This is What Happens When Momofuku Takes Over the London Restaurant Hibiscus

by Allan Jenkins

A glimpse into the London edition of the Gelinaz Shuffle!, the night during which 38 chefs around the world swapped kitchens, from Observer Food Monthly editor Allan Jenkins.

It started innocently enough, eating ruined wagyu beef in an Australian airport hotel at the end of last year. Would you be our UK ambassador for the Shuffle, asked Gelinaz’s Andy Petrini? I said yes, of course. Anything for him. How hard could it be? It’s a food thing not negotiating hostages or the ending of a war. And now it is over. Chef Sean Gray and his wing man Max Ng have returned to New York to the sheltering bosom of David Chang and Momofuku Ko.

First, of course, they conquered London. Something not many have done. Maybe it was the cured mackerel served with a dashi dressing, cucumber jelly, fresh almonds, borage and cucumber flower. Maybe it was about more than food (though I will carry the memory of the snail dish with coco beans for a very long time). Gelinaz Shuffle seemed to me, at least here in London’s unlikely Mayfair, to be about osmosis, an exchange of flavors and ideas as much as about the movement of chefs. Stellar names though many are.

I saw Sean and Max digest London from their first taste on their first day of black pudding at St John Bread and Wine. They absorbed The Ledbury, Dinner by Heston, The Clove Club and Lyles (if all else fails in my career I could try out as a concierge). Most of all they ate at Hibiscus. I saw Sean’s eyes focus as he concentrated on Claude Bosi’s menu, fork in one hand, notebook in the other. I saw his Gelinaz Shuffle dishes take shape. Scottish langoustine was spiked with Sichuan pepper; peas with a shiso meringue. It wasn’t Momofuko Ko, it wasn’t New York, it was an international meeting of minds: American chefs with Asian influences cooking in a posh French place in London. There were obstacles of course to be overcome. Traffic was shut down on the day of the Shuffle as the Tube went on all-out strike. Nothing though that couldn’t be fixed with the help of Francesco, head chef at Hibiscus, or Max Ng.

Sean’s dishes on the night were close to sublime, the regular Hibiscus teams supportive, the service smooth and faultless as you’d expect in a Michlin two-star establishment. But that wasn’t why it was the best joint to eat in London that night. It was because Sean Alex Gray had fearlessly flown his flag for New York. He had listened and learned, he’d prepped and practised, he served a accomplished menu with heart. It was an inspiring meal as much as delicious. The room was buzzing and so was Sean.

He came, he saw, he conquered, as Shakepeare once said. He was a soldier. So was Max. I was glad to be his Guardian angel. Now, if only the burnt Melbourne beef was a 10th as good as Sean’s veal.