Chef abroad: a blog by Stuart Ralston

The  Staff Canteen

Stuart Ralston first left his native Scotland to do a stage at Aquavit in New York.

From then on he was infected by the travelling bug and soon found himself back in the Big Apple working for Gordon Ramsay. After several adventures documented in his previous blogs for The Staff Canteen, Stuart found himself working in Barbados at the luxury Sandy Lane hotel, an experience he wrote about in a series of blogs this year.

Now he has returned to his home town of Edinburgh to open his own restaurant, a new chapter in his life and career but one which he will also be sharing in a new set of blogs next year. In his last instalment for this year Stuart recounts his return to Edinburgh and his impressions of how the UK culinary scene has changed since he’s been away…

Last month, I made the journey from sunny and mellow Barbados back to my home country of Scotland. While living in Barbados, one of the biggest things I missed was diversity of food. Trying to find good pizza was non-existent and authentic asian cuisine was a definite no show. And if you could locate a place that had something you fancied, you'd spend about a quarter of your paycheck. Even the food shops had a slim selection of staples, most produce available only when in season.

Obviously now I'm back in Edinburgh, I am spoilt for choice. My wife and I have eaten all over Edinburgh and had some great food and some not so great food, but that aside there have been things I have seen repeated at many establishments - and I'd like to give my uncensored opinion of these "trends".

The biggest thing I have noticed in the UK dining scene is the explosion of trendy and casual restaurants, of bare minimalistic and rustic surroundings, where food is painted as being from the foraged nature route and cocktails are served in glasses straight from the bohemian vintage store, with no less than 3 garnishes.

When I lived in New York City, I saw hundreds of these types of restaurants, mainly in the east and west Village areas of NYC. I must admit I am partially inspired by these types of restaurants, for there mid-low end price per cover and usually the originality of a small and concise menu, typically seasonally led (or at least claiming to be). I loved eating and drinking in these places typically more than fine dining as, like anyone, I felt more comfortable, enjoyed myself with a few cocktails and some loud old school hip hop, and left without spending this month’s rent cheque.

As I was leaving New York, I noticed that all these places ticked a few boxes: 1) All bartenders must have at least 1 full length sleeve of tattoos

2) the waiters/ Waitress's must be cooler than all the diners/patrons, and make you feel like they were doing you a favour

3) Moustaches/slick back and/or 50s hair styles would improve your employment chances

4)Must have at least one exposed brick wall, and bare lightbulbs hanging on wires I'm not saying any of these things are bad in and of themselves (except maybe #2).

Quite the opposite really - I don't think the way someone looks should keep them from being hired, I love the look of exposed brick and minimalist decor. As Karl Lagerfeld brilliantly put it: “Trendy is the last stage before tacky".

There is a fine line between what's hip right now and what's hip right now for a logical purpose. I applaud anywhere that tries to become a restaurant that is priced sensibly and cooks food where you don’t need good credit to pay for it, but I believe restaurants still need to remain hospitable and professional, and above all, humble.

The very arrogance they're trying to push away by rejecting fine dining is exactly what these places end up exuding.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 31st December 2013

Chef abroad: a blog by Stuart Ralston