Maison Bab: creating the ultimate kebab

by Tom Shingler11 January 2019

Bread, meat, pickle, sauce – on the surface a kebab might seem like a simple thing, but at Maison Bab they’re pushing this beloved dish into new gourmet territory. Tom Shingler talks to head chef Manu Canales to discover how he’s using his classical French training to bring something new to the poster boy of Turkish cuisine.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

I really, really like kebabs. From the dirty, late-night, probably ecoli-ridden, elephant leg doners of my teenage years to the more traditional authentic Turkish skewers and shishes I now indulge in whenever I get the chance, if there’s some spiced meat stuffed inside a flatbread I’m there. It’s something about the way all the elements come together in every mouthful – rich meat, tart pickles, crisp salad and a combination of hot and creamy sauces – that just makes them such a joy to eat. In my eyes, they beat sandwiches and burgers any day.

That’s why I was particularly excited to talk to Manu Canales of Maison Bab – a new two-storey restaurant in Covent Garden specialising in the Middle Eastern delicacy. I was interested to see his take on the dish, especially considering his background. Originally from rural Spain, he studied biology at university before moving to Ireland after the recession hit in 2008. A job as a kitchen porter followed, he caught the cooking bug and, after completing a course at culinary college, he managed to get a job as a commis chef at Le Gavroche. It was here that he met fellow chef Ed Brunet and his close friend Stephen Tozer, and the three of them started selling kebabs on the street food circuit. Quite a unique way to end up selling something often regarded as post-drinking fodder.

‘I’d spent a little time working on a few food markets with Ed, and he and Stephen asked if I wanted to come on board,’ says Manu. ‘I loved getting a good classical grounding at Le Gavroche, but once I had that I wanted to do something that I really enjoyed. Spices and Middle Eastern cooking has always been what I’ve been most attracted to, and ever since I visited Istanbul I’ve loved kebabs.’

Manu Canales left a position as junior sous chef at Le Gavroche to open Le Bab and Maison Bab with co-founders Stephen Tozer and Ed Brunet
Maison Bab has been open since September 2018 – a huge space across two floors in Covent Garden

Maison Bab has been a good few years in the making – Manu, Ed and Stephen first started out as a street food stand, before opening their first bricks-and-mortar kebab shop Le Bab in Kingly Court, Soho. Maison Bab, which opened in September 2018, is much, much bigger, with a cavernous dining room built around an open kitchen, as well as a basement area. It’s a sign that the trio have found their groove in the world of kebab-making, becoming more confident in what they offer compared to the more archaic dishes from when they first started out.

‘At the beginning we were much more experimental, thinking that if you put something grilled inside some bread it was a kebab,’ says Manu. ‘Nowadays we’ve got a much better idea of what we’re doing, and the kebabs follow a much more classical, authentic format. There’s always great potential to play around with the flavours and ingredients in a kebab, but we don’t want to disrespect the original dish. We just want to do something a little bit different with it.’

All the kebabs at Maison Bab begin with fresh bread, baked in seconds within the rotating oven
The meat is the heart of each kebab, with pork, lamb, mutton and chicken cooked over charcoal in a variety of ways

There are plenty of places in the UK where you could get incredibly good kebabs long before Maison Bab opened – Green Lanes in north London, for instance, is a famous hotspot for incredible Turkish food (and a trip there is a pilgrimage any kebab-lover should definitely make). So how is Manu managing to convince people his new-kid-on-the-block kebabs are just as good? It comes down to his time at Le Gavroche, where he and Ed gained a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of good cooking. Even though they were cooking filet de boeuf rather than lamb Adana, the same dedication to perfection applies to each dish.

‘We make absolutely everything in-house – the bread, the sauces, the pickles,’ explains Manu. ‘We butcher the meat here, too, and all those things are thanks to the classical training we’ve picked up in the past. It’s certainly not just an assembly job; it feels like we are truly cooking and making something. The most important part of the kebab is the meat, which needs to be the very best quality and absolutely full of flavour. Because we cook everything over charcoal it’s actually quite light, as the fat renders and drips down onto the coals, so you need that intense flavour to make up for it. We always try to balance that flavour with a sauce, usually mayonnaise- or yoghurt-based, as that lubricates the whole kebab and binds it all together. It’s really important that you get a little bit of everything with each bite.’

Only the highest quality meat is used for maximum flavour
All the pickles, sauces, dressings and salads are made fresh on the premises, ensuring total control over the final dish

Mincing Herdwick lamb on-site, using top-quality free-range chicken and making the most of meat like mutton already puts Manu’s creations head and shoulders above the majority of other kebabs. The mayonnaises are flavoured with everything from Kashmiri chillies to chermoula, while the skin-on fries can be bolstered by a fondue and/or Iskender sauce – a famously rich combination of tomato and butter from Turkey. Then there are the pickles for freshness, the salads for texture and the freshly baked flatbreads. ‘Anything else starts to complicate things, or starts to move away from the essence of what a kebab actually is, so those are usually the only elements you need’ says Manu. ‘We always make sure our spicing isn’t monotonous, though – we create a different blend for lamb, chicken, mutton and pork, and we change them depending on the season and what they’re being served with. We also tweak things like the spices in the pickling liquor and the sauces whenever we’re creating something new.’

Every chef has his or her own way of coming up with new recipes and dish ideas, but Manu’s is pretty unique. ‘First of all I starve myself – my record is forty-eight hours without eating!' he tells me. 'When I’m hungry my brain revs up and I think about food constantly. It’s something I’ve always done, even before I was a chef. I’ll come up with loads of ideas, write them all down and then sleep on it. The next day I can look at what I’ve come up with and start to whittle everything down. Around ninety percent of my ideas don’t make the cut, but the ten percent that does I’ll then cook and give to people for feedback.’

Slightly unorthodox, but judging by the menu at Maison Bab it definitely works – every single thing on there, from the doner beignets and ‘meat butter’ flatbreads to the pork shawarma and barbecued mutton, is absolutely delicious. Dishes evolve and are adapted as the seasons change without straying too far from the traditional idea of what a Turkish kebab is. It’s an indulgent, affordable, crowd-pleasing hit that ticks all the right boxes – especially for someone who loves kebabs as much as I do. And when Kebab Queen opens – Maison Bab’s tucked away chef's-table-meets-private-dining-room in the basement – Manu will really allow his creativity to run wild. ‘Kebab Queen is going to be a totally different gig,’ he says. ‘I don’t really know what to call it – it’s sort of a mix between a chef’s table and an elaborate tasting menu, but all focused on kebabs. Kebab Queen will give us a chance to get more experimental again and really push the boundaries.’ Frankly, I can’t wait.

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