David Dempsey (below) must have thought Christmas had come early when he was asked to head the kitchen at the newest venture in the Gordon Ramsay empire, the restaurant at One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow.
Surprisingly, though, Dempsey experienced mixed feelings when his boss, recently elevated to three Michelin stars, offered him a promotion from his post as junior sous chef at Ramsay's flagship restaurant in London's Royal Hospital Road to chef de cuisine of the newly-named Amaryllis, which opened yesterday (25 April). "I'd always wanted to spend at least four years at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay," explains Dempsey. "I saw it as my finishing school."
But the lure of returning to his native Glasgow to run the kitchen at arguably the city's leading restaurant proved too great, and Dempsey upped sticks and left London last month, albeit some six months earlier than he had originally anticipated.
The move sees Dempsey back at the distinctive Residence International hotel occupying three Victorian houses, where he spent time during his formative years working as a commis under head chef Andrew Fairlie. Fairlie, who left One Devonshire Gardens at the end of February, has relocated to Gleneagles in Auchterarder, where he will open his own restaurant next month.
The fact that Dempsey is a Scot played a large part in Ramsay's choice of him to operate the kitchen at Amaryllis. "But I have always been struck by David's potential," says Ramsay. "David reminds me of Marcus Wareing [now chef-patron of London's Pétrus] when Marcus was my sous chef at Aubergine."
For Ramsay, the opening of a restaurant in Glasgow is particularly significant. Despite suggestions to the contrary, Ramsay does hail from Scotland and was, in fact, born in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, about 15 miles from Glasgow. "I've been seriously looking for a site in Glasgow for the past two years and was deeply upset when the site of Yes [in the city's West Nile Street] fell through - it was a great site, great position. But I always believe, if it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be," says Ramsay. "Then I was approached by Residence International. I was very attracted - One Devonshire Gardens is one of the most exciting addresses in Scotland." Ramsay has signed a 20-year lease for the restaurant at One Devonshire Gardens, but he will not comment further on his contract with Residence International.
With the conversion of the former lounge area at One Devonshire Gardens into further dining space, the restaurant's capacity has been increased by 25 seats to 70. It makes one of Dempsey's first tasks - to maintain the restaurant's one Michelin star - slightly more of a challenge. But the 29-year-old chef is not daunted.
"The main thing in my mind is to get this place up and running and win a star in January," says Dempsey, who is half-Scottish, half-French Mauritian. "It's been my ambition since I was young [to achieve Michelin-star status] and to be able to come back home and do it is obviously important to me. And, of course, the restaurant at One Devonshire Gardens is currently the only Michelin-starred establishment in Glasgow. And once I've got my first star, well, I would definitely want to push for a second."
But the accolades are not the be-all and end-all of running an operation, and Dempsey's priority is to achieve consistency in the kitchen and attract a solid clientele. He intends to do that by operating a series of menus featuring Ramsay staples, such as velouté of haricots blancs with roasted cèpes and grated truffle, tortellini of lobster and langoustines with fennel purée and baby spinach, and cannon of new season spring lamb with caramelised shallots, caviar aubergine and basil and rosemary jus.
"Obviously, there are similarities [between Dempsey's menu and Ramsay's] - I've been working with Gordon and Marcus for so long I'm going to be heavily influenced by these guys," says Dempsey, who wrote the opening menu. "Most importantly, it's food that I'm familiar with, food that I'm comfortable with. There will be a slight difference, but the execution of the cooking and elements such as the sauces will be identical."
Amaryllis will offer three menus: an £18, three-course lunch with a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts, a £25 dinner menu with seven starters, seven mains and five desserts, and a six-course menu prestige. Dempsey also anticipates serving a couple of daily specials.
To help Dempsey achieve his goals, Ramsay has installed Fiona Nairn (right) as general manager of Amaryllis. The appointment has caused a great deal of interest in the national press in Scotland, not least for the fact that Fiona is the former wife of TV chef Nick Nairn, who runs his own restaurant, Nairns, just 15 minutes' walk away from One Devonshire Gardens. In addition, Nick Nairn and Ramsay have enjoyed a colourful exchange of words in the Scottish tabloids ever since Ramsay announced plans to open a restaurant in Scotland two years ago.
The suggestion that she has been used as some sort of pawn - or, as The Herald put it, "a ploy to antagonise Ready, Steady, Cook star Nairn" - riles Fiona, who has returned to work in the hospitality industry after an 18-month break following the sale of her restaurant, Braeval, in Aberfoyle, which she launched with Nick in 1986.
"I've known Gordon for many, many years and I've watched his career, his progress and his success with great admiration," explains Fiona. "Having held a star at Braeval from 1991 to when I sold it, I know the level of commitment, the difficulty of maintaining consistency and the work involved.
"It would be silly to say that it hadn't crossed my mind that Nick was operating a restaurant in Glasgow, because of course I am very aware that Nick's restaurant exists - but so do many other restaurants. I've always been quite a believer in doing what you do well and doing it to the best of your ability. Most people who are concerned with competition are the ones who have a problem with it and a fear that they are going to be bettered. I feel that we have a superb product here that we will obviously try to make a success, and if others rise to the challenge, then so be it."
Ramsay describes Fiona as "the perfect Scottish rose" and, therefore, ideal for a front of house position at his Amaryllis. "Fiona and I go back a long way. She's caring, welcoming and offers a friendly service. I never got the chance to go to Braeval, but she has always had a reputation for being very attentive."
Fiona's role at Amaryllis is considerably larger than the one she performed at Braeval. "Braeval was a maximum of 36 covers and set in a very rural position, while One Devonshire Gardens is in an urban environment. But there are similarities."
She is responsible for the day-to-day running of the restaurant and will be assuming a strong presence in the dining room during service. "My presence is going to be very evident in the restaurant, because it gives me a chance to meet all our clients and convey the Amaryllis message to them," explains Fiona, who married BBC Scotland secretary Mark Leishman last month ("at work I'm Nairn, at home I'm Mrs Leishman," she says). She will also oversee administrative roles, marketing and PR.
"I do believe that Amaryllis will become a destination restaurant just as Braeval was," adds Fiona. "I hope people will make a conscious decision to go to Amaryllis and not just happen to be wandering past the front door."
Dempsey agrees. In the run-up to the opening of Amaryllis (Amaryllis flower, above left) he ate his way round Glasgow, but was largely disappointed by what he found. "For me, quite a lot of food is overpriced for what it is. We've tried to take the pretentiousness away from eating at Amaryllis by offering good food at affordable prices. We don't want people to come here once a year - we want people to feel they can come here as often as they would like."
Working for Gordon Ramsay is not without its problems, though, as Dempsey explains. "He's done more for me and my career than anybody else ever has or ever will," says Dempsey. "He's given me an opportunity that I will probably never get again. There is one thing we do fall out about, though," he confides. "I'm a Celtic fan, and he supports Glasgow Rangers - it's the only thing we disagree on."
SOMMELIER'S WIN RECOMMENDATIONS
Ronan Sayburn, sommelier at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, recommends wines to go with the dishes featured.
Roasted loin of venison with Savoy cabbage and venison jus
This dish has an intense and concentrated sauce with quite earthy overtones from the cabbage and mushrooms, along with textured, solid meat.
From the New World, try the 1998 Georgia's Paddock Shiraz from Jasper Hill in Victoria, Australia - a very deep, black and powerful wine with black cherry and bramble flavours, rounded off with a soft, toasted barrel ageing.
From the Old World, try another Syrah, this one more traditionally from the Northern Rhone valley. The 1997 Crozes-Hermitage from Alain Graillot is full and spicy, lots of ripe blackcurrant fruit, a crisp acidity and very minerally on the finish.
Tortellini of lobster and langoustine with shellfish vinaigrette and fennel purée
The filling of this tortellini is made using the freshest seafood, so a clean, crisp, full-bodied white wine with a touch of citrus, but also with a distinctive varietal character (preferably quite herbal to match the light aniseed touch of the fennel), should be the perfect match.
From the New World, try a clean and mineral 2000 Sauvignon Blanc from Mulderbosch vineyards in Stellenbosch, with wonderful melon, honey blossom and lime fruit on the nose and dry, full-bodied fruit that is piercing and citrus on the palate.
From the Old World, something very dry and crisp from the western coast of Spain would go well with this dish. Wines made with the Albariño grape variety can often be very similar to Rieslings, so try a 1998 Albariño, Bodegas Valdamor, Rias Baixas.
Left: Roasted loin of venison with Savoy cabbage and venison jus
Right: Tortellini of lobster and langoustines
Below: Blood orange jelly with warm financier
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 26 April - 2 May 2001
Photographs: Alan Donaldson