The award winning Scottish chef and restauranteur on sustainability, hard work, and the value of the staff/employer relationship.
My childhood wasn’t idyllic. It wasn’t one where food was about experience and niceties; it was about nutrition. My dad was in the army, so I didn’t really have a childhood where hospitality was a path that myself or any of my brothers and sisters were going to walk down. It was an opportunity to not go to university. It was an opportunity to get out of schooling and get on with some solid work, so I fell in love with the industry after experiencing it rather than dreaming of it.
My time as an apprentice at Gleneagles, a five-star hotel in the highlands in Scotland, was where I was inspired by food and also the culture of the kitchens. I fell in love with the camaraderie, the teamwork, the passion, the fire, the adrenaline, and then my love grew for experiencing food in a different way beyond just nutrition.
About eight years ago, when I opened my first restaurant, sustainability came into the equation – I needed to be able to afford the bills to open up tomorrow. I didn’t fall in love with how things grow and the question understanding where all our food comes from, it came out of a necessity to operate as economically as I could. My first restaurant was a small one. We bought fish from day boats, buying exactly what the fishermen had fished for. We bought whole animals, because butchery skills are very important for me and I wanted to make sure we used every part we could, out of respect for the animal and the farmer. All skills are important to me, to be able to know how to do everything and teach the chefs everything I know. Operating sustainably came into practice when I couldn’t afford to bin anything. It wasn’t about saving the world or being green-fingered, it was about respect of the product and thinking about how to stay open going forward.
I would say that sustainability can be described in one word; tomorrow. The word sustainable can have multiple meanings. How to be sustainable in terms of sourcing or production or people or buildings, or your business. And if you’re sustainable in terms of mentorship and looking out for the future of the industry, you will create wonderful chefs. You should learn a new skill every day, and you should have a mentor; someone that inspires you rather than teaching you something. Someone that pushes you to become better is a mentor. Don’t limit your mentors to one person though, you should be open-minded to everyone who can teach you something.
The way that I think about my business is, first and foremost, how do we teach the staff? You teach them about being respectful, it doesn’t need to be about saving the world. It’s about learning all the skills you can possibly learn. When I say that, I mean whole animals, whole vegetables, nothing portioned, nothing cut, nothing shaped, then cooking sustainably comes naturally. A lot of people chuck that ‘sustainable’ word all around because it’s the word of the moment, but in fact, many of them misunderstand the principles. The thing that I’m seeing nowadays is all these sustainable restaurants are utilising by-products but they have no clue how to utilise the product itself. That’s almost as wasteful as the other way around. You need to understand the foundations of that product first before you can even try and be inspirational and move boundaries. Just because it’s the word of the moment doesn’t mean that you’ve got to bin the prime and look after the waste. They’re utilising waste rather than utilising the products, and that’s stupid.
I’ve never hired a senior member to join my team since the day I opened my restaurant. I’ve always hired young people and promoted from within. So all of my restaurants are run by the same team who’ve worked with me since I opened my first restaurant. They’re the sous chefs and head chefs of all my restaurants now, and we hire based on personality, smile, and real passion for what we do. I lost restaurants in lockdown, and it was so painful because for me the staff are more important than my business, so I had to create a restaurant not out of a love for the stress of opening restaurants, but to find a home for the staff that had dedicated so much of their lives to me. So that’s why I did it. I can’t stress enough: opening restaurants is one of the most stressful, horrible times of your life, and I don’t like particularly doing them, but I do it for the amazing and growing team to give them the opportunity to learn a new skill, to progress, to move forward, and to run under the foundations of what we’ve already created. It means that the ship is not going to get rocked by a storm, instead they’re going to know how to get out of a situation. They’re going to know how I like to operate, they’re going to know the style and process, but then they have the opportunity for their personality to shine through and show their individuality. If I don’t promote from within I’ll lose that wonderful talent.
I prefer apprenticeship paths to university. There’s nothing like learning on the job, rather than sitting in a classroom where you can joke and play around and not absorb what you’re being taught. I prefer being in a kitchen and I don’t tolerate wastefulness in terms of time. Your time is important. Don’t waste it. What’s the difference between wasting time and wasting a product? Both are dangerous to your future. You need to build up your foundations first. For aspiring young chefs, I would say this; find a chef you get really inspired by, be it the food that they cook, the lifestyle they have, or the ethos they represent – it could be one small thing that sparks you. Go into their restaurant, ideally when it’s not in service, and stay there until you get offered an interview. Pester the life out of them. Because if someone is really hungry, a chef will see that and even if they don’t have a position open, they will make one available because you’re hungry as hell. Passion is priceless.
For me, inspiration, motivation, knowledge, those are the three things that keep anyone excited, turned on, and really hungry, and can bring everything into reach. It’s when you start to lose one of them, then the three crumble. I’m a self-acknowledged workaholic. I’m going a million miles a minute, but I love it and I wouldn’t change it. For me, the work/life balance thing is irrelevant. I’ll work as many hours as I need to achieve my ambitions. Of course, I don’t expect that massive time commitment from my team. I respect that there is life outside the kitchen and looking after my staff’s mental and physical welfare is very important to me. But when I look at talented young people, I’m going to pick those who are more driven, who aren’t watching the minute hand on the clock, who are willing and hungry enough to put in the time and effort. These are the people who will get better and better, learning new skills and moving up to that next step. That’s where the knowledge, motivation and inspiration really comes into play.
Photo credit: Adam Handling.co.uk