Roy Brett, chef proprietor, Ondine restaurant, Edinburgh

The Staff Canteen

Roy Brett, chef proprietor of Ondine restaurant in Edinburgh has always had a passion for cooking fish.

Starting his career at the Caledonian Hotel before heading to London to work with Mark Hix and Rick Stein, he says he learnt the importance of keeping food simple.

Opening Ondine six years ago, Roy now enjoys passing on his knowledge of seafood to his young chefs and his customers. The Staff Canteen spoke to him about why he thinks Scottish produce is the best, why fish is so ‘unforgiving’ and his favourite ingredients.

You’ve enjoyed cooking fish from a young age, what is it about seafood that you are drawn to?

When you get a wild bass in your hands, it's super fresh. It’s glistening and the eyes are spanking I just think it’s beautiful and I’m lucky to handle it. Fish is so unforgiving, there is a fine line between it being over and undercooked. You can’t make mistakes with fish, the beauty of it is once you start to understand it, it’s such a great product to work with. I’m fascinated by fish, seeing it come in fresh and getting my young cooks to handle it every day.

They learn the characteristics so they know a seabass has a high rib cage and they know how to deal with monk fish membrane. I love that all my guys fillet the fish in the restaurant because so many places get their fish already filleted, or the fresh summer squid we get that’s so thin but fries up beautifully and our guys prepare it from scratch. Fish is a more expensive restaurant to run because it doesn’t have a shelf life like meat but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

How did you get into the industry?

My family have always cooked, Sunday’s were always a special day where everyone would come together and eat around the table. My father was a fisherman and he used to take me fishing at a young age, whatever we caught we would eat so I’ve always had a connection to food from a young age. When it was time to leave school and choose a profession, I was lucky enough to get an apprenticeship at the Caledonian Hotel with Alan Hill. I just remember they used everything from the whole vegetables right down to the peelings. It struck a chord, it was refreshing to see how really responsible kitchen management worked.

What was it like to work with Rick Stein and then Mark Hix?

It was amazing. For me they are the two best chefs in Britain and what I loved was their food was unashamedly simple but absolutely perfect. They knew what to put on the plate and they were comfortable enough to believe that what they put on the plate was what people wanted to eat. Using foam guns, cooking with tweezers – it has a place but certainly not in my kitchen or any of the kitchens I ever worked in. Mark and Rick are real characters. Rick always referred to the ‘point of the dish’ so why are you cooking it in the first place? And he never disappointed – I was really lucky to work with both of them.

Their style obviously made an impression, does it still influence your cooking to date?

Absolutely! I’ve just come back from Cannes, I was there for a 50th birthday and I cooked fruits of the sea for forty people. When you go down to the market and get the fish, the oysters and the shells – the produce is so good, so clean and simple but so memorable. My influences come from travel, the grounding that I got from Mark and Rick, and I learnt it’s equally important to know what not to do as well as what to do – that’s something I share with my team today. I’m lucky to have real, young talent working around me.

If you served Mark and Rick in your restaurant do you think they would be happy with your dishes and see their influence behind them?

They would definitely tell me if they weren’t happy! They are very honest and they are pure in their cooking.

You talk about using fresh, local produce – are you particularly keen to champion Scottish products?

Everybody loves Scottish produce and everybody talks about our whisky, langoustine, the berry season – there’s a lot to be proud of. When you travel the country and you look at what really excites people, you look at the produce we have in Scotland and we are more in tune now with what we have as a valuable product and how to look after it responsibly.

I think the husbandry that happens now from sea farms to land farms is remarkable. More Scottish restaurants are serving Scottish produce, it might sound a bit silly but you only need to go back a few years to when people weren’t so in tune to what we really have. It’s great to see the excitement from chefs who come from overseas when they see the creatures in the shells and experience the natural larder that we have. It is better than anybody else’s and I don’t care what anyone else says – it is!

Do you have a favourite ingredient you like to work with?

Scallops, which come from the Ethical Shellfish Company on Mull. They are really fresh, clean and they arrive alive – we go through so many! Also, we had Terry Laybourne, from 21 Hospitality Group, and his team come up from Newcastle. I served them langoustine that were landed in Sky that morning, simply boiled in salted water and served on ice, you just need to go on twitter to see the reaction. Fruits of the sea - when you see them cooked like that - it’s so honest and they look beautiful. It’s primal as well, you’re engaged with your hands and socially people get engaged at the table because you're peeling the prawns, drinking wine and arguing over who is having the last langoustine. I just think that’s what it’s all about.

You are clearly passionate about seafood but how important is it for chefs to understand where ingredients come from and the sustainability of a product?

Chefs have got to have an understanding of the sea. Working with Rick Stein, we were one of the first to have MSC for mackerel. I carried it on and we had that certification at Ondine until I decided to stop it. There was nothing wrong but I came to a point where I had listened to them, fishermen and the Scottish government and I realised I had a good knowledge and I didn’t need certification to reflect this. It’s important to listen to everyone, the environmentalists and the fishermen.

For chefs in general, it’s important to know where ingredients come from – it’s all about seasons and respecting nature – not taking too much out. I have a lot of respect for fisherman and what they do it’s the hardest job in the world. How many jobs out there, other than the armed forces, do you go out for the day and you might not come back? It’s great to work with them and support the fisherman’s mission, I’m right behind and support marine conservation and I don’t have to wear a badge for people to see that I’m doing that.

I follow fish2fork every week to see what fish is available, where there is a shortage and what shouldn’t be taken. We made the choice to take MSC off our menus not because I don’t like or respect what they do, I just feel I’ve learnt enough now that I know what’s right and wrong to go onto my menu. I’ll still listen and I’ll still look for guidance.

Why did you decide to open Ondine?

I left Rick’s to work with Ken McCulloch and I stayed with him for three years. I realised I wanted to make decisions myself and for me, fish was all I wanted to cook. So my wife Karen and I decided to open our own place.

Is having your own place how you expected it to be?

I had no fear when we opened because there was so much to do. I didn’t think about anything not working, but it’s been really challenging and tough. My cousin and business partner, came out of Ondine a month ago so now I’m completely solo which is a fantastic feeling. I get a real buzz, the team really work hard and I have a lot of respect for them and they are fantastic chefs of the future.

Have you achieved what you set out to achieve when you first opened?

I think Ondine is always getting better, it’ like a marriage you get to know your restaurant better as the years go on. You build up a client base and you get to know their habits but it’s great to see the tourism trade coming back too. The American market, Russian, Chinese – they are all in the one room at Ondine having a good time and they only came for one purpose – to eat shellfish! We always like to have a room with an atmosphere, I don’t see the point of going to a stuffy restaurant all we’ve ever wanted at Ondine is for people to come and have a good time. I think we’ve achieved that and often excelled it.

And what about awards?

Awards are nice but ultimately it’s about being true to your beliefs. We are trying to be accessible to three different markets – local, the city and tourists. Ultimately what we want is a successful business and we want to achieve a regular clientele...

You mentioned your young chefs, do you enjoy passing on your skills to them?

It’s the whole point – we are on a journey and I know it’s cliché to say these chefs are just passing through but what you learn you must pass on - hopefully in the years to come they will appreciate that. It’s great to work with chefs who have the energy my team have, they work really hard. They don’t become chefs in your restaurant they become friends, not in a socialising way but in a respectful way. Some of the young chefs I have in the kitchen now, I know there will be many successful restaurants built around these guys and girls.

Can Scottish restaurants really compete with those in London?

It’s very difficult to compare both cities, we’re very much different from London. There’s so much we can take from London and I have so much respect for the restaurateurs who work down there especially as it's so hard to keep up the standards and the consistency. I believe we are growing up here and the market in Scotland is looking very promising and it’s a good time to be a restaurateur in Scotland right now.

We’ve talked about ingredients but what dishes on your menu best reflect your style?

The wild sea bass ceviche - it’s inspired by Gary Lee’s dish at The Ivy, and is really popular. Getting in that whole fish, filleting it, pin boning it and then slicing it and adding your marinade just to take to that point if just cooking it and then serving it – I think this dish sums us up. We are not doing a lot to it but we are in the sense that the sea bass will taste fantastic just as it is. I try to do that with all the dishes we serve.

Also the hot roasted shellfish, using whole fruits of the sea that have such different flavours and textures. We use all the juices in one pan to make the sauce and it’s such a robust, confident and reliable dish.

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Editor 23rd July 2015

Roy Brett, chef proprietor, Ondine restaurant, Edinburgh