Questions of Taste: George Scott-Toft

The executive chef at The Mandrake reflects on bringing South America to London

In the first year of the pandemic, when hospitality was suspended in limbo, George Scott-Toft flew to Argentina, Chile and Peru when it was safe to do so. The chef was on a reconnaissance mission to soak up the culinary cultures of Buenos Aires, Santiago and Lima, and bring back his learning for The Mandrake’s (then) new restaurant concept, YOPO. “There’s a lot you can find from just witnessing things,” he notes, reflecting on the trip. “Street scenes, the way people move, how the produce is presented in markets… We took things away from each country and they now have a place on the menu.”

Inspired in particular by the work of Rodolfo Guzman, the Chilean chef patron of Boragó, Scott-Toft’s lean offering is one in which UK ingredients, classical techniques and South American and Mexican flavour pairings are left to sing, with little manipulation or processing. So, while you can find slow cooked Elwy Valley Welsh lamb shoulder, the joy is that it’s paired with adobo and white beans, corn tortillas and guacatillo. This summer, the restaurant is curating a special version of its menu for the hotel’s terrace, Jurema, including an al fresco botanical Sunday brunch. There are few places in London where you can enjoy tacos and ceviche under a tumble of hanging jasmine and passionflower, and we’d recommend doing so with a glass of low-intervention Argentinian wine in hand.

Port caught up with George Scott-Toft to discuss the lasting impact of his travels, as well as authenticity and tactile eating.

 

When did you first fall in love with cooking?

I grew up in a region called The Bay of Plenty in New Zealand. My family moved there in 1989 to a rather neglected orchard and slowly converted it into an organic orchard where we raised animals and grew oranges, mandarins, avocados, plums and feijoas (a type of guava very common in New Zealand). Since then, I have always had an interest in food. It helps that both my parents are great cooks, too. I also spent many school holidays with my uncle, Pete, who had a very cool restaurant in Auckland.

What were some of your gastronomy experiences out in Argentina, Chile and Peru?

All three countries are extremely different in terms of cuisine, but all three share some similar culinary characteristics. Argentina was the most traditional, with a lot of Italian, French and Spanish influence. For example, we had a great lunch of veal parmigiana et obrero in the Boca district, which opened in 1910 and catered for thousands of Italian labourers arriving in Argentina. We also had a traditional drink there, a blend of Fernet Branca, and Coca-Cola, called a Fernando, which was excellent and unusual.

Peru has so many different styles of cuisine, all of which I found interesting. On our first night there, we visited a traditional café, Bar Cordano. I was very surprised when we ordered a simple dish of what read on the menu as ‘chicken spaghetti’. It was so delicious. We asked the waiter how it was cooked and she told us they prepare a lot of the cooked dishes using a wok, which gives the dish something of the traditional Chinese flavour, ‘WokHei’. Peru has a lot of Chinese ‘Chifa’ cuisine due to the large influence of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century. There is a lot of Japanese influence in Lima – for example, Nikkei cuisine is very common. I wasn’t expecting both cultures to have played such a large part in the style of food, especially in Lima.

Chile has an amazing style of cuisine which stems mainly from a combination of traditional Spanish cuisine and Chilean Mapuche culture. We had a standout meal at the restaurant Boragó in Santiago. Chef Rodolfo Guzman is known for zero-kilometre sourcing and using indigenous ingredients. Everything about the experience at Boragó was incredible. We entered the rear of restaurant by mistake because we could smell the lamb they had cooking on a type of spit, and the very friendly sous chef greeted us like old friends. The exceptional service and great food continued throughout the entire meal.

The Brazilian chef Alex Atala has done a great job celebrating indigenous Amazonian ingredients and techniques, respectfully bringing them into the fine dining space. Are you hoping to do something similar with YOPO, and, in this context, what does ‘authenticity’ mean to you?

What Alex Atala is doing is unique to him and his location. The style of food we create at YOPO is intended to showcase the best of UK ingredients, while incorporating flavours and techniques of South American cuisine. We are authentic to our surroundings and what produce is available through our responsible supply chain. We work with great suppliers like Wild Harbour from Cornwall who specialise in day boat and line caught seafood, currently on the menu we serve their wild turbot grilled in a banana leaf with a type of mole based around pumpkin seeds and a lot of spices. The grilling technique over charcoal imparts an amazing smoky flavour to the fish.

I was in Mexico recently and ate tostadas and tortillas every day, and I was reminded how joyful it is to eat with your hands, share, add what you want. How does food and the act of eating change when it has a more informal, tactile quality?

I think the simple act of eating with your hands can completely change a meal, especially adding condiments yourself. We currently serve lamb shoulder, slow cooked in adobo, which you build as tacos yourself, and guests always enjoy the dish. Eating in this way creates a more relaxed dining environment.

Your current menu has a lot to love on it, and there are particularly interesting and contrasting flavours and cultures in dishes like the yellow tail and aji tiradito. How are you making these unusual pairings work, pushing British produce into new geographies?

Our dishes at YOPO and The Mandrake are always created with plenty of ‘love’ – a word we actually use a lot for everything we do in the kitchen, not just cooking. I am always looking for unusual flavour combinations, but things that people may also find familiar which can be challenging to execute at times. We are currently serving a dessert of tepache sobert with mezcal granita. The pineapple tepache sobert is slightly sweet but also acidic thanks to the fermentation process used to make it. This is complemented by the earthy flavour of the mezcal granita.

What is your process for refining, building or changing the menu?

At The Mandrake, I almost always start with the raw seasonal ingredient and go from there. Refinement comes with time, some recipes always remain on the menu but change form, like the pineapple tepache (a fermented drink made from pineapple skins, raw sugar and spices from Mexico), which we now use in three different dishes, savoury and sweet.

Where else in South America would you like to travel to, and why?

I would like to visit Argentina again and in particular the vineyard of Bodega Chacra in Patagonia. Chacra was founded by Piero Incisa Della Rocchetta, in partnership with esteemed Burgundian Chardonnay producer Jean-Marc Roulot, whose wines I greatly admire. They make fantastic biodynamic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

themandrake.com/yopo-restaurant

The Mandrake

The boutique Fitzrovia hotel designs a soul reset

Life under lockdown has been hard. Physically and mentally, many people have seen their health decline – in particular women, young people and the LGBTQ community – as reported by The Lancet Psychiatry in late April. For those that can afford it, returning to restaurants, cinemas and galleries has been a welcome relief, and a reminder that we previously had a life outside four walls. Following its reopening and in response to the spiritual scars left by COVID-19, The Mandrake, a boutique hotel a skip away from Soho, has designed a ‘Soul Reset’ programme. Curated to help redress and rebalance after unprecedented stress, guests can meditate, practice yoga, take gong baths and even drink sacred cacao from Central American jungles. Surrounded by walls of jasmine and passionflower, simply sitting in the hotel’s outdoor areas, basking in the sun, or perusing their art collection of Salvador Dali and Francesco Clemente, would be enough to soothe the soul.

Port caught up The Mandrake to discuss their wellness programme, artist residencies and why London is the place to be. 

What sets The Mandrake apart?

At The Mandrake, we believe that the art and design, award-winning outdoor spaces and the balance between the darkness (the pursuit of pleasure) and the light (our search for inner wellbeing) is what sets us apart.

What are some of the best local attractions around the hotel? Why is London a good city to put roots down?

The Mandrake is a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, Soho and many other local tourist attractions. London has it all, something for everyone. So many people feel the need to escape but don’t realise what they have at their fingertips. We have so many cultural attractions, festivals, cuisines, wellbeing locations, nature in the city, making it all pretty limitless.

Can you tell me a little bit about your Artist in Residence (AiR) programme and some memorable residencies?

The Mandrake’s Artist in Residence programme (AiR) strives to provide an interactive playground, where artists and visitors interact in the hotel to create original, unique, provocative, and live works of art. Hotel guests and visitors witness close-hand the creative process of our artists and are often part of the work itself, becoming an essential element of the photo, tattoo, painting, mural, or music that is created at The Mandrake. Some of our most memorable residencies were Mark Mahoney, legendary tattoo artist to the stars, who had Shamrock Social Club recreated in our Studio 5. Furthermore, artist Peter John de Villiers would invite guests into the studio and create artwork on guests’ trainers, tote bags and mobile phones to take away with them as a keepsake from their stay.

Why have you launched a spiritual wellness programme following lockdown?

Spiritual wellbeing has always been paramount to The Mandrake, we believe the soul should be just as nourished as the mind and body. During lockdown, our founder had an epiphany – The Mandrake needed to meet the needs of our transformational society with even more wellbeing offerings. We know that now, more than ever, we should offer a place to heal as we all carry the scars from the time just passed. We have realised what we place the most value on; the pursuit of wellbeing is just as important as that of pleasure.

What does it entail?

Not only are we expanding our spiritual wellbeing offering, with more sessions and even a retreat, but we return to the city with our unique ideology. A wellbeing and cultural collaboration that combines music, art and spirituality as only The Mandrake can.

What does an ideal dish and drink look like at Jurema and YOPO?

It’s hard to say which dish is a pure favourite. The menu created by executive chef George Scott-Toft, includes dishes such as Empanadas and Ceviches as well as snacks. At the bar, Jurema’s new cocktail menu will feature bold flavours and exciting libations. The Jasmine is the ultimate summer spritz, combining Veuve Clicquot yellow label brut, St Germain elderflower, Muyu jasmine, Acqua di Cedro and lavender.

themandrake.com