Jonathan MacDonald, Chef Patron, Ox and Finch

The  Staff Canteen

Jonathan MacDonald is the chef patron of Ox and Finch in Glasgow. He started as a chef aged 16 in the same city and was given his first job by the current MasterChef: The Professionals champion Gary Maclean.

He has since gained a degree in Hospitality Management and after a placement in Dubai he found himself working as head chef for the McLaren Formula 1 team. This has allowed him to travel extensively and experience worldwide cuisines. He has fed everyone from the racing car mechanics to Jay Z and now he is feeding the people of Glasgow at his restaurant Ox and Finch.

We spoke to Jonathan about catering for Formula 1, his catering business which he started while looking for a permanent site and why he doesn’t want Ox and finch to become a chain.

Buffalo mozzarella, black fig, mint, prosciutto

and eight-year-aged balsamic

How did you get into the industry?

I first started working in a restaurant in Glasgow called Yes, which is no longer there, with Gary Maclean who has just won MasterChef: The Professionals (2016) – he gave me my first job when I was 16! I had an instant love for being in a kitchen and it was the only thing I ever really wanted to do. I then worked in a couple of different restaurants in Glasgow until I was 21.

I did a Hospitality Management degree at Strathclyde University and off the back of that I ended up doing a summer placement in Dubai. I met one of the shareholders of McLaren while I was out there and he put me in touch with the people who ran the hospitality side of Formula 1 – I worked with them for five years.

And was the hospitality side of Formula 1 as glamorous, lavish and exciting as it sounds?

It wasn’t glamorous at all! We might be in Monte Carlo and everyone would be partying on boats but the reality for us was that we were in a tiny galley kitchen, working at capacity and doing 24 hour shifts. There were so many logistics to consider with being in different countries, the security, roads being shut down – that kind of thing. But there were some amazing moments, like standing plating canapes and Jay Z is stood next to me eating them straight off my chopping board and talking to me!

Was it difficult to source ingredients as you were moving from country to country?

Actually that was the part I enjoyed the most. It was nice going around local markets and picking up bits and pieces. All the European ones were great, we’d be there at the height of European summer so there was incredible fruit and veg, meat and fish – so the market totally wrote the menu for you. But then you’d turn up in places like Bahrain, which is obviously a desert island so you definitely had to think on your feet! Asia was amazing, just going and eating street food and enjoying all the Asian flavours it was definitely one of my favourites. However as a place to go without a translator, and get things from wholesale it was really challenging. It was a challenge when we went to some of the more developing countries to source fresh ingredients that were ‘safe’ to use, as the last thing I could possibly do was make the entire F1 team ill!  That was a big consideration! 

It sounds like an amazing experience.

Ox and Finch game sausage, gnocchi, butternut squash, fennel, chilli and sage

Game sausage, gnocchi, butternut

squash, fennel, chilli and sage 

It was and it was interesting in a lot of ways – the travel, seeing food from all over the world, working for a big world famous business. You got a very real experience from walking through a Shanghai market to feeding the CEO of Vodafone. You saw every end of the global spectrum of wealth.

You went on to start your own mobile catering business, what made you want to do that?

I was always looking for a restaurant site and I toyed with doing it in a few different places. But my dad convinced me I should open in Glasgow where I knew loads of people and had support. We looked at a few different sites which fell through and it felt like forever getting what’s now Ox and Finch up and running. So it was always in the background while we were doing the catering but the plan was actually to keep the catering going as well but Ox and Finch has been so busy there hasn’t been time to continue with it.

You opened Ox and Finch in 2014, is the food similar to what you were doing with the catering/ street food business?

Yes and we use a lot of the same stuff. We use the same butcher, the same pork belly, the same brine – whereas in a festival environment we were sticking it in a wrap now we put it on a plate with a more restaurant style garnish. The ethos is the same it’s just the vehicle which has changed.

Does the travelling you’ve done reflect in your menu?

I don’t have a definitive style and the menu is definitely not definitive of a specific region – I don’t claim to do something authentically because how I cook say a Thai curry is very different to how a Thai lady does it who has been cooking it for 30 years! The dishes are all our version and we don’t go too far down any one road. It could quite quickly become a very muddled menu. Someone in the restaurant the other night said the ceviche was more like a tartare, which it kind of is because it’s not an Argentinian thing which is soaked in loads of tiger milk and herbs. We take Scottish sea trout and we cure it and put elements of those flavours you associate with South America.

Ox and Finch
Ox and Finch

Are there any dishes you’ve had on the menu from the beginning?

There are some which have come and gone, and I’m sure will go back on again but there’s nothing which has been on the whole time. We never change the whole menu in one go because it’s hard so we look at what we want to take off every couple of weeks. It keeps the guys excited as well, cooking by numbers for a long time is not particularly inspiring for them.

Is the menu all you or does your team have an input?

Yes they do, although I have to put a lid on their enthusiasm at some point! A lot of what we do is moulded by the restaurant and how busy it gets, so you think it would be nice to do a 48-hour short rib but then you realise the size of your kitchen and that you do 300 covers most days.

The concept is small plates and sharing, is that what you always envisaged?

That was always the intention because we wanted to make it very accessible and a friendly, relaxed environment. And if I’m honest with myself it’s the kind of food I like to cook, serve and eat. The restaurant is very Glaswegian: unpretentious, friendly and relaxed, just like the city itself.  

Has the food scene in Glasgow changed a lot since you first started as a chef?

Ox and Finch toffee pudding, poached pear and lemon

Toffee pudding, poached pear and lemon

Massively! It’s become a lot more diverse and diners have become more adventurous as with a lot of places in the UK. I’m not one of those people who thinks fine dining is dead, I think there is definitely a place for it, but there’s definitely growth in good quality casual dining in Glasgow and everywhere else.

You mentioned you are doing 300 covers a day, did you expect to be as busy as you are?

No! We opened with 10 staff and we have 30 now. We totally hit the ground running and it was very overwhelming but we managed to get most things right from the beginning. It shaped the team and the key guys who were there at the start are still there. 

And what are your plans for the future?

We are planning on having another site in Glasgow but we have no plans to do a second Ox and Finch. I quite like the fact that it’s one of a kind and I want to do something else which is one of a kind. I don’t want it to turn into a chain.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 5th January 2017

Jonathan MacDonald, Chef Patron, Ox and Finch