Paul Leonard, Head Chef, Isle of Eriska Hotel

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th December 2016

Paul Leonard is head chef at Isle of Eriska Hotel, which holds a star in the Michelin Guide UK and a mark of five in the Good Food Guide 2017.

Paul joined the Isle of Eriska team a little over a year ago after working for the two Michelin-starred chef, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. Since taking over the reins of the kitchen, Paul’s focus has been on developing an ever evolving menu that uses the best in Scottish produce as well as ingredients from the kitchen garden and the island.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Paul about changing the menu daily, making the most of the Scottish larder and finding space on dishes for ingredients picked fresh from the kitchen garden.

Paul Leonard
Paul Leonard

Did you always want to be a chef?

Ever since I was younger, I never really ventured into any other career. It was when I was 13 that I started out as a pot wash and it went from there.

My granddad used to own a chain of home brew shops, I know it’s not directly cooking, but it created an interest in me. He did a lot of home brew and produced his own wines. Food and drink was a big part of growing up for me, so it just seemed natural that I would follow into it.

When you took over as head chef did you stick to the same menu?

To be honest, it’s the ethos of the whole kitchen and this follows on from the rest of the island. The island is organic, we grow fruit and vegetables, don't use pesticides, we compost, have our own smokehouse and everything is focused on the amount of food we can get on the island.

Basically the type of food here writes itself because of everything available to us. We have 50 pieces of wild food on the island, 57 types of herbs, eight different seaweeds, sea kelp and sea lettuce. It's very diverse because in two minute walk we could be picking kelp and then you could be walking through the forest which has a totally different microclimate and therefore produce and be picking chanterelles. There’s so many different species of wild food around and we reflect that on the menu. I would say 80% of the non-proteins on the menu come from the island. Ross (Ross Stovold, ex head chef) focused on the Eriska larder, so I wouldn’t say we have changed much at all, it’s mainly just little tweaks in the way we do things. Ross came from Sat Bains and I came from Andrew Fairlie so you can see our backgrounds are slightly different, but at the end of the day it’s just down to good honest cooking, which I think is expected from the guests at Eriska.

We change the menu everyday up here so we’re constantly rolling, we have around 32 dishes that we keep tweaking so the menu is constantly evolving which is good because then we can use different things and as soon as something is in season we can put it on the dish.

Paul Leonard
Paul Leonard

What was Andrew Fairlie like to work with?

It was amazing, I have a huge amount of respect for him. Throughout my career I had been down in London, done some time in the Lakes and then moved to Andrew’s, it almost made me more mature as a person because you knew exactly what you were doing. The kitchen was run with military precision and obviously the garden operation there is really important. There was a lot of time to interact with the chefs and the growers so the amount of stuff I learnt so much from working with Andrew and Stevie (Stephen McGlauchlin) both professionally and personally. It was like a finishing school to be honest and to this day I will still say that Stevie is the best person I have ever worked with.

What did you learn from Andrew that you took with you to The Isle of Eriska?

Cooking wise you take something from everywhere you have been. The main things for me would be the organisation of the kitchen and the professionalism because we’ve all worked in a kitchen where you’ve got tunes on and it’s a little bit more relaxed, whereas working with Andrew it was very much somewhere you turned up smart and if you weren’t smart you sorted it out. Even in service we were down to the exact 15 seconds when something would be ready. For me it’s a great place for guys to go and start their career and if I see young guys come in I would certainly advise them to go to Mr. Fairlie’s because it has everything you need to start you off on a good foot.

I would advise anyone to bite the bullet and go if they can.

Info Bar

'Favourite ingredients'

Shellfish

Game

Anything from the garden that we’re growing

'Signature dishes'

With us changing every night it can be difficult to select signature dishes but we did have a scallop dish on the tasting menu which was served with a salsa verde and brown butter consomme which I think will stay with us wherever we go. I’ve been wanting to get it on the menu for ages because it’s something I did years ago and I think we’ve nailed it now!

How much does the menu rely on the seasons?

The food served at Eriska is totally seasonal. Whenever something is ready in the green room we’ll go and pick it and we’ll know we’re only using it that night. Everything has a reason on the plate, so just because we have it growing on the island doesn’t mean it’ll automatically go on, it means our work is finding a place for it to fit on the dish rather than including it because we have it growing. The hard work is finding the space for it.

The menu changes daily.

Everything is made fresh on the day. We have a great network of suppliers, so we get the shellfish from just down the road, a lot of fish from the lake, and we have the pick of the best fish from all the Scottish ports. For the meat we work with our butcher to ensure it gets the right amount of time, we put a lot of trust in him because if he says it’s ready he’ll send it to us. We don’t have the space to be hanging sides of mutton and venison but in our eyes it needs to be aged. If he tells us there’s venison ready, then the venison will go on the menu as soon as it comes in. All the focus is on the freshness of the produce and ingredients.

The whole team have to be so focused and on the ball, having a dish which then slightly changes due to ingredients foraged later in the week could be confusing, but we work together as a team, evolving dishes to create the best taste for the customer. We know exactly what we want to do when we come in that day. It’s almost like starting afresh every day and it takes new chefs a couple of weeks to understand what’s happening with the ever changing ingredients, but once you get into the swing of it, it's flows. It means a lot of late night menu planning.

Isle of Eriska
Isle of Eriska

Do you get the team involved in the menu changes? What’s the process?

I’m really lucky, everyone has the same ethos of how they think food should be going out. We’re all singing off of the same hymn sheet which is something really special, and I’m including the whole team on this. It’s not like it’s just me and the sous chef thinking this is what we should do, it’s a matter of everyone buying into the idea. I’ll go, we have Halibut for starter this evening, what should we do with it, and we’ll just have a talk about it. Normally we’ll get a base idea and we’ll tweak it with whatever comes in in the morning or whatever someone forages in the afternoon.

It’s a full team process and that’s the way it should be because everyone needs to buy into the food that we are doing. If we send someone out to pick something that afternoon and they’re coming back excited with a basket full of stuff then they’re processing it, they’re putting it on the plate and they’ll send it out to guests with a sense of achievement as well as an understanding of the plate too. I think that’s half the battle, if you have a guy that understands why he is doing something, where the produce is coming from, the whole process goes full circle.

We all spend time in the garden, we all go and meet suppliers and we all go together when we can and then as a team go and eat together.

Paul Leonard
Paul Leonard

Can you tell us a little more about the famous cheese trolley?

At the moment we’re sitting between 30 and 36 cheeses which includes everything you can imagine. Everything is from the British Isles and we’re looking at about 65% of it coming from Scotland at the moment which is obviously very important to us. It’s super popular, we get a cheese delivery twice a week and in the summer we take a hell of a lot of cheese in. I think people expect a big selection and what we have is really diverse but we also know an awful lot about how it was made, why it’s made like that and why it tastes how it does and it’s the guys out front understanding that because they’re the ones serving it.

It’s one of those things where we can get all the team together to have a chat about a new cheese that’s come in so everyone understands why it tastes like it does, how it was made, etc. and that just breaks down those barriers between the kitchen and front of house. Plus it’s good for the guests as they’re getting it explained to them as well and it gives the front of house team a chance to show off.

How would you describe your food style?

We take classic influences and cook them properly, we use a lot of nature and keep it fresh. I couldn’t think of a tag line, I know you must hate people saying it’s modern British cooking, it’s classic French etc! It’s almost like we keep classic techniques and use what we have as our resources. The best way to describe it would probably be classic techniques with a Scottish larder but still keeping it modern and fresh. We have a lot of guests staying 2-3 nights and we’ve just had six people stay here for a week so the constantly changing menu helps but it needs to be light and fresh because guests don't want to eat four-five heavy courses for six nights. So we have to keep our guests in mind and that’s why we do the changing menu, so we can keep that variation.

Paul Leonard
Paul Leonard

What is your favourite ingredient you like to work with?

For me it’s the abundance of amazing shellfish we get. It’s unbelievable, even if it’s a simple bowl of steamed mussels or for freshest Langoustines from Loch Fyne. For me it’s always exciting, especially when you come in and you have something that’s still alive and it gets processed and cooked on the same day, you can’t get any fresher than that. So it would be the amazing shellfish we have here, along with the produce we grow in the garden. That’s exciting, the fact we’ve seen it come in from seed, the team have grown it and now it’s ready to harvest!

Where do you get inspiration for dish creation?

It’s taking the dog for a walk around the island and it can also change from the weather as well. You can walk around and it’ll be a bright sunny day, all it takes is one thing to trigger an idea which will then change your train of thought and then you’ve got a completely different dish! We probably have around 32 dishes that we keep as a base, which are always changing, we have almost a skeleton dish and then we’ll add to it when we know something has come in. A dish can really change with the seasons and inspiration comes from going for a walk on the island, seeing what’s happening and just seeing what’s coming up in the garden. It goes back to the Eriska larder, the food which is found on the island and its seasonality.

What is next for you and the Isle of Eriska?

It’s just evolving Eriska to be bigger and better. Our growing operation is becoming bigger for us and it’s something that I’ve done in the last few jobs I’ve had, it started by meeting Ken Holland. He’s an unbelievable guy who can influence you to grow as much as you can and make it perfect. For me it’s focusing on trying to grow as much as we can on the island and incorporating that into the cooking.

>>> Related: 10 Minutes With: Ken Holland, specialist grower

 >>> Read more in The Staff Canteen Menu Watch series here

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th December 2016

Paul Leonard, Head Chef, Isle of Eriska Hotel