Ioannis Grammenos knows a thing or two about steak. With two decades of experience cooking meat and a career spent travelling the world in search of the best ingredients, the executive chef at London’s Heliot Steakhouse has positioned himself as the world’s first “Meatologist”.
Back home in Greece, where he has often appeared on television, Ioannis is something of a celebrity chef. Here in London however, Ioannis manages dozens of cooks running three restaurants at Leicester Square’s Hippodrome Casino. Of the three, the jewel in the proverbial crown is undoubtedly Heliot Steakhouse, which specialises in USDA prime steak.
In addition to regular classes on the art of cooking a perfect steak, Ioannis now also runs Steak Club. A supper club with a different regional theme each month, I found myself at the iteration which focuses on the best of British. So what makes British beef special?
“The people,” Ioannis explains. “The people and how they treat the animals and how they raise them - they make the meat special.” For Ioannis, the origin of the meat is of utmost importance. “All my life I was working with animals, with livestock,” he tells me. “How to butcher them, how to prepare them, how to protect them. And all the 21 years of my experience in the kitchen, I was always on the grill.”
On this particular night, these years of experience culminated in one pivotal moment - the arrival of the first dish. Seated at the table with around a dozen other people in a private room, we couldn’t help but first notice the interesting decor. There were enough happy cows on the table to make even the most carnivorous glutton feel a tad guilty. However, it did make for a welcome departure from the machismo and masculinity often associated with steakhouses.
The first course consisted of an Aberdeen Angus filet mignon with a scotch egg and whisky sauce. Akin to the confidence of denying diners salt and pepper, we were never asked how we wanted any of the steaks cooked. However, seared on the outside and beautifully pink and tender on the inside, I could not have been happier.
A high-quality filet mignon, the meat flakes apart from itself meaning even a fork and spoon would make light work of it. Meanwhile, the scotch egg was equally succulent and flavoursome - making this a very promising start to the meal.
Next was the sirloin. This perfectly cooked and beautifully moist slice of roast beef was a far cry from the mediocre pub lunches known for peddling similar attempts. The secret, or at least one of them, is where the meat is sourced from.
“Tom Hixon is a fourth-generation butcher and they know about meat,” Ioannis explains. “I trust them because they always bring the best quality of meat. I’ve been partnered with them for about six years now, over here at Heliot. It’s the only butcher where you can get any meat you want from around the world.”
However, much of what is on Ioannis’ menus comes from his own discoveries rather than suggestions from suppliers: “Steak Club is based on my travels, so when I travel and I like a piece of meat, I bring it to Steak Club and I want to share it with people.”
The next course was Welsh milk-fed leg of lamb. Ioannis explains that he was recently in Wales when the constant bleating of lambs near to where he was staying drew him to a particular farm. Meeting the farmer, he learned more about how the lambs are reared and looked after before deciding that this was a farm with which he wanted to partner.
Indeed, Ioannis’ love of food is deep-rooted. “It was a small farm with a few animals - livestock for the family,” he recalls of his childhood home in Greece. “So a few cows, a few goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys. Just for the family to pass the winter.”
“I still remember going and actually bringing fresh milk from the cow every morning to the table,” he explains. “It was hot and we'd have our fresh bread that my grandma used to make in the oven. So I grew up with my family who really, really respect food. And they taught me and passed on all the traditions on how to be a chef and a cook - on quality, ingredients and also how to find the best of what is around you.”
Back in present-day London, the lamb, with a lightly spiced sauce and the extremely welcome addition of “ratatouille caviar”, now had all the more pertinence. The meat was cut from the leg in front of us and ceremoniously mixed with the sauce before being plated and served. As for its origins, knowing about Ioannis’ childhood makes his innate curiosity when it comes to food seem all the more sensible.
Fittingly, there is a humility - a certain sense of being sensible - which runs throughout Heliot. For instance, Ioannis has been dry ageing a cut of beef for two years. Some restaurants, he explains, would sell a 24-month dry aged steak for £700. Furthermore, with a figure like this on the menu, it would probably generate some news coverage. But that’s not what Heliot is about. For Ioannis, this is an experiment. Though long, he enjoys the process and would sooner share the outcome with people - perhaps putting it on the menu of a future Steak Club - than sell such an absurdly expensive steak.
Having said that, the restaurant’s menus are more exciting than spartan. There is still a bit of grandeur at Heliot and it’s not without the theatre (one of their desserts arrives in a plume of smoke) that is associated with fine dining.
Next up was the slow roasted Irish hereford rib eye. By adding it in small yet flavoursome increments, I allowed my mind to be changed on bone marrow. In a rich, sweet gravy reminiscent of a jus, this steak packed a punch in the flavour department.
Clearly, Steak Club is not just about meat. Ioannis’ penchant for ingredients fine, fresh and foraged, again, goes back to his childhood. “With my grandpa, we went to the forest picking up mushrooms, wild herbs and wild garlic,” he recalls. “My other grandpa taught me all about the animals - how to feed them, how to choose the best food for them and how to treat them. My grandmas - one of them was from Corfu so taught me about light food and the aromas of lemon, of lemon thyme, wild thyme, capers… My other grandmother was from the north of Greece, so she taught me all about pies and how to preserve the food. And my mum taught me the quality.”
The social aspect of the evening adds another dimension to the experience. “You need to get the right people,” Ioannis admits. However, with the right combination of playfulness and respect of the craft, the vibe is spot on. There is just the right amount of kickback, for instance, when we are told that Britain is far from the best country to source steak from. What’s more, being in a casino, you are likely to meet some of their high rollers. This, at the very least, is an education.
Finishing with a beautifully sweet Baileys chocolate mousse, we reflected on the evening. Steak, though seen as something traditional and unyielding, had been highlighted as both varied and versatile. Furthermore, many of its associated codes and customs - such as pairing it with red wine rather than white - had been shown to be superfluous. Most importantly, with a genuine respect for the meat, the animal and the process of rearing cattle, Ioannis had convinced me that quality really is everything.
Steak Club at Heliot Steakhouse runs monthly. Tickets cost £75 ($95) per person including wine pairings