The Michelin-starred McMuffin...
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Jeremy Chan is one of Britain’s most cerebral and creative chefs. His two-Michelin-starred restaurant Ikoyi in London is home to meticulous plates of food that push at the boundaries of spice-led gastronomy. So it comes as a surprise that his new book Ikoyi (Phaidon), based on the restaurant’s tasting menus, includes a dish inspired by McDonald’s sausage and egg McMuffin. “It’s a bit of a curveball,” admits Chan. “But I grew up on McDonald’s. It’s part of [my] childhood nostalgia. And while I’m ambitious as a chef and have artistic goals, I think McDonald’s breakfast sandwich expresses something honest about what we find delicious.” The brigade at Ikoyi eats it all the time, too. “Ours is a serious kitchen,” Chan explains. “We cook exquisite food that is organic, nutritious and labour-intensive. Then at the end of the week, we binge on McDonald’s. It’s a release, a contrast, instant gratification. There’s an element of team bonding to it, too. Everyone likes junk food. I don’t think chefs are any different.”
His “breakfast sandwich” landed on the menu briefly in 2020, after the first lockdown. “I wanted to cheer people up,” Chan recalls. A typically complex rendition, it features a white pepper sausage patty made from aged Mangalitza pork, a taleggio omelette in place of the steamed egg, a Guinness- and beef stock-infused cheese slice and milk-bread rolls with a crunchy glaze. “I wanted to celebrate the artificiality of the fast-food breakfast sandwich by exaggerating each of the components that I’d come to love,” Chan notes in the recipe.
Chan isn’t the only one paying homage to his junk food favourites. A generation of cooks who grew up attending birthday parties hosted by the Hamburglar and forging friendships over buckets of KFC are serving up their own playful iterations. Take the campanelle pasta at Manteca in Shoreditch. “We make a ragu using beef with soy, shiro-dashi and black garlic,” says chef and co-founder Chris Leach. “When the pasta is added, we toss with lettuce and finish with parmesan and a drizzle of remoulade, which contains dill, garlic and cornichons. Some people love getting the flavours of a Big Mac in a pasta. Some are horrified there’s mayonnaise on their pasta, but you can’t please everyone all the time.”
The reference points are clearer at Open Market, a cult neighbourhood store in Koreatown in Los Angeles. Its chefs Andrew Marco and Ralph Hsiao bonded over their shared love of McDonald’s. Their sandwich specials have included the “McMarket McChicken” featuring fried jidori chicken, lettuce and kewpie mayo, and the “What She Order Fish Filet” inspired by McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish and using halibut, tartare, cheddar and pickles. Served during Lent, the latter sandwich proved so popular that one customer proclaimed: “Ya’ll are doing God’s work.”
Informally known as the “Big Mac bao”, the beef shortrib bao at London Taiwanese chain Bao uses prime fare beef rib from Philip Warren & Son butchers in Cornwall. “When you eat McDonald’s, it’s a guilty pleasure as you know it’s not healthy, but you take the pleasure,” reasons co-founder Erchen Chang. “When you have those flavours elevated with great produce, there’s nothing guilty about it.” Among other homages, the fish black bao at the King’s Cross branch was originally inspired by the Filet-o-Fish. The team also tried and failed to replicate McDonald’s sweet and sour sauce, which Chang regards as the fast-food chain’s “work of art”.
At Bonnie’s in Brooklyn, the cha siu McRib has become its best seller. A Cantonese riff on the McRib, the dish promises one-third of a rack of cha siu-glazed ribs with bread and butter pickles, onion and Chinese hot mustard in a sesame milk bun. It speaks to the second-gen outlook of its chef owner Calvin Eng, who was raised in a Cantonese household in Bay Ridge. “I grew up on fast food,” he says. “It will always have a place in my heart.” Its “McBonnie’s” takeaway menu also nods to the style of Happy Meals.
Australian-Indonesian cook Lara Lee drew on one of McDonald’s desserts for a recipe in her new book A Splash of Soy (Bloomsbury). “My tamarind spiced pineapple pie started out as a tarte tatin,” she explains. “But the pastry turned out soggy.” It was only when she modelled the dessert after McDonald’s apple pie with its “gooey, cinnamon-spiked apple encased in crispy pastry” that the dish worked – underlining both the nostalgic appeal and functional artistry of the original.
It’s not all about replicating US fast food favourites, though. The high-street curry house and chip shop are also inspirations. “I grew up eating ‘authentic’ Punjabi curries in Leicester, just as much as ‘inauthentic’ curry house Tikka Masalas,” says Punjabi-British cook Gurdeep Loyal, whose book Mother Tongue (4th Estate) exemplifies his embrace of third-culture cooking and hybrid flavours. “I’ve been pulled towards ‘curry’ in all its guises ever since. Chip-shop curry sauce was a Friday-night staple throughout my childhood, as were German currywursts I encountered in my 20s thanks to weekends spent clubbing in Berlin. They taste nothing alike, and nothing like any curry I ate at home – yet my life story is rooted to them all in different ways.”
And that’s the point. These junk-food upgrades go to the heart of who a chef is. “Instead of trying to cook something that doesn’t relate to who we are,” argues Jeremy Chan, “the key to making delicious food is cooking something that is honest and truthful to our experience and everyday life.” Junk food is a first love that needn’t be forsaken.
The Bao ‘Big Mac’
For the braised short ribs
500g bone-in beef short ribs
1 tsp salt
3 cloves garlic
50g doubanjiang (fermented chilli bean paste – you can find this in Chinese supermarkets)
1 bunch spring onions, roots trimmed
25g chilli powder
Soy cured egg
5 eggs, separated
150ml soy sauce
150ml mirin (sweet rice wine)
5 steamed gua bao buns (available from the Bao Convni store at baolondon.com)
• Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Season the short ribs with the salt and put into a flameproof casserole dish with the whole cloves of garlic. Place in the oven for 15–20 minutes until browned, then remove and cover the ribs with water. Add the honey, doubanjiang, whole spring onions and chilli powder. Put the lid on the dish, turn down the oven to 150°C/gas mark 2 and cook for three hours.
• Remove the short ribs from the braising liquid, reserving the liquid, and shred the meat from the bones. To make the short rib sauce, reduce the braising liquid down to half, then pass through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean saucepan.
• When ready to serve, add the meat to the short rib sauce and warm over a medium heat. You don’t want to cook the meat further, so as soon as it is warmed through, take it off the heat.
• For the soy-cured egg, mix together the soy and mirin in a small bowl, then carefully lower in the egg yolks and leave to cure for 10 minutes.
• While you let the egg cure and reheat the beef, steam your gua baos for 10 minutes on high heat. Open a bao and put a slice of gherkin on the bottom, then top with 1 tbsp of the crispy shallots. Add 50g of the short rib and spoon one soy-cured egg carefully into the middle of the short rib. Repeat with the remaining bao and fillings.