Tom Kitchin - From Nature to Plate
Donald Reid speaks to Tom Kitchin, Scotland’s youngest Michelin-starred chef, about his first cookbook, From Nature to Plate
All cookbooks reveal something of their author; first cookbooks are often most revealing of all as chefs justify their status by retelling formative experiences. As with the opening of their own restaurant, it’s both a statement and a landmark.
Tom Kitchin recalls working at Gleneagles aged 18, sitting in a small room with friend and fellow chef Dominic Jack and reading about Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffmann, Michel Perraud, Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux. ‘We used to read their books, talk recipes and ideas, and dream about one day meeting these chefs – and possibly working for them,’ he writes. ‘We wanted them to teach us to become better chefs.’
Now that Kitchin is penning the books himself, From Nature to Plate seems as much as an act of homage as something that was expected of him. ‘To have your own cookbook is very surreal,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the most fantastic things we’ve ever achieved.’
Rather than being something Kitchin and his wife Michaela had planned, the cookbook was suggested by some publishers who were in the restaurant after the launch of a book by another of their authors, Ian Rankin. ‘Once you get to the stage of being a two-star, three-star Michelin chef, you have a right to do a proper, gastronomic cooking book,’ he says. ‘When you’re someone like myself you don’t. This book is firstly a story, hopefully one that will inspire others, of being 13 and washing the pots and pans [in a Kinross-shire inn], being 18 in London, 21 in Paris and then Monaco.’
In describing his journey, Kitchin makes it clear that working in high-end kitchens around the world was tough, hard work with long hours, low pay and many challenges. His most formative period was the five years under Pierre Koffmann at the three-star La Tante Claire in London. ‘I will admit that working for him was one of the hardest, most gruelling things I’ve ever experienced, but at the same time it was the best school I could have attended,’ he says.
He describes the times when he was ready to pack it all in. When Koffmann launched a whole bucket of potato trimmings at him or exploded when he began to fillet a wild sea bass the wrong way. ‘Those bridge moments – do you cross over or not – have typified my whole life,’ he says. ‘Fortunately I’ve always been strong enough in character to cross that bridge and fight onto the next day. It has always made me stronger as a person, stronger as a chef. I have been faced with young chefs in my own kitchen breaking down, but I always tell them to stick it out if I believe they have the talent.’
Despite his pedigree, however, Kitchin is adamant that producing a cookbook is not a way of showcasing himself as a Michelin-star chef. ‘That’s a load of rubbish,’ he says. ‘This is what I’m passionate about: ingredients and my love for the seasons. If one day we have a brasserie, I hope that the kind of dishes we’d serve are the kind of dishes in the book. I’d want to have a crab cooked to order then cracked at the table. At the end of the day, that’s the food we love eating and it is great food. A real love of food doesn’t come from seeing a foam on the plate. What I’m trying to get across is that chefs have to understand nature and where the produce comes from and understand how hard the supplier is working. That only comes through working in kitchens where they work with seasonality, where that’s drummed into you, and you’re creating your menus from nature itself.
‘As a chef, and it doesn’t matter what level you’re cooking at, if your heart doesn’t start beating when you get the first Scottish asparagus of the season, or the first wild salmon, then you’re not doing it for the right reason.’
Kitchin is aware that his enthusiasm for Scottish produce combined with his achievements and the publication of a book does give him ambassadorial status. A former boss, Alain Ducasse, has named Kitchin as one of his top ten up-and-coming chefs around the world, while he has also made appearances on TV shows such as Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen. ‘I feel we’re representing Scotland. Hopefully that enthusiasm and that passion is coming over to viewers – that I’m proud of where I’m from.’
The results are sometimes further reaching than he expects. He tells the story of receiving some sea buckthorn from his forager, Ben Robertson from Crieff, and then seeing pastry chef Sebastian Kobelt enthusiastically making a sorbet from the berries and pairing it with chocolate (Kobelt was a runner-up in the World Chocolate Master final). Shortly afterwards a Michelin inspector expressed his enthusiasm at seeing sea buckthorn on the menu – he was used to seeing it in Scandinavia but not here. ‘I do it because I enjoy it,’ says Kitchin, ‘but look what we get from it.’
From Nature to Plate is published on 6 August by Weidenfeld & Nicolson priced at £30 and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday 17 August (event now sold out).
TOM KITCHIN’S SEA URCHIN SOUP
I first cooked sea urchins when my lobster supplier suggested them to me
– the urchins get caught in the lobster creels.
6 sea urchins
100g carrot, chopped
100g fennel, chopped
100g celery, chopped
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
150ml white wine sauce
rock salt for serving
Preparing the sea urchins: urchin spines are sharp so wear gloves or use a thick cloth when handling them. Using scissors with a pointy tip, cut off the top quarter of the shell, beginning from the soft area where there are no spines (the mouth). Discard the lid. Remove the digestive organ (middle of urchin). With a spoon, gently remove the coral (eggs) and set aside.
Strain and reserve the liquid from inside the shells. Be very careful with the shells as you will need them for serving the soup.
Making the vegetable mix and the soup: sweat the carrot, fennel and celery in a pan with the oil until soft. Add the samphire and cook until warmed through. Set aside.
Put the white wine sauce and the strained liquid from the urchins into a pan and warm over a low flame. Be careful not to over-heat. Add some of the urchin eggs, then blitz to the desired consistency. The eggs thicken the soup so add more as necessary. Finish with a squeeze of lemon.
Warm the empty shells in the oven. Take them out and place a large spoonful of the vegetable mix into each shell. Froth the soup with a hand whisk and ladle into the shells. Place a shell on each plate, using a bed of rock salt to keep the shell steady.
Published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Thu 6 Aug, £30.