Do you remember your first burger as well as Yianni, founder and now Creative Director at MEATliquor, does?
"I was around 5 at the time, coming back from nursery. I remember specifically being really excited because we stopped off at Streatham McDonald's, and my mum let me go in and order a Big Mac and a root beer for the first time. As far as I was concerned, I'd eaten a whole Big Mac and I'd drunk my first root beer, therefore I was a man."
As we discovered when we sat down for a Dead Hippie and a real beer, that first taste of burger-y brilliance is just one of Yianni's many unique early food memories, and the first step in the development of the culinary icon that became MEATliquor.
"You would put your arm in a hole and wait for the tentacles to grab you…"
"When I was very young, I used to go on holiday with my parents to Greece. We would go fishing for octopus. As a kid you would scamper around the rock pools, put your arm into a hole, wait for the tentacles to grab you and then pull it out and bash it on a rock until it foams to tenderise it. It's hard work."
Pretty agricultural, we're sure you'll agree. When he wasn't scouring the beaches, Yianni was getting his first taste of the high life. "We went to a restaurant on top of the hotel, and I saw lobster for the first time, tried it for the first time and loved it. My parents were distraught, because obviously it's bloody expensive!"
Those two stories serve as a good analogy for the MEATliquor philosophy. They're pragmatic in approach, going the extra mile for every ingredient, while aiming to provide an eating experience as memorable as Yianni's first bite of lobster. There's a commitment to making sure that every dish they serve is amazing, so far ahead of the competition, that it's capable of filling a similar slot in every customer's memory.
"There was so much food out there that we wanted to enjoy, but it was never good enough."
"Every time you take a shortcut, it diminishes the quality no matter how small that shortcut is. We chop every onion at every site, we make all the sauces from scratch on every site and it has to be like that. It's a very labour intensive process but it's the only way to get a really high quality and consistent product. The whole reason we started MEATliquor was because there was so much food out there that we wanted to enjoy, but it was never good enough."
It's little surprise that a kid who was willing to put in twenty minutes of vigorous bashing to enjoy his octopus would turn out to be so meticulous as a chef. There's no better example of that approach than the way MEATliquor source their (you may have seen this one coming) meat.
"Pure beef. No filler."
"We work very closely with our butchers. The meat is aged for us, it's trimmed, cut and minced to our exact specifications. Then it's delivered individually to each restaurant, where the burgers are handmade as they are ordered by the customer. Every burger is made onsite in every restaurant, there's no central production unit, and it's just pure beef, no filler."
Yianni's passion is infectious, and before you know it we're asking how we can make a burger just like his: "The basic cut would be chuck steak, it's 80% meat and 20% fat – which is the ratio you want. If you want to make a couple of burgers at home go to your butcher and ask for coarsely ground chuck steak – make sure you use it quickly, too. If you let it sit minced for too long it won't hold itself together."
Burger wisdom imparted, talk turns to a surprising top-seller: chicken. "Although we're very well known for our burgers, chicken is very important to us – in some places we actually sell more chicken." Interestingly, there's a chicken burger that inspired a protest that even a Pepsi-wielding Kendall Jenner couldn't have prevented.
"There was a protest… to bring back the Tower Block Burger."
"The Tower Block burger started off at CHICKENliquor in Brixton, it's an homage to a very popular burger you get in chicken shops. Again, it was something I'd always wanted to like, but didn't. So we put it on the menu for a while, and when we decided to take it off there was a protest. They plastered the entire front of the building, the shutters and everything, with Bring back the Tower Block Burger posters. So we brought it back and it's been flying out ever since."
Speaking of surprising menu items, the veggie section of MEATliquor's menu may be titled 'Rabbit food', but don't let that fool you – Yianni is a big fan of healthy eating. "When I'm cooking for myself I'd say it's almost all vegetarian. I eat so much meat going around for work, that it's the only way I can avoid being morbidly obese."
What keeps people coming back again and again?
The hero here is The Greek salad, inspired by memories of his aunt's salad. "She never had a recipe so to speak. It's a Northern Greek salad. We use Greek feta, which we have brought over, as a garnish, but then it's also integrated into the dressing as well, which is really essential." That dressing, as with all of the other sauces, is freshly made on site – and Yianni sees that as one of the main reasons that people come back to MEATliquor again and again.
Take their famous buffalo wings: "We make our own buffalo sauce from scratch basically, and again it's something that people come back to. There's so many buffalo wings out there, but I think ours stand out because we put a hell of a lot of care and time into it. We don't just use off the shelf bottles of sauce, which would be very easy to do, but again it would just taste like everything else. We like a little bit of extra zing and fire in ours."
So, if you're in Canary Wharf, working late and jonesing for some comfort food to get you through the evening, what would Yianni recommend? No hesitation there, and some advice we would all do well to remember. "I would go for wings, because you can share them and you'll always be popular in the office if you share your wings."
If your mouth is watering for some MEATliquor, place an order on Deliveroo and we'll bring it to you faster than you can tenderise an octopus.