If you know meat, you know Richard H Turner. The man responsible for a resurgence in full-flavour, flesh-driven menus – he has led teams behind some of London’s most beloved carnivore institutions, including Hawksmoor, Pitt Cue Co and Foxlow – Turner takes the best parts of the beast and throws it into the fire. He then stakes it to a board and ensures that the smell of smoky, charcoal-licked meat arrives at your table before your meal does. It’s this hands-on approach that has made his name, but Turner has more strings to his bow than just knowing how to treat great steak.
To know what drives him, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning. Turner started at the opposite end of the culinary spectrum, making magic behind the scenes at such silver-service spots as Michel Roux’s Le Gavroche and alongside other big names that include Marco Pierre White and Alain Ducasse. Time in such Michelin-starred setups had a sense of familiarity to ex-army-man Turner, who is quick to compare the kitchen with his time in uniform.
“It’s very disciplined, lots of people shouting at you,” he says. In fact, it took a meal at chef Fergus Henderson’s restaurant (Henderson is known for his nose-to-tail cooking in the foodie universe) and a morning-after epiphany to redirect Turner’s cooking radar.
“It was only when I ate Fergus’s food in London that I started to think maybe the way I was cooking wasn’t what I wanted to eat, so why cook it?” Turner says, matter-of-factly. “I woke up one morning after Fergus’s food and just thought, ‘Right, that’s it – I want to cook simpler food.’”
The Albion pub in London’s leafy Islington was the result. Turner quickly made a name for himself as a man who knew meat, which soon led to his Hawksmoor gig and a bigger platform to showcase the new live-fire cooking style with which he’d become associated. Of that “meat man” epithet, Turner is quick to say, “I’m not really a meat chef, I’m just a cook; I’ll cook anything. But it stuck, and over the years I’ve cooked more and more meat, and then Hawksmoor came about.”
It’s little wonder, then, that Turner made his way over to Hong Kong to share a kitchen with Rhoda’s culinary director and excecutive chef Nate Green, having created a one-off, two-nights-only menu filled with big, bold dishes that pay homage to the duo’s complementary cooking styles. That Green and Turner have manned the grills together before is evident in the way their dishes work over the nine courses, and more so in their total ease with each other – the night I finally leave my seat in the restaurant they’re sharing a drink at the bar and talking shop.
So what did it take for London’s self-styled “ethical carnivore” to come cooking in Sai Ying Pun? “I have a policy of saying yes to almost everything. Life is short, so just do stuff and see what happens.” Turner reasons. “Nate emailed me and said, ‘Would you like to come and cook at Rhoda?’ so I only had to check my diary, make sure I could do it, and then it was a yes.”
It was certainly Hong Kong’s gain. The nine-course menu gave an impressive nod to all things animal, with courses divided between the two chefs. “We’re melding two styles, bringing two menus together to create a ‘super menu,’” Turner shares, with a wry smile. From braised wild Hereford short rib on toast to tomahawk steak and mashed potato with trotter, this was unabashedly artery-clogging stuff, and yes it was worth it.
Was it the nose-to-tail cooking that Henderson pioneers and turned Turner down his current path? Not quite. Scallops and oysters made an appearance, although Turner adds that he supports making the most of everything on offer once an animal has been slaughtered. “I think we should be eating every part of it. I’m also a butcher so I think we’re too focused on prime ingredients all the time, and there’s a lot of the animal left over that we should be using.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking that Turner sees meat as the sole star of every dish. It’s unique to hear a chef who has found his name so strongly associated with steak and fire to profess his interest in vegetables. But for Turner, it’s an obvious one.
“Meat is for now, but things are changing. In the future, I think we should be eating less meat but of a higher quality. Meat will be a part of a dish and vegetables will start to star more. I think that’s what is happening in London and what is going to happen around the world. As prices of meat go up …” he pauses. “Although in Hong Kong everything’s so expensive it probably won’t show!”
Fair point. One aspect on which there’s no change is his focus on the produce he sources and the way it’s treated when it comes into the kitchen. “I like food to be simpler than most chefs [do],” says Turner. “I’m not a fan of ‘clever’ cooking. Lots of chef’s overwork stuff, they add too many sauces, too many flavours for me. If you’re going to spend a lot of money on an ingredient then just keep it very simple, lightly season and flavour it.”
It’s this philosophy that Turner pushes at the London Meatopia meat and BBQ festival (he brought the cult affair over from the shores of the US in 2013). Another focus of the event – aside from celebrating and sharing the best meaty treats, local ales and fine wines with an army of visitors – is welcoming people from all walks of life and introducing them to the pleasures of cooking on fire. As much as anything, that means women.
“We actively try to get women to that festival, and it’s not easy because there aren’t many cooking.” Turner says. His reasons for why women are less likely to be in the kitchen? “It’s not so bad now, but it didn’t used to be a very pleasant environment. Quite brutal, so you’ve got to be pretty tough to survive it. I think a lot of girls fell by the wayside … it was too sexist, too nasty.”
Turner remains adamant that women bring a unique quality to the kitchen. “Women cook differently from men. And I like that touch in cookery, people like April Bloomfield, Elizabeth Haigh in London. You know, I can tell their cooking when I eat it. It’s just about getting them in.”
The release of several mighty cooking tomes will have certainly helped those less confident bring some proper fire and flair to mealtimes. Again, Turner credits his inability to say no to the reason he has authored four books to date. And of course, he currently has the offer of another.
“I haven’t got a subject for it. I’m thinking vegetables. Because I’ve started growing stuff and farming: urban farming. I’m also looking at a farm down in Cornwall, so maybe vegetables. If not, fish. One of my next projects I’m doing is fish; I’m doing it with one of the top fish chefs in the country.”
Meat. Fish. Vegetables. Richard H Turner isn’t done yet.