Mind to Menu: Gary Foulkes’ tuna tartare with avocado, wasabi and shiso

Mind to menu: Gary Foulkes’ tuna tartare

by Pete Dreyer 6 December 2017

In 2011, Gary Foulkes left his job as sous chef at The Square to embark on a three-year odyssey around the world. His tuna tartare dish takes unusual ingredients discovered in Japan and balances them with expert precision to create something unique and beautiful.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of a tuna tartare by now, but it’s not as old as its surname might suggest. Steak tartare can be traced back at least as far as the early twentieth century, but tuna tartare is very much a child of the eighties – allegedly the invention of Japanese-born, French-trained chef Shigefumi Tachibe, who rustled one up on the spot at his Beverly Hills brasserie when a table of six turned their noses up at the prospect of raw beef. The dish caught on like wildfire, and it has become a staple of restaurant menus ever since. In many ways, tuna tartare has become a benchmark for accomplished chefs – a good tartare requires a delicate touch, an expert palate and a real respect and appreciation for quality produce.

Judging by the quality of his tuna tartare, Gary Foulkes is certainly one of those chefs. His food at Angler doesn’t shy away from bold, luxurious flavours, but his cooking remains light on the palate and beautifully balanced. Gary was born in Merseyside, but like Shigefumi, his food is an intriguing blend of classical French and global influences – a result of his time at restaurants like The Square and Aubergine, and a three-year trip that changed his life. ‘I'd been working in kitchens since I was sixteen,’ he explains, ‘and sure, you work in different kitchens, but you get to a point where your learning stagnates. I went travelling with my wife for three years and I found this new enthusiasm for everything because I was seeing so many different ingredients and different ways of doing things. It had a real impact on me, not just as a chef, but as a person.’

Gary returned to The Square and spent three years as head chef at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant before striking out on his own at Angler. The tuna tartare on his menu takes inspiration from his time in Japan – a country that completely changed his outlook on food.

‘I think the respect for ingredients and the quality of produce is what hit me the most,’ he says of Japan. ‘You see all this amazing fish and seafood in the markets, but also, you know that it’s going to be treated properly by whoever buys it. When you go into restaurants, everything is immaculate. Chefs always have perfectly sharp knives. That respect for ingredients is one of the hardest things to drill into young chefs, I think.’

Among the wasabi farms, fish markets and ramen stalls Gary visited in Japan, it was a stop at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo that inspired his tartare dish at Angler. ‘We got there early for the tuna auction,’ says Gary. ‘They had these massive tunas; everyone’s bidding for them. These things are enormous! It’s like being in the city when they’re brokering a deal, all these people are going mad – it’s like Wolf of Wall Street. They have little sushi and sashimi restaurants around the market, so we went and had breakfast. We had tuna loin, served with a little bit of wasabi – they grate the wasabi root on a sharkskin grater and leave it to sit for a couple of minutes so it reaches its full point of taste and flavour. It's mind-blowing. The next dish was tuna again, but this time with shiso and white soy. That's where I got the idea from originally – the flavours work together so beautifully.’

Dōtombori in Osaka is famous for restaurants that serve delicacies like king crab and the infamous fugu, or pufferfish
The tuna auctions at Tsukiji fish market are iconic, with the best tunas selling for upwards of $500,000

The foundation of Gary’s tuna tartare is of course the tuna, and though freshness and quality are still paramount, sustainability is also a huge factor. Bluefin tuna are hugely coveted for sushi and sashimi in Japan. As a result, they are still seriously endangered, so Gary uses yellowfin tuna, which is much more plentiful.

The amount of tuna we go through here, I don’t think there are enough bluefin tuna left in the sea for us to start using it!’ he laughs. ‘From a sustainability point of view, I don’t think it’s right to be using something that’s endangered, so we use yellowfin tuna because it’s more sustainable and still a really high quality product.’

Through that, Gary mixes purple shiso vinegar and white soy sauce. Purple shiso is a unique, aromatic herb – part of the perilla family – that is commonly used in Japanese cooking, famously to add a vivid scarlet hue to umeboshi plums. Gary uses shiso vinegar to give the tuna a nice herbaceous acidity, which is offset by the delicate nature of the white soy. ‘White soy isn’t as harsh as your traditional soy sauce,’ he says. ‘It has a higher wheat-to-soy ratio, so it’s a little lighter in colour and flavour but still gives you that umami hit without being overpowering.’ The white soy also seasons the fish without curing it and drawing out moisture, as salt would do.

On top, little dots of avocado purée have a little hit of wasabi hidden within, and a flourish of shiso cress ties everything together. ‘I think avocado is delicious with tuna,’ he says. ‘It’s not a Japanese thing, but I really like that combination – and avocado is delicious with wasabi too. It’s a combination of things I’ve seen and things I like to eat!’ If a pilgrimage to the tuna auctions of Tokyo seems a little out of reach, a trip up to Angler is definitely the next best thing.