Martin Wishart - Interview transcript

The Scottish chef on his new restaurant and 10 years on from Michelin star

Martin Wishart - Interview transcript

Tell me a bit about the new place.

It was owned by the Murray Group, and fortunately enough we’ve secured the property in North Castle Street. It will sit 75 covers in one sitting and there will be dining at the bar as well. Team-wise we’ve got Paul Tamburrini coming in to head up the kitchen, he’ll be a partner as well. Paul worked here [Restaurant Martin Wishart in Leith] when we got started, from perhaps 9 months after I opened, and we worked together for two and a half to three years. He was commuting back and forth every day from Glasgow. Prior to that we worked at Hadrian's at the Balmoral, so we’ve known each other for a while. They say never to mix friends and business, but I feel we’ve got a good understanding. I needed someone that I could work with in the new business that was going to have a great deal of input into it, and more importantly, that could lead a team and hold a team together, and Paul was the right person. He was excited about it too.

I think its important also, and I think its been shown, that restaurant empires standing under one name eventually suffer. You’ve got to bring in other people who can hold their own and be a draw in and of themselves. Although we don’t have a finalised name for the business it will not be Martin Wishart. I want it to stand on its own name, and on its own merits.

The front of house will be run by Stephen Spear.

We’re being careful not to weaken the restaurant in Leith, or take any of the strengths away from here, so that’s been a major part of the plan in what we’re doing.

It’s going to be Brasserie-style. You might think that’s a gap that Edinburgh should have filled, or that it's a personal dream or ambition, or just the right time and the right place. But first of all, I love being involved in and working in Brasseries. I’ve worked in quite a few different styles of Brasserie myself, and you find there’s a lot of energy that goes through the kitchen - there’s a great buzz when they’re full. It allows you to be a little more casual in the style that you’re putting on the plate. In this style of restaurant [RMW] there’s a lot more to consider when you’re putting together a menu; in a Brasserie you’ve got a large selection. And its generally a bigger team that work in a Brasserie, just because of the numbers.

There is a gap in the market in the city. I felt there was a gap in the market when I started here in Leith.

What about the economic climate?

Although I didn’t think about it at the time, I started here [in Leith] on the back of a recession. It’s a different scale of business and property, but many would say it’s a good time to start. I feel positive about the whole team that we’ve put together and I think it’s a good time to open - in late spring, early summer. I think it's the right time in the city centre. It’s a good time to buy and also you can get the ingredients right. When restaurants close, there’s so much involved that is circumstantial – of course it's the recession but its so many other things. You can’t just say it’s the recession. It's never one thing.

What have been your inspirations?

I’m always interested in working in a number of different places around the world, travelling quite a bit. I’ve been to New York in the last year, I’ve travelled around France - to Paris and slightly more rural areas as well such as Normandy, looking at regional dishes - and to Singapore, although that’s more on business. I think the importance is that the dishes we put together are, of course, seasonal. We will be using a lot of local ingredients, particularly with the meats. Inspiration I think will come from that - from the ingredients that we put in. For me it's more about finding out how the font of house merge with the back of house to provide the service in the Brasseries. We feel comfortable and confident with the food that we’re going to put on the menu. We’ve got 12 years of knowledge from suppliers.

One thing is I’ll be able to use [organis veg growers] Phantassie a lot more there. I find that Patricia’s vegetables or ingredients are more difficult to adapt to here.

How important is service?

I think it's interesting that there's been this rise in service, and in making service work. I think top class urban, metropolitan dining in the big cities knows that service really, really works, and I think there’s been a big marked difference in Edinburgh generally; it can be quite patchy at that level of operations.

Here, if you come for a tasting, it’s at least 18 plates – I don’t mean dishes – but 18 pieces of crockery come to the table and then the cutlery and the glassware. There’s a lot of time spent with the customer, with the waitress or waiter speaking with the customer about the dish. What we want to do in the Brasserie is strip away a lot of the service content – the order will be taken quicker – and there will be less time spent speaking to the customer because they’re just ordering a starter, a main and a couple of sides. But the communication while the waiter is at the table has to be very sharp. Staff training is going to be very important part of the menu knowledge.

What will you do there that you can’t do here?

More covers. In terms of the experience of the diner, a lot of people say to come to Marin Wishart’s for the ultimate in Edinburgh for a medley of cuisine, discovering tastes and trying things you’ve never discovered before, so it's about how can I also open their eyes in that setting; a nice big bone-in rib-eye on the table and the garnishes, the side orders with that. They’ve got more choice, more choice for the customer to put their dish together. Here you’re coming for a tasting that the chef has designed. It’s there for 12 weeks the it moves on. Over 11 years we’ve got dishes that appear on the menu at certain times of year. There are high expectations I think; they want a dining experience that lasts two or three hours here.

We offer word of mouth specials here. I think at the Brasserie we will have the opportunity to react a lot quicker. If we want to put razor clams down, on la plancha with a nice salad from Patricia, we can put that on as a market special. Here we are restricted in what we can do. You bind yourself into a menu you want to provide.

We’ve also got cold stores there, so I can buy in a whole pig if we wanted and do a whole nose to tail there. There’s a bakery and there’s a walk in fridge, which we don’t have here, so we’ll be able to cure our own meats, do our own bresola, and hang our meats there as well. With the bakery side of things, it's limited what we can do with it at the moment. I have a lot of other interesting additions to the restaurant [to come].

Another thing we’re launching is an apprenticeship. I’ve been speaking with Babcock, who do an apprenticeship scheme which will allow us to offer a level 2, level 3 that you can get at Telford College. That's would be for both here and at the Brasserie as well. I’m really keen, and it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. We’ve just had every third-year student from Telford College spend a week here from October - the last ones are finishing in April and we’ve already taken one on. It’s two different environments. Whether they start down here or up there, it's two different ends of the spectrum.

With your 10 year anniversary, what are your thoughts on where Edinburgh has got to and that Michelin star?

[Wife and partner] Cecile tells me I’m not the sort of person who looks backwards, I always look forwards. I can’t really ignore the fact that I’m pleased that we were the first in Edinburgh, because it will never happen again. At the time it just seemed like an award that was given to us. I was more focussed on what we were doing for the customer that service, that week, and it slowly just came over me that we’d been awarded a star.

It's starting to get to the point where soon there’ll be six – I’m sure of that – which is great for the city. They all seem to be surviving well. I think from that there is a feed off for other restaurants too. It's great for the young chefs working in the city.

A lot more suppliers come in and offer more now, even in the last two years. There’s now a lot more attention paid to Edinburgh and I think critics in London and chefs in London take what’s happening up here a lot more seriously than before.

What is it like having your mentor Albert Roux up in Scotland?

It’s nice. Since opening, I’ve gotten on with my own thing and Mr Roux – Albert – came up to help me open my restaurant. It’s nice to see someone like him put back something into the country. He’s trained a lot of the chefs that come down from Scotland and have appeared in one or two of his kitchens. I think it’s great that he comes back up, spends his time well, goes to the universities, goes to the colleges. It’s good. He truly does like Scotland.

For me it’s just another bit of that small culture advancing and having more credibility - establishing itself a bit more.

Where can things go from here?

There’s a college that opened up in Dornoch [North Highland College], it’s a working hotel that trains students, and the public go there and pay to stay. I think that’s the way forward. Teaching.

I think, hopefully, that the Brasserie end - the mid-market, the larger-scale restaurants, your Tom Kitchins and your Andrew Fairlies - hopefully they’ll expand and create more of a market there as well. I think that’s where the majority of people go out to eat anyway. Not casually, but they go out to have a celebration too. There’s a lot of people that go out to these Brasseries to have a [celebration].

Do you think the focus on seasonal and local food will continue?

There's a trend element to that - the locality of food and using that in your menu description. I think it’s important that suppliers still push forward with that, that they still knock on the doors of chefs and that they’re still able to encourage chefs to use their goods. Where there’s a problem, I find, is in the chain of supply from smaller producers. Take Robert Morris, who's got his chickens at St. Brides. He’s been in the business a couple of years now. He’s expanding what he does, he’s removing the ducks and concentrating on the chickens. Personally, we want our chickens to be 11 to 12 weeks, not 8. We need the structure of the meat to have that little more - more texture to it, which means it’s a bit tougher, but the flavour is much better. And he’s listening to that. He’s an example, and I hope that he expands his business, and that he is able to provide chicken that’s as good as the old classic French chickens of Bresse. I think it’s key that suppliers realise that there is a local market here, and that they don’t just have to follow the mass market to make it commercially viable, and that they can hand-pick. There is a market here. You’re not going to get rid of the need for price over quality, so it’s whether the small guys that can do the good stuff are given the chance to supply it.

And there’s the Ethical Shellfish Company over in Skye. Guy is a very energetic, very interesting person to speak with, and his passion comes across really well. We have tested his products and they are fantastic. When Guy can get the delivery system - which he is currently working on - to be at least four days a week into the city, rather than twice a week - that’s when we will pick up and run with him. I’d hope that there’s also opportunities for him to find other like-minded operations - maybe in the West Highlands or wherever - and to actually start to share space in the van and make it more regular, so they’re identifying a common interest.

But as for the suppliers, there's a lot of work that they need to do together to make it work - to work together. Chefs generally need to learn a bit more about the limitations of local suppliers, and could be a bit more considerate, but also both need to get moving together - rather than just sitting there thinking ‘Oh come on, why can’t I get deliveries?’. There are five one-star restaurants in this city, so the suppliers come round knocking on doors, but that’s great for smaller restaurants too. If they’re round knocking on five doors of chefs, they’ll knock on others too. That’s been a benefit.

What has changed in 10 years?

We feel very secure in what we’re doing and in the way the business has been structured. It has taken time to get a kitchen settled, so that when you’re hands-on, cooking all the time, and you’re also doing all the book-work and the PR, it takes time to organise the right things in the right time. After 6-7 years we’ve been able to do that. You could say that’s one of the vital things is to get settled, rather than just doing what’s in front of you - taking time to get the structure right.

We’re very careful that we don’t just stick with one menu template. Whether it’s a new ingredient or a new supplier, we’ll look at them, we’ll look at the ingredient - whether it’s our standard scallop, langoustine, lamb - we will look at how we’re going to dress that particular star ingredient for the season. What do we want to do with it? Also, the technique that we use, whether it’s the traditional braise, confit in the oven, or it’s the water bath maybe with the slight syphon or something like that, the techniques are there. Learning them as you work, as you progress your business, takes time. Stepping out of your business to go and work in another restaurant, such as somewhere in Holland, a three-star restaurant to see how they work, can accelerate that very quickly. Whether it's myself going or one of the chefs going, it brings something back to us which I think relates to the customer anyway - their experience - because it does transfer through to the plate on the dinner table.

How do you come up with your ideas?

It’s bloody hard. It’s difficult in the sense that you want to keep a consistency, you want to keep yourself excited about it, and your team, and more importantly, your customer. It’s difficult in the sense that you have to discipline yourself to move forward, but in the right direction. The quality and the consistency has to be there.

The structure that we’ve got allows us to train [our chefs] better. We’ve got more chefs. We’ve always bought good equipment. I think I work harder than I ever did. I have to think a lot harder, rather than physically do the work in the kitchen. And experience with suppliers too. You build up an understanding of their products and they get to know what your expectations are. What you can’t get away from is that my input to the business is key to what’s going on, but the decisions are being made more and more with other people around the table. The chefs, they have their input, which is great for me because I get a lot of that from them. Lead by example, I guess.

How are you feeling about your other ventures?

Today the head chef is up at Cameron House working with the head chef up there working on the new menu which I’m going up tomorrow to start, tomorrow night. For the three of us it’s a great way to work. There’s Joe who has been with us for ten years, and Stuart the chef who has been with us for five years. Even though Stuart knows how to put dishes together, I think they key is communication face-to-face with the team up there is vital. They’ve got it all ready, and I’ll just go up to make sure that everything is the way it should be. At the Cook School, Kevin who I first worked with when I was fifteen and Fiona who does administration, it’s day to day. The important thing for the school is communication with the customer. It’s very rare that we have classes that aren’t at 100%. Eight people attending.

Interview by Donald Reid. Edited by Kate Russell

Restaurant Martin Wishart Presents... a film by Steve Pool

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