Martin Wishart, Restaurant Martin Wishart, Leith, Edinburgh

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th January 2011

Martin Wishart is the head chef and owner of his own restaurant, Martin Wishart in Leith, Edinburgh. He opened the restaurant in the Port of Leith in 1999, it won a Michelin star in 2001 and has kept it ever since. It also has four AA Rosettes and has won accolades such as Top Restaurant in Scotland in the 2010 Good Food Guide. After training at catering college, Martin learnt his craft with some of the finest chefs in the country such as Marco Pierre White and the Roux brothers. Martin’s first job in the catering industry was at the Crest Hotel, Edinburgh when he was fifteen. After this he moved on to the Caledonian Hotel. Later he worked with Michel Roux Jr the year he took over Le Gavroche in Mayfair, followed by Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel. Drawing on his background in fine-dining, Martin cooks traditional and modern French cuisine using the freshest Scottish ingredients. He is inspired by his travels around the world, to places such as France and Singapore, where he looks at regional dishes, but also to America, to understand their approach to front of service. His second restaurant, Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond, opened in 2008.

So first and foremost Martin thank you very much indeed for inviting us in today, wonderful to come and meet you. Lovely to come and see Leith after such a long period of time.  If we can start, if you can tell us a little bit about the two operations you run, the number of covers that you do in both and what people can expect from a dining experience with Martin Wishart?

Okay well let's start with Leith where we are today. This is a restaurant that I opened in April 99, it was a 30 covers restaurant back then, with a staff of two in the kitchen and the style of cooking obviously it's developed from then but the backbone of it's very similar, it's classical French, using some modern techniques with seasonal ingredients. I bought then expanded the restaurant in 2002.

Okay so when you started you didn't own the property?

No, no I rented it from the council.

You rented it okay.

Begged, borrowed and stole the other bits and pieces that I needed for it. I was fortunate to work with Marco (Pierre White) at his then 3 star restaurant in London at the Hyde Park Hotel where he was paying me well, in fact very good money as a sous chef and I saved up that and came back up from London to have a look for property"

So was it always an ambition then to have your own place?

Yeah it was from about the age of 23 actually to come back to Edinburgh. I've been cooking since I was 15. So yeah I was fortunate that I was able to buy the property then later the neighbour's next door and a little later also bought another property behind the restaurant which expanded the kitchens further. The style of food in Leith and the second restaurant at Cameron House is very similar. We cook with seasonal ingredients in both using both classical and modern techniques, very seasonal too. The menu here in Leith is slightly smaller than at Cameron House, where the á la carte menu selection is slightly larger, we do offer a tasting menu at both restaurants, which features six courses, we offer a vegetarian tasting menu as well which is very popular and I also have just introduced seasonal market menus which currently is a black  truffle menu. The seasonal market menu is something that I will change as and when I want to throughout the year, so if I want to do a specialised fish menu or maybe something from one of the Scottish islands like Shetland, so it's a new menu that we're starting and it's proving to be very popular. Supplier-wise well we share a lot of the same suppliers for both restaurants which means that they know the quality that we're looking for.

Your team seems to have grown here. There certainly wasn't two in the kitchen just a minute ago so how many have you got in the kitchen now?

Ten. Now I've got a separate pastry kitchen and expanded the whole back of house. Before the expansion it was pretty hectic because I had everything crammed into a small space which included the pastry, plate and pot wash area, also a dispense bar, so it was really quite hectic when we expanded the first time but buying the third property, it meant I could put the pastry through there and separate it from the hot kitchen. So we've now got a team of three in the pastry. Ricky the pastry chef who you've just seen there and Joe my head chef have been with me for over eight years now. In fact I think that's one of the areas that we've been successful in is maintaining good staff levels.

And that's the key to success really it's keeping ability, consistency doesn't it?

Well I've seen it in a lot of the places I've worked they had staff  members that had been with them for quite some time and hence that's why I expanded my business  over to Cameron House. I wouldn't have done that if I'd only been in business for a couple of years. We're starting our third year there and the kitchen which comprises of seven chefs four of them have worked here in Leith and been with me for over four years.

So you've got that confidence that obviously you can't be in two places at once but you've got that confidence that you've got a trained team that knows your style, what you expect of them and you've got that confidence to allow them to operate at Cameron House.

That's it. Well having a slightly larger brigade than we probably need means that my head chef from Leith can go up to Cameron House, When we change the menu for instance, he'll help do the mise en place with the head chef Stewart, and sous chefs John and David, go over any questions that may arise, I'll go up do service, on a Thursday and Friday night and when the pastry changes it's the same Rikki goes up there and we've got everything covered here anyway. I think we offer a good training scheme here with the company also. We've got training for all the commis, the apprentices and they start either at Cameron House or Leith, they'll end up working in all three areas, both the restaurants and the cook school here in Edinburgh. So it gives them a kind of good grounding and understanding of what we are about.

Absolutely. How many covers are you doing at Leith now then? You've now got three properties combined into one, ten in the brigade is the actual restaurant cover-wise grown?

Yes, it went from 30 to 50, two thirds of the properties is the back of house.

Are you open seven days a week?

Five.

Five okay so everyone gets two days off.

Everyone gets two days off. That's something we've always stuck with, two days off and we close the restaurants down four of the five weeks. That allows the staff to take one week whenever they want, but definitely expanding from 30 to 50 covers has really meant that there's a certain amount of covers you have to bridge over to generate that extra income and for me we had to reach 50 plus, any more than that you have to alter your staffing levels again but for me 50 covers which we can turn into 58 on a Friday or, Saturday night.

When you first opened in Edinburgh, you know, Edinburgh wasn't the city it is now was it a brave move to open? I guess your goal was to have a star

My main reason for leaving working for Albert Roux and coming back to Edinburgh was to find a restaurant property. I didn't want to work for anyone else after that. I knew that

So it was time for you to make your own mark.

Yeah, yeah. I'd been back home six or seven years prior to opening in Leith looking at properties.

Are you from Edinburgh?

I am yeah.

Okay yeah.

So I'd been back home six or seven years prior to that to look at some properties, however I  just felt they weren't right and probably more importantly I wasn't ready for them I wasn't ready to do it but coming back to Edinburgh in 1997 I  went to work at the Balmoral for Rocco Forte, he had just bought the hotel and was opening a  new brassiere there and that was important for me because it allowed me to get back into the  restaurant scene here in Edinburgh, meet all the suppliers and get to know them while I was working for Rocco and then I eventually found this property.

Yeah I mean you are blessed with wonderful suppliers here in Scotland, the larder that's available is absolutely fantastic and you mentioned you used that but talk us through a typical Martin Wishart dish. For someone who's never dined here what would you say on your menu currently really sums up you as a chef?

I would say probably the grouse that we're serving during autumn is a good one because it's a respected seasonal Scottish ingredient, it's really centred around Scotland as well and it's a classical style dish, I use a lot of different seasonal veg throughout the year and use a variety of methods to cook them.  The grouse dish itself has a nice braised cabbage with some wild mushrooms, braised salsify with it, lots of different flavours that all work together with the strong grouse flavour the dish is finished with a drizzle of Armagnac added just before it leaves the stove. Served in a cocotte pan out at the table, so we bring the theatre to the guest. The smell from the dish as the waiter lifts the lid at the table is a head- turner and we involve the front of house staff with the kitchens work and I think that to me is what working in the restaurant is about, one of the key points to provide your guests with a great experience is involving everybody, it's not just about the kitchen and it's not just about the service it's bringing the two together for the customer.

 I think from a diner's perspective they like to see that as well, they like a little bit of theatre as opposed to just a plate coming in front of them with the waiter taking a cloth off it's nice to see some front of house skill and some interaction with that as well.

Yeah definitely and that's, what I gained from working at Le Gavroche with Michel Roux I seen a lot of that French style classic service. I'd say it's more elegant looking than a waiter placing a plate down at the table. Off course we do a lot of intricate, nice looking plates as well from the pass which is obviously part of the restaurant too but the chef has all the control on the presentation this way. Involve your front of house staff it keeps them motivated and that's the base of a good service.

Yeah absolutely.

And I think that intricate style of dish perhaps with something a little quirky is great, the octopus dish that I have on, or just had on the menu which involved a Vivaldi new potatoes from Ayrshire. Octopus cooked in a water bath, nice and softly poached, quickly pan-fried and then you serve it with a Japanese tosazu sauce that I found in a great shop in Paris they have fantastic ingredients there sourced from the best producer in Japan.

Fantastic.

So these are ingredients that I've picked up while travelling and have sitting on the shelf in my office. When I find the right match for the ingredient its then on the menu, the smokiness of that tosazu with the octopus combine it with some sweet paprika and potato it's delicious.

How has your food style evolved then Martin in the sort of ten, 11, years that you've been here now?

It's kind of evolved along with my business style as well. I'm hands on running the business.

I noticed that you were on the hotplate when I came in.

Yeah it's important to me but I'm also really hands on with the marketing/ PR, with the design of the restaurant and service style I'm very fortunate that I don't have a backer, it's me and the customer no one in between to upset things

Fortunate or

Well I can do what I want with the business, I don't have to sit around and wait for permission, freedom is good most of the time"

Sure but you're the one that's got to pay the bills as well.

Well I started business I guess at the end of a recession in the late 90s and we've gone through the good times and now, of course, times are a little bit different at the moment but we're still producing a good amount of business. Covers are strong and I think that's down to the fact that we've been in business for quite some time. How is my style evolved in the cooking? Well I guess I've gone through a stage of serving what I'd learnt from my chefs that I've worked under and going through my own kind of process of what  I want to cook and experimenting with equipment like  the water bath when I started using that four or five years ago I hadn't worked with it before. So I taught myself but really I think most chefs will go through a phase of trying different styles. We haven't strayed away from the ingredients they have always been the same but I think we've developed more of a theatre in the style of the restaurant the way we serve our food.

Are you comfortable and confident with where you are with your food style at the moment?

Yeah I am actually yeah, yeah. I think three or four years ago I was pushing myself for the second Michelin star. January would come around and finding that I didn't get it I was getting myself down, getting a bit depressed about it and I had to shake myself out of that its not productive.  For me it's not necessarily about cooking for a guide at all but you can't avoid it, you can't avoid it and it's not so much me putting the pressure on myself it's my customers that are saying to us, "Martin you should have a second star. We expect you to get it in January." So you start to think, "˜Well maybe it's going to happen,' and when it didn't happen we'd all get a little bit down about it but the beginning of February we're back on course again and we're looking at our next seasonal menus and working towards the summer. The staff feel the same we're passionate I guess that's normal to get down from time to time

Yeah, you mention there that you've worked with some fantastic chefs, the Roux's, Marco, has there been one chef that's influenced you more than the other or have you taken little bits from all of them?

Little bits from all of them, John Burton-Race that I worked for, for just under two years

At L'Ortolan?

Yeah.

Did you work with Alan there as well? Alan Murchison?

No.

Okay.

No I worked there when it was Nigel and that was a fantastic time in my career.

Yeah I mean Alan Murchison says that John Burton-Race was one of the most talented chefs he's ever worked with.

Yeah I would agree with that and I was just about to say that with John and Nigel even more so Nigel because were both on the stoves and the pass driving the kitchen I have a lot of respect for John he was a good motivator.

Almost literally ((laughs)).

Yeah I won't go any further.

Yeah, no, no.

But working for John and working under Nigel was fantastic and I was very fortunate because  I'd left working for Michel Roux Jnr , I'd been in the States for 18 months after Le Gavroche, I'd come back from the states to work at L'Ortolan and John  he gave me a challenge"¦took me under his wing and he showed me a lot of great things on the fish and sauce  sections which I think Nigel took a little bit of offence to at the time  but I ended up running the fish section for  them and loved it. Its also where I met my Wife Cecile. John and Nigel, taught me how to bring the best flavours from simple ingredients.  It was fantastic. Now working for Michel Roux was equally interesting, I guess more discipline for me because it was the first hard fast paced kitchen I'd gone into. There they instilled in me, I guess, a passion for the ingredient, respect for the ingredient and like I said earlier on the ingredients that they used they were just second to none, absolutely superb but there you learn a good kitchen discipline, a lot of great classic cooking techniques and just the level of business was incredible to see 60 lunches every day, 80 plus dinners all the time.

Yeah no need to ask how many's booked because you

No, no you just didn't need to ask and I think the quietest service we did there was probably about 30 lunches.

I mean it's an institution isn't it in the nicest possible way. It's

It's a legendary place.

Yes absolutely.

And another legendary kitchen I worked in that would be with Marco Pierre White. Working there I've learned about finesse on a plate. I think the word genius is something you just can't apply to anybody

No it's overused isn't it?

Yeah, yeah but, you know, if anyone was to ask me have you ever worked with a"¦ name a genius, I'd probably say it would have to be someone like Marco. Not only was he completely passionate but he had a style that was just so light, so fast and just last minute it was just a joy to work with and Marco himself, as with all these chefs, yeah they've got a business to run and they've got a level of responsibility but they're really genuinely great to work for. They're very generous. They make you work hard but they are generous as well. So those three kitchens kind of built the style of my work, what we do here.

Last but by no means least you've got a great restaurant here, business is going well for you at Cameron House and long may that continue, where is Martin Wishart going now? What does the future hold for you?

Well I have just in the process of buying  another restaurant in Edinburgh last month. Its a good time to buy property prices are down and opportunities  are there if you look for them.

The same sort of thing Martin or something a little bit different?

Something a little bit different.

Okay yeah.

You know having employed so many people over 11, 12 years there's a few of them there that are ready to Step up and run a business.

Fantastic so you're going to bring them back into the business?

Definitely, definitely that's what's planned for 2011.

So more sort of casual dining or what can we expect if you want to give anything away?

I have travelled a lot in my career. This new venture I hope will bring some interesting and great dishes to Edinburgh. It's not fine dining.

Okay yeah. Nice.

The new venture will seat 70 and also have a bar and lounge area where guests can also eat. I love eating out in New York and Chicago it's interesting and exciting I like the informal style with fantastic food there. Our menus will be priced reasonably for the Edinburgh market. The Kitchen will be working hard!

Fantastic.

The fine dining, it's hard work, it's ball-breaking but it's what we probably do best.

Well I wish you every success thank you very, very much for today.

Thank you it's a pleasure ; it's nice to meet you as well.

It's nice to meet you. And thank you!

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 19th January 2011

Martin Wishart, Restaurant Martin Wishart, Leith, Edinburgh