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24 April 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Tom Kitchin

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The Kitchin - Tom_Kitchin_3_-_2011_The_Kitchin_WEB.jpgA familiar face on TV, Tom Kitchin opened his own restaurant – The Kitchin in Leith, Edinburgh – in 2006. A Michelin star soon followed and the venue was also voted the BMW Square Meal Best UK Restaurant for 2011. Square Meal caught up with the Scottish chef to get the lowdown on the Edinburgh food scene, maintaining a work-life balance and why frozen steak pies drive him nuts.

You've worked with Pierre Koffmann and Alain Ducasse among others during your career, but which chef has had the most influence on you?

It's definitely Pierre Koffmann. He took me on as a young lad of 18 at La Tante Claire on Royal Hospital Road, which had three Michelin stars. There was not a better restaurant in the country at the time, and he was notorious for being the hardest chef around. I started right at that bottom, just trying to survive, but little by little I started to get his respect and confidence. Now we're more like father and son. We speak three or four times a week.

What impact has the arrival of the Galvin brothers’ two restaurants had on the Edinburgh food scene?

With all due respect, it's not like they are a massive change to the scene. There's already an amazing array of restaurants in the city. Martin Wishart started it all in Leith 13 years ago and now we have five Michelin-starred restaurants, all of which are very different, plus some really good pubs and eateries. After London, we're proud to be one of the most foodie cities in the country, so the new Galvin restaurants [The Pompadour and Galvin Brasserie de Luxe, both at The Caledonian Hilton Hotel] will slot right in.

A lot of restaurants claim to use seasonal and local produce, but how does your philosophy of 'from nature to plate' differ?

It's easy to write 'seasonal' and 'local' on a menu, but it's about how far you are willing to take it. I work with six fish suppliers. There are no middle men, so our lobsters and langoustines come direct from the boat to the kitchen. We've got one game supplier who specialises in roe deer and another guy who does mallard. I'm constantly on the phone to them. In Scotland we have this amazing scenery full of natural produce in the oceans and in the mountains. It's all around us, but you still get restaurants that are cooking frozen steak pies. It drives me nuts.

You've worked in several three-star Michelin restaurants and The Kitchin has been awarded one star, but what does it take to get from one star to three?

Three stars is the epitome of fine dining. It's an out-of-this-world experience. I don't think that we could achieve three stars in a small backstreet in Leith, but you never know. The three-star chefs I worked for weren't obsessed with Michelin. They had a relaxed inner belief and cooked from the heart. Everything else comes from that. For me, the most important thing is to concentrate on the quality and originality of the food, and my own philosophy.

We've seen you on Saturday Kitchen and MasterChef, but how do you balance your TV commitments with being behind the stove?

It's really difficult and there's a fine line, especially when you've also got a wife and two young boys. I have to embrace these opportunities from a business point of view. There are eight million people watching MasterChef, so it's not exactly rocket science. A lot is done on a Sunday and Monday, and with Saturday Kitchen I take a sleeper train to London after service on Friday. I get in at 6am, do my stuff in the studio and fly back for the Saturday lunch or dinner service. It's all part of being a modern-day chef.

What's your food heaven and food hell?

When I've been away in London and get home late my wife Michaela cooks a really lovely smoked salmon lasagne with dill. It's one of the recipes in my latest book, Kitchin Suppers, and it's just great comfort food. Apart from that, I love anything that's just come into season: the first grouse of the year or the first asparagus. There's nothing I don't like as long as it's prepared well. It's lazy chef work that I find really disappointing – like when you order a steak and the béarnaise sauce isn't done well. Every dish, no matter how simple, needs love and care.

You were in London during the summer cooking at The Cube by Electrolux at the Royal Festival Hall. Any plans to open a restaurant south of the border in the future?

It was a wonderful experience being in London during the Olympics. I've thought long and hard about opening there, and we've had opportunities, but there has to be balance. I'm already trying to run a business, be in the kitchen, be a husband and a father – it's not easy. I don't see what opening in London would bring. It would be just for my ego.

Would you encourage your two sons to become chefs?

They are only two and four, so it's very early days. I'm just delighted that they like eating. We had mallard for tea the other day. I'm not one of those people who say they don't want their children to go into the industry because it's such hard work. If you fall in love with it and get that buzz, there is no more rewarding job.

What's been the proudest moment of your career?

Having a waiting list. It's great to be able to say, 'Sorry we're full. Can I put you on the waiting list?' We went from having no customers at the start to the current situation where if you want a table on a Saturday night you have to book six months in advance. It's something you dream of, to create a place that people enjoy and want to try.

What's been your biggest kitchen disaster?

When I was a young apprentice at Gleneagles, I had a daunting Frenchman as my chef de partie. I was making a risotto and somehow seasoned it with sugar. There were two containers with salt and sugar next to each other, but I never made that mistake again – especially after receiving a size 10 in the backside.

This interview was published in November 2012.

Kitchin Suppers is published by Quadrille (£20).

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