Paul Kitching, Chef Patron, 21212 Restaurant, Edinburgh

The Staff Canteen

Paul Kitching is chef patron of 21212 Restaurant in Edinburgh. He started as a kitchen porter in a Latin American restaurant in Newcastle before moving to York as a commis chef and realising he had a passion for classical cooking. He moved into Michelin kitchens in his early twenties including Restaurant 74 and Gidleigh Park before achieving his own star with his first restaurant Juniper. He opened 21212 in 2009 and gained a Michelin star after just 6 months.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Paul about his journey from KP to chef patron, working with and meeting some of the best chefs in the UK and why being confident in his own food is now more important than a second star.

Lemon tart 

What was it which appealed to you about the industry?

The cold and unemployment! I left school and I was unemployed then I worked on a building site as a labourer in Newcastle until I was let go. It was a cold winter and I got a job from the job centre as a kitchen assistant and I was thinking ‘I’m going to be a chef!’

I thought I’ll keep nice and warm, make some bread and eat what I want. I was 18 and the appeal stayed from there but I didn’t want to be a chef and I didn’t think about it seriously for another three or four years.

I liked the modernism of a professional kitchen, the stainless steel, the design – more so than the food really. I didn’t think ‘I’m here to learn to cook’, I enjoyed the experience of being part of a machine.

You moved to York as a commis chef at the Viking Hotel, how was that experience?

I wasn’t even sure what a commis chef was! I was 21 and I was a cocky sod, it was real eye-opener because it was 22 chefs, it was a brigade system and it was a serious kitchen. There were 8 kitchen porters and they were in charge of the 6 commis chefs so we would get changed with them not the chefs. It was the first time I’d been around ‘oui chef’ and that environment and I thought ‘this is brilliant’. It blew my socks off!

I couldn’t learn enough, I was like a sponge. The head chef at the time loved me because he knew I was obsessed with wanting to learn. It was a real adventure and if I could go back, forget all the Michelin star stuff I’d go back there, I was a happy guy just learning.

Top 5 meals

Claude Bosi at Hibiscus in Ludlow, the dish was a langoustine tartare. It was cold and the waiter poured a langoustine bisque on top of it. It tasted so buttery, and rich and intense. I couldn’t do that but I’d love to know how he did it. I really think it was the best thing I’ve tasted in my life.

De Karmeliet in Bruges they did I starter that had me shocked in awe. It was a ratatouille mosaic of red, yellow and green peppers. It was cold and on a huge plate and around the outside it had little shrimps. Each shrimp overlapped the other shrimp, they were like a petticoat around the outside – I thought ‘no, you can’t do that! It would take half an hour for two chefs to do that dish!’ There must have been 80 shrimps! It was immaculate and it was brilliant.  

John Burton-Race in 1987 at L'Ortolan restaurant. His food was totally different to other chefs at the time. I had a sweetbread dish with pasta and it had two sauces; a red pepper and a yellow pepper sauce. There was samphire on it, a scattering of vegetables, it was on a huge plate with a little pastry case and oysters around the outside. The flavours were great but from a presentation point of view, the complexity of it and how it was presented, it changed my life actually.

Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in 1986 – we had the gold menu it was all great but I remember the pre dessert. It was a sorbet in a little silver cup with a bit of sugared mint on top. They came over with a bottle of champagne, opened it and poured it on top of the sorbet. I tasted it and thought ‘that is fantastic’. I’d never tasted champagne!

Marco Pierre White at any time! But I had a lamb dish at The Restaurant Marco Pierre White in the dining room at the former Hyde Park Hotel, now Mandarin Oriental. It was brilliant, it was lamb, confit garlic and a gateau of aubergine. It was so simple but so beautiful.

So how did you end up moving into the Michelin-starred kitchens?

My head chef at the Viking was an old school chef, he had his big office and no one was allowed in but I was and I used to pull a few books out; Paul Bocouse, Escoffier, the Roux brothers, all these brilliant chefs from the seventies and eighties. I used to look at the nouvelle cuisine food and think ‘oh my god, look at this’. I was on the o’dourves trolley at the time so I started putting things like poached eggs with truffle jelly on top, I got really into it and I just loved the presentation. I pulled a book out one day and I said ‘chef what’s this?’ He said ‘it’s the Michelin Guide’ and he explained to me what it was all about. Grabbing that book that day changed a lot of things for me.He saw that I was interested and he literally forced me to go to an interview at a place called Middlethorpe but my heart wasn’t in it. It was the first time I’d seen sweetbreads and truffles, fresh game and foie gras but it didn’t float my boat. I was there for a year then I moved to Harrogate and met Simon Gueller, he’s a great chef but scary as hell!

He told me about the Box Tree in Ilkely, I did a few stages there and the food was just beautiful, I loved the labour intensive side you had to put in to get this beautiful food out. The food was straight from the books I used to read at the Viking - I still think there's something magic about the Box Tree.

You met Marco Pierre White for the first time in Simon's kitchen, he's the reason you grew your hair and his food inspired you,  you clearly admired him.

I've met him a number of times since but on that occasion I remember Simon had a really scruffy friend who came and worked a night for us. He didn’t say a word and he had trainers on in the kitchen and I thought ‘you’re weird mate’. He made some terrines for Simon, did his stuff and then left and it was Marco. He was a bloody talent, he’s the only guy I’ve seen Simon bow down to.

How influential were the chefs you worked under over the years?

Before Juniper I was at Restaurant 74 with Ian McAndrew, and the first time I stood in the kitchen and saw the food I wet my pants! It was then I realised Michelin cooking was the way I was going to go. It was nouvelle cuisine, labour intensive food – things I wouldn’t entertain today.

He’d buy in lobsters just to crush them to make lobster bisque or whole crabs to make a mousse. I had a tough three years there, but he’s also the best chef I’ve ever worked with. Looking back he was cooking food of a 2 star Michelin standard at that time. His sous chef was Phil Vickery and he's such a brilliant chef, together their technical ability was outstanding. Phil's knife skills were unbelievable, he was born to be a brilliant chef. 

Then I worked with Shaun Hill at Gidleigh Park, I did three years and didn’t enjoy it but as a place it was fantastic. I learnt a lot though, it was modern French food and Shaun was a simple cook but he liked using eastern spices. I left to take a head chef position at a hotel because I thought I needed to be head chef as soon as possible so I could get a Michelin star! It was a disaster!

Sea bass

At Juniper you earned a star of your own, what was that like?

Juniper was an ambitious place that wanted a star. We opened in November 1995, got some good press and then we got a star a year and a half later. The food was pure Marco Pierre White inspired, it had a little bit of me in it but it was influenced by his style. I got confident and I started getting invited to events in London and I’d have big name chefs coming up to me saying ‘how are you doing?’ and I’d be like ‘it’s Michel Roux!’ I was buzzing and it was a great, great time.

I was at Juniper for 13 years, we bought it in 2000, and it was absolutely brilliant. By the time we closed it everything from when we opened, as in the Marco food style, was gone. It had become a mirror image of who I thought I was.

You’ve had 21212 Restaurant in Edinburgh since 2009, gaining a star in just 6 months. Where did the name come from and how has it evolved over the years?

It took 13 months from closing Juniper to get this place open. It’s been tough a s shit but the place is magnificent and the investment is huge. The name comes from a set menu we used to do at Juniper on a Tuesday night, designed to drum a bit of business up. The menu was two starters, a soup course, two mains, a cheese course and two desserts – we’d get the check in the kitchen and say ‘check on 21212’. I thought that was a good name for a restaurant!

When we came here, everything we were doing at Juniper I said ‘bin it, scrap it, I’m not doing it’. We came with a blank canvas, I didn’t want to do an al a carte menu and I liked the idea of a mini menu which has now caught on all over the world, I wanted to go back to basics. Within a year the food had gone left of centre of where I thought it would and eight years later it’s completely different. It’s still a reflection of my character, it’s still trying too hard and it’s still trying to please the customer.

The things that moved me as a young man, move me now and the base of our food is classic French food. If you want to put a badge on it you could say its modern European food but it’s not influenced by other restaurants it’s influenced by feelings.

What about ingredients are they locally sourced and seasonal?

I think seasonality is less important than it was given the size of the world we now live in. We get white asparagus from Peru and it’s still dripping with dew when we get it in and to the best of my knowledge there is no one in Scotland doing white asparagus as good as this. Because of the nature and style of my cooking there are a lot of things I just don’t need to use such as game in season. I’m not one of these guys who goes out foraging, or meets the farmers and milk cows or throw trout over my shoulder. 

21212 Restaurant

After being so desperate to achieve a star when you were younger, what are your thoughts on accolades now?

When I look at my food over the past 21 years, I think ‘shit man I don’t think we’d even get a star now for the food we served back in the day’. Things change but then again it’s a lot easier to get a star than it used to be. I think the presentation has changed more than anything, more than flavours more than textures – it’s the way I’ve developed.

And what’s the future for you and the restaurant?

I’ve got years to go and my whole life is in this place. From day one at Juniper my ambition was to get two star Michelin, I think I’m a better chef than I was but the goal now is to feel confident as a chef and with my food.

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Editor 6th August 2016

Paul Kitching, Chef Patron, 21212 Restaurant, Edinburgh