch the fish, or rear then slaughter the animals themselves?

Essentially, the point of cooking is to make food taste better – to make it as good as it possibly can, in the most organic way. Sometimes this takes a great deal of work but occasionally it takes very little. Simple perfectly executed food will always surpass complicated technical plates. Raw ingredients, at their peak, have a magnificence that needs just a light touch and sensibility to transform them into something both nourishing and delicious. That very magnificence is lost through over-processing, refinement or gimmicks. Presentation is important, but it is ultimately the gift-wrapping. It is taste you remember. Taste comes first, even before concept. Why make something different or new if it is no better than what has preceded it?

When creating a dish, I first look to what is in season, what is at its very peak. This could be the violet-like fragrance of a wild strawberry, the carnal sensation of tender red meat with a charred crust, or the incredible sweetness of baby peas in the pod. Then I try to showcase those qualities in the most culinary economical way. The fewer distractions the better, this ascetic approach offers clarity of flavour and intention. The focal point will always be a single item: the fish, the meat, the fruit or vegetable. There is a whole back-story of labour and love that goes into star ingredients, from the farmer, the fisherman, to the forager and the butcher. This can unfortunately be forgotten through the ease that we, as chefs and customers, can pick up the telephone to place an order; it is these ingredients that merit all the attention, not the chef. It is then just a case of looking at what compliments them, and how this simple accompaniment, preparation or counterpoint can elevate the dish into something more than the sum of its parts.

When creating the recipe, I start with a blank page. Every dish is its own entity, and shouldn’t be derivative of something else. That said, the finished first attempt of a dish may be very different to how I imagined it to be. It may take several attempts before this evolves into something I am truly proud to serve: something I will charge people to eat and hang my reputation upon. The perfect plate of food, however, doesn’t exist. Furthermore, everybody’s palette is different and it is impossible to please everyone all the time. It is necessary to accept that and simply cook what intuitively feels right. Knowing when to stop adding elements is also crucially important, and this isn’t something that all young chefs have mastered. The youthful desire to impress and stand out in an overcrowded culinary media can outmuscle the inherent sense of restraint that comes through maturity. A good dish can be defined by its simplicity and a sense of ‘rightness’; a poor dish screams at you for attention but says absolutely nothing. It may look pretty, but it will be instantly forgettable, nothing more than future washing-up.

The dish pictured here is an example of my restrained approach. The season for the Tokyo turnip is just a few months in early spring. This small window of availability makes them all the more precious. They are small, nutty, sweet and juicy, much milder and less bitter than the basic variety of turnip, and best eaten raw. In this dish, they are shaved into sheets and marinated in a light dressing made from manuka honey and lemon, then rolled into a floral shape. It is served with a mayonnaise flavoured with virgin rapeseed oil and a scatter of toasted almonds and meadowsweet – a wild English flower with a camomile-like taste.

The dish is simultaneously elegant, clean, fragrant and moreish; the length of the turnip sheets creates a velvety mouth-feel, but the dressing, crisp textures and single bitter puntarelle leaf stop the dish from becoming too cloying. There are only a few elements involved and nothing is superfluous. The dish showcases the turnip, and just how delicious such a humble vegetable can be when respectfully handled. This, to me, encapsulates good cooking.

Ollie is head chef at Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London

This article appears in Port issue 16 – out now