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2011’s AA Chef’s Chef of the Year, Martin Wishart is one of the most celebrated chefs that the UK has to offer. Having trained in some of the world’s highest rated restaurants, with chefs such as Albert Roux, Marco Pierre White, Charlie Trotter and Michel Roux, Jr, Martin has also enjoyed a great deal of success with his own name top of the bill.
In 1999, Martin made the leap to running his own restaurant when he opened up Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh. It went on to win great acclaim and a Michelin star in 2001, with The Good Food Guide also honouring him with the title of Top Restaurant in Scotland and a listing in the Top 14 Restaurants in the UK. Following this success, Martin’s entrepreneurial spirit was renewed when he decided to open up a second restaurant at Cameron House Hotel in Loch Lomond which itself won a Michelin star in 2011. He has since opened a contemporary brasserie, also in Edinburgh, called The Honours, while somehow finding time to head up his own cooking school, offering expert tuition to budding chefs, located not far from his debut restaurant in Leith, Edinburgh.
Martin, Great to see you here at Restaurant Martin Wishart Cameron House. I want to talk about Martin Wishart the businessman now, The Honours, Leith, Cameron House, Cook School how can chefs acquire those sort of skills? We learn to cook no one teaches us to be a manager, how have you managed to adapt to being a businessman?
I started at a very early age; I was actually 12 years old. It was a very simple concept; do you want me to go into it fairly quickly?
Basically Mark it was a very local advertising model that I used In the area I grew up in Edinburgh, Simply if you take a blank A4 sheet and divide it into six boxes I took that blank sheet of paper to a local business and told them my idea was that I'm going to design an advert for you and I'll print off 3,000 copies and I'll personally make sure they’re delivered. You'll get a report exactly where they’re delivered. I charged each business £30 for a box, that was £180, I then went to the printer, he charged me £50 to print and design the 3,000 leaflets . I went then to my mates and gave them a tenner each to deliver them. They were happy with a tenner for a days work and I pocketed £110 for my work.
The business grew quickly after my first leflet was produced, with something to show and a list of satisfied customers it was easy to role out more and expand into double side A3 leaflets.
So have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit in you then?
Yes I have, I also had a business where I would go around local, door to door in Edinburgh where basically I stocked a supply of new door numbers, with a selection of a few different types and a power drill and I would target the ones that were looking a bit rusty and I would say, “Would you like to buy some door numbers and I can fit them for you.” I think the challenge there was…to sell on the spot to a complete stranger
Can I ask a question was this out of commercial necessity or was this just you because you wanted to make money?
I just wanted to make some money. I mean I had a very normal childhood, outside playing football with my pals as most people did in school holidays, I didn’t just want to do a paper round , I took an idea that my dad suggested and I thought, ‘Well I'll go for it,’ I have that kind of go for it attitude.
There's lots of Michelin star chefs in restaurants but they don’t all develop and diversify so it’s just interesting that there's obviously something in you that makes you want to so…
Perhaps I did know at quite an early age that I did want to run my own restaurant but it’s never been like I've got to go and do that and rush into it, it was more a case of learn first, and the time will come. I did set a goal that it would be great to have a restaurant up and running before I was 30, I just got there, I was 29. I didn’t rush into any head chefs jobs. I actually took my first head chef’s job before I opened the restaurant, at the Balmoral hotel. I was involved in consultancy work through certain chefs I worked for which helped me a lot. I just watched what they do, how they operated, how they worked with their team. I used to check the invoices to see what the ingredients were costing and look at what the restaurant was charging for their dishes, I just used to gather up as much information as I could working for them, to use for the future when the time was right for my business.
Is it about profile now? Is it about creating a Martin Wishart brand? Does Martin Wishart become a brand?
Not so much a brand I think it’s just making sure that anyone visiting any of the sites walks away with a reason to tell people to come and visit us, a reason to come back. I enjoy working with my staff I think its important to make sure that that they go into their next job, after they’ve left working for me, with a sense that they feel that they’ve valued their time with me as part of their career I think, that looking back on your training can help you understand , I have always looked back to what I've done. I think that's a great way to learn in business, you pick out the points that perhaps you found were difficult or failures in businesses that you've worked in and try and avoid it yourself.
Martin, Leith is obviously your baby and rightly so, it’s your first restaurant with your name above the door and I'm sure like a lot of chefs you get a lot of requests thrown at you, “Can you endorse this? Can you say that?” how do you strike the balance of working out what’s commercially right but also making sure that you're there when you need to be in the restaurant?
Well obviously we don’t just take anything that's offered to us. I think it’s a case of is the timing going to be right. If something’s coming up and it’s offered to us how much time is it going to take out of my hands personally and how much of that time can I divide up with other key staff in the business? It’s important to diversify and develop others, it doesn’t have to be a manager or front of house person, you could take anyone in the kitchen and if you see strength in them you could give them that job to develop them and grow. We're currently about to start working on, with SRU, the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and I need to gather up as much information and I've given that to one of the chefs who’ll be a spokesman communicating what we do amongst our businesses to the SRU and I want to develop our status for the public’s view on how we are sustainable and we’ll learn a lot as well from the process.
So where in five years time is Martin Wishart and Martin Wishart Restaurants going to be?
For the immediate future I'm currently working with one of Scotland’s top universities, Queen Margaret University, and this is off the back of my degree that I was given. It’s actually something I've been working on for a couple of years. We're developing our own apprenticeship scheme. It’s going to be accredited by Queen Margaret. It’s actually going to be of some value, rather than a bit of paper, but also practical wise we want to give a young person aged 19, 20, who’ve been with us for a couple of years, to then get the opportunity to go somewhere else and be able to walk in and work cleanly, professionally, they don’t need to know everything but I just want to get them out of the starting blocks.
And I guess last but by no means least, The Honours Edinburgh, it lends itself to being a group, chain, franchise, whatever you want to call it, can we expect to see, if the site is right and the location and the timing’s right, other Honours?
I would realistically, yes I would think so. But right now nothing is planned for further sites. The Honours has been branded that way to allow to grow, we paid particular attention to that and we're currently just identifying the dishes that we want to have as firm fixtures and document those and we're working on our systems of operation and documenting that as well. All these things enable us to expand, open up with a little effort but I mean also with minimum risk as well.
But keeping control as well?
Keeping control is important yes and it’s also crucial to identify the right management team as well. We're not ready to do it right even thou we've had a number of offers , it’s not a financial issue either again its making sure your systems and team are in place , I don’t feel that the time is quite right for us at present. Next year however i will be looking at this .
No absolutely it’s got to be right hasn’t it?
Yeah it’s got to be right. There's no point in just punching them out.
Well Martin what can I say? As ever a privilege to come and see you, wonderful to watch you today and thank you so, so much for your time.
Thanks, no problem.
Thank you very much, thank you.