Pig in the City

30 October 2002 by
Pig in the City

Some chefs get turned on by fish, some have a passion for pastry and others have the hots for meat. Tom Ilić falls fairly and squarely into the last camp: but it's not just meat per se, it's pork in particular.

That's because Ilić, a Serbian by birth and upbringing is still largely influenced and inspired by the ingredients and flavours of his childhood. "In Yugoslavia we eat pig meat and offal. That's where my roots are and what I base most of my menu around. I simply cook them in a modern way. When I first came to the UK, I found the food very bland and boring. I was used to bold flavours and ingredients and that's what I still enjoy," explains the executive head chef of Bonds, the restaurant adjoining Threadneedles hotel in the City of London, which opened in July.

In fact, the Serbians' use of every part of the pig was originally born out of poverty, but the culinary results are often stunning. So, for instance, pig's intestines smoked and stewed with cabbage - admittedly, not your everyday dish on menus in London - is a delicacy back home and a dish that still makes Ilić salivate.

"The wonderful thing about pig is that it's so versatile and you can use every part of the animal - its snout, brain, tongue, cheeks, ears, trotters, everything," he effuses. "The challenge and excitement of being a chef is to show your skill in transforming such raw ingredients into something delicious - for example, to demonstrate to people that pig's head fondant can be wonderful."

Ilić seems to be doing a good job of demonstrating his flair with pig to his audience of City suits. From almost the first day that 85-seater Bonds opened, his starter of braised pigs' cheeks and chorizo with garlic and parsley mash (£8.25) has been the restaurant's best-selling dish.

Likely to be joining it on the à la carte menu in the near future is a recent starter Ilić tried out on the set-lunch menu, which changes weekly: warm salad of pig's tail and frogs' legs, celeriac rémoulade, sauce gribiche. "I'd tried pork with frogs' legs before and liked it, so when my supplier got me some pigs' tails to use, I decided to play around with them and the frogs' legs and I really liked the combination. They complement each other perfectly on the plate," he says.

Despite Ilić's self-confessed pig obsession ("What makes me tick is pig") he has been known to work with other ingredients. Game birds, for instance, are a second love and he plans to introduce numerous game-based dishes to his menus over the coming winter months. "Again I think my passion for game goes back to my roots. In Serbia we hunt everything and cook it. Pheasant is especially popular."

Ilić also likes to work with unusual ingredients. For example, one of his meat suppliers recently offered him a duck breed he was not familiar with, so he tried it, liked it and now presents it as a main course on the à la carte menu: roast breast of Sauvageon duck, endive tarte tatin, vanilla oil (£18.95). "Before my supplier mentioned Sauvageon to me, I'd never heard of it. It's a cross between a mallard and Barbary duck and has a unique flavour. It's a touch gamey, but is more delicate, while its texture is melt-in-the-mouth."

Ilić's enthusiasm for cooking is infectious. It bubbles over continuously in conversational chitchat about his dishes. "I'm enjoying cooking more than ever before," he confesses, and there's no doubt that this renewed love affair with his chosen profession has a lot to do with his new domain. His demeanour is in marked contrast to his mood just 18 months ago, when he felt unable to cook and almost left the country because he was so despondent.

Rave reviews

Ilić had worked as head chef at the New End restaurant in Hampstead between 1999 and 2000, drawing rave reviews from many critics. But he was left "deeply depressed" when it closed because of financial difficulties. He had invested some £15,000 of his own money in the business, which was owned by Greenwood Restaurants, not to mention huge amounts of time and energy.

"I really believed in my brigade and my food at the New End and, when it was over, I couldn't cook. I only had negative energy in the kitchen and thought seriously about moving to Portugal with my family to run a guesthouse in the Algarve," he says (Ilić's wife is Portuguese).

Just as he was about to put these plans into action, however, Ilić got a call from a recruitment agency wanting to send him to a job interview for the restaurant at Threadneedles hotel, which, at the time, was in the early stages of construction. "I wasn't really interested, but thought I might as well go along to the interview. I had nothing to lose," he says.

He was interviewed by Eton Group managing director Peter Tyrie, called back for a second interview - a cook-off - and finally invited to visit the hotel's building site. "Mr Tyrie and I clicked immediately," says Ilić. "Once he'd showed me the site, I started to get excited about the project and get some positive energy again. So, when I was offered the job, I decided to stay in England. It seemed such a terrific opportunity."

Although Ilić began working for Eton Group in June 2001, building hiccups meant the hotel's opening was delayed by 10 months, and it wasn't until 15 July this year that he and his seven-strong brigade began cooking for diners.

Initial reviews of the restaurant by the critics have not been quite as universally effusive as Ilić had become used to at the New End, however. While Time Out, for example, has written three separate positive articles about Bonds, Fay Maschler of London's Evening Standard gave it only her "adequate" rating and was lukewarm about the vegetarian and fish dishes she tried (this in contrast to the two stars she gave Ilić at the New End).

Ilić says that he has "enormous respect" for Maschler, but is concerned about the trend for restaurant reviewers to visit establishments within a few days of them opening. "I think there's huge competition between reviewers these days, so they all rush into a restaurant within the first week or so, before the place is properly up and running and before the kitchen has settled into its stride. It does seem a little unfair to me, and it doesn't necessarily give the true picture of things to the dining-out public," he comments.

That said, Ilić says he's got his fingers crossed that Maschler and the other reviewers will choose to visit again soon, because he is now extremely happy with the food he is producing. "I just hope when she does come, she chooses something piggy."

Tom Ilić: culinary beginnings

Tom Ilić grew up in the town of Kraljevo in Serbia. After completing his compulsory army service in 1988, he decided to come to London on a working holiday to learn English and earn some money.

"I was 18 years old and wanted to see life in another country," he says.

Within two days of arriving, he'd landed a job as a kitchen porter in a restaurant called the Pigeon in Parson's Green, London - something he'd never done before.

"Over the next few months I spent my time pot-washing and peeling potatoes," he says. "And then a new head chef, this Croatian guy, started. He had so much energy and enthusiasm that he inspired me to learn about cooking."

Ili«c watched what the chef, Marjo Kilić (now at Foxtrot Oscar in Battersea) did and offered to help him on his days off.

"Marjo taught me everything: not only about cooking but also about the love of food and the enthusiasm for it," he says. "He's the biggest mentor of my career and I owe him a great deal."

Since those early days in the kitchen, Ilić's career has taken him to a number of London restaurants, including Fulham Road, Stepping Stone and Searcy's at the Barbican.

He says that he has never regretted his youthful decision to come on the working holiday.

"In Yugoslavia, however good you are, it's impossible to succeed because there's so much corruption," he says. "Coming abroad and being given the chance to do something freely is the best thing in the world. I feel very grateful for the opportunity I've been given in the UK."

Stuffed pig's tail, sautéd frogs' legs (serves 4)

Braised pigs' cheeks and chorizo (serves 4)

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