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Lorna McNee – 'Let the ingredients speak for themselves. If you cook them perfectly, that's all that matters'

Lorna McNee – 'Let the ingredients speak for themselves. If you cook them perfectly, that's all that matters'

Lorna McNee, Scottish Chef of the Year 2017

2017 Scottish Chef of the Year on quality ingredients, the perfect Easter roast, where she gets her cooking inspiration from and more

ScotHot 2017, Scotland's biggest food, drink, hospitality and tourism trade show, took place on Wed 15–Thu 16 Mar giving those in the industry an opportunity to network with a wide range of suppliers. One of the key events at the show is the Scottish Culinary Championships, which acknowledges the industry's diverse talent in classes such as meat and vegetable preparation, fish filleting and food photography.

Competing for Scottish Chef of the Year – previously won by Adam Handling – were eight ambitious young chefs, including the winner, Lorna McNee from Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. We've torn McNee away from the kitchen to ask her all about the competition and what it means to be crowned winner.

How did you prepare for the competition at ScotHot?

First, I had to create a menu that worked well in its entirety, not just dish by dish. I then sat down with my head chef and chef patron to get feedback on my ideas, taking criticism to build my winning dishes from there. The most challenging part was practicing to a time limit; in your own kitchen you are used to doing things at your pace, but for this we had to work really quickly while ensuring everything still tasted great. In addition to winning Scottish Chef of the Year, I won best dessert which was a great achievement – I'm not a pastry chef, so it was a real challenge.

What's the most popular dish on the menu at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie's?

Our loin of Scotch Lamb PGI is very popular. It's marinated in garlic, rosemary and virgin olive oil, served with a slow cooked lamb shoulder that's marinated in oil, chervil, mint, rosemary, lemon, garlic, tarragon. It's served with goats curd, wilted greens from our garden, rosemary infused polenta and a white wine jus. Simple, but the fat on the lamb loin makes all the difference to the flavour.

How and when did you get into cooking?

I first set foot in a restaurant when I was 15 to work as a kitchen porter for a small family run Italian restaurant. If I had some extra time I'd debeard mussels or pick herbs; commis chef kind of jobs. At that stage I was considering going into photography, but after watching the head chef in the kitchen doing everything so efficiently, I applied for a hospitality course at Moray College. As soon as I began cooking, I was hooked and absolutely loved it. When I finished college at 21 I decided to look for bigger and better things. After a meal at Andrew Fairlie's one evening, I went up to chef Andrew and asked him for a job. He told me to go away and think about it as he didn't think I realised just how challenging working there would be. But I was adamant.

What's the most valuable skill you've learned working with Andrew Fairlie?

How chefs work together. This is an amazing place to work and we're lucky that we all get on so well. Restaurant kitchens have a reputation for being an intimidating work environment, but no one should ever walk into work with a big ego; be humble and learn from each other. I've also learned how important it is to respect your ingredients; don't do too much with them, let the ingredients speak for themselves. If you cook them perfectly, that's all that matters.

What advice would you give to young chefs?

Don't be too hard on yourself and always learn from your mistakes. If something goes wrong with a dish, you'll develop a better understanding of that ingredient. Work hard, be determined, ask tons of questions. Don't think that you must jump from restaurant to restaurant to gain skills; finding a restaurant with good people can be much more important. If they're good chefs they'll continue to challenge you, helping to build your repertoire.

Where do you find inspiration for your dishes?

A lot of inspiration comes from the actual ingredient – once you choose what you want to work with, you'll start to see it in different ways. The more you cook and learn, the more information you gather of flavour profiles that work well with each other. We have a garden at Andrew Fairlie's and seeing it in summer is very inspiring. A huge amount of work goes into maintaining the garden, and watching the ingredients journey from garden to plate is very rewarding.

What's your favourite Scotch Lamb PGI dish to serve?

A roast rack of lamb, cooked pink with nice crispy fat, served with a herby, vibrant, salsa verde and smoked goats curd.

Which cut of Scotch Beef PGI would you recommend for those on a budget?

If you're looking for good value, it's beef cheek every single time. Roast it in a hot pan to get a nice golden colour then slow cook it in a stock made from dark caramel, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and kombu seaweed for great flavour and texture. I always use beef cheek if I'm making a homemade steak pie, too, it works brilliantly!

What would be your meat of choice for spring and how would you cook it?

Take a saddle of Scotch Lamb, stuff it with seasonal wild garlic and wild leeks, roll it up then caramelise the fat on the outside in a hot pan before roasting it pink in the oven. I'd serve it with some crushed, buttery jersey royals and some nice thick asparagus.

What are your plans as a chef for the future?

I always dreamed of being the first female chef in Scotland to win a Michelin Star, but things change. Don't get me wrong, it would be great, but I'm really happy where I am just now. I'll take it year by year and see where things take me. I'm not making any plans – that way, I can't be disappointed if they don't happen.

For more information on Scotch Beef PGI and Scotch Lamb PGI – as well as recipes, cooking tips, practical video content and much more – visit The Scotch Kitchen website, at scotchkitchen.com.

The Scotch Kitchen offers over 400 recipes as well as an array of culinary articles and food blogs. Visit scotchkitchen.com to learn more about the Scotch Beef PGI and Scotch Lamb PGI brands which are underpinned by world-leading levels of quality assurance and traceability.

You can also find us on social media via Facebook and Twitter at @ScotchKitchen and @SimplyScotch1.

Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles

Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perth and Kinross, PH3 1NF

Scotland's only Michelin two-star restaurant, a distinction it has held since 1996, this is one of the country's most sought-after upmarket dining experiences. It's not, however, an intimidatingly grand affair: set in a modestly sized room in the heart…

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