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Chef profile: Tom Kitchin

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Chef profile: Tom Kitchin
Written by:

The start of this year saw Tom and Michaela Kitchin reopen the Kitchin in Leith after a major £1m-plus refurbishment. They tell Neil Gerrard why they took the plunge, what it means for their nine-year-old restaurant, and why a vibrant Scottish dining scene means London just isn’t for them

Tom Kitchin seems pretty enthusiastic at the best of times, but get him on to the subject of the changes to his flagship, eponymous restaurant and he is clearly very happy indeed.

On a tour of the revamped site, he explains what happened in late December as the business closed down for refurbishment and builders arrived to start work on the original section of the restaurant.

“We came in at 10.30am on the Sunday morning and our beloved restaurant was just flattened,” he exclaims with a wide, dramatic sweep of his arms and a grin on his face. It’s hard to imagine such a scene now with all that work complete. Having taken over the adjoining Chinese restaurant, Chop Chop, and spent somewhere over £1m, the Kitchin has been transformed into a spacious, clean, modern-looking restaurant that manages to
make its Scottish roots and Tom’s “nature to plate” cooking philosophy abundantly clear, without appearing twee or clichéd.

It has been much more than a case of simply tacking another restaurant onto the side of an existing one – the site has been completely remodelled.

What was the bar in the Kitchin has been removed, along with the old entrance, and turned into a back-of-house area. The kitchen has been enlarged substantially and air-conditioning added, with more windows to see Tom and his team at work. To the back of the main dining room there’s a temperature-controlled wine cellar that can hold around 2,500 bottles. Then there’s a new private dining room, offering 22 covers, and a
whisky snug to the left of the main entrance, reflecting the building’s history as an old whisky bond on the Leith docks.

All this means that whereas before the restaurant would seat 45-50 and, by turning a few tables, could do 70 covers, it can now do 70 covers in the restaurant with the private dining room in addition.

Explaining why the change was necessary, Tom says: “Being in Edinburgh, on something like a rugby weekend, we’d end up with a table of 12 on a Friday night and then have a wee table of two next to it. From a business point of view, you can’t turn down the custom, but it was difficult.

“With the private room, the restaurant allows us to control the service more, give a better customer experience and really allow us to take it to the next level. More importantly than that, the kitchen is double the size,” he laughs.

You won’t find Tom hogging the plaudits for all the changes, though. “Michaela is Swedish, and she won’t take the credit for it, but she has done all the interiors and had all the ideas and vision of what the restaurant is going to be.” 

Michaela adds: “Over the years we have had some ideas about what we would really have loved to do in the building but we couldn’t always afford to do it. We felt that in the past the restaurant wasn’t always really matching up with our philosophy.

“We always want to try and put across our philosophy of from nature to plate, and we are really passionate about this country. We love the colours of Scotland, I suppose. I worked with Stephen Paterson from Burns Interior Design and it was about trying to work with the textures and materials of Scotland and really using what is here to be able to present something that showcases Scotland.”

It’s a big change from when the restaurant opened nine years ago, although success – including a Michelin star after just six months, and a Newcomer Award at the Cateys in 2008 – came quickly.

“You’ve got to understand that when we opened this restaurant, it was just myself, Michaela and Philippe [Nublat],’ says Tom. “I had two in the kitchen with me, a pot washer, a second-hand stove, second-hand fridges, and every year we have evolved and grown naturally.

“We have just reinvested and, every single time we’ve closed, we have tried to do some improvements,” adds Michaela.

There were some deliberations about how the expansion was even going to be possible.

“When we got our Catey, we were just a tiny little baby,” says Tom. “But it has just grown until finally we were saying to ourselves ‘what are we going to do here?’ We had grown into every single corner and there was nowhere else to go. It was Michaela who asked if we could think about taking over the Chinese restaurant next door, so we made a proposal.”

The decision has allowed the pair to remain true to Leith, the area that first brought them success as restaurateurs. It has been a significant investment, with a loan from Allied Irish Bank (GB) to help make it happen.

“We are very fortunate that we got ourselves into the position where we could take this financial jump and do it,” says Tom. “We started from absolutely nothing. We used money that we had saved and that granddad had saved and that was it. In London you hear people talk about openings costing £12m. Well, listen, this was a £70,000 overdraft and we are very proud of that.”

The bank has been supportive, he claims, and believes in the project enough to sink a significant sum of money into it.

“It was a humongous bank loan for us to take, especially considering where we came from. But the wonderful thing about being the owners is that we don’t have to put financial pressures on ourselves to pay it back in a year or two years. The business and the customer will come first, and we will allow it to grow like that.”

Michaela adds: “We just felt that we had no other choice than to do it, and there was never going to be a ‘right’ time to do it, so we are just going to work hard and push on. Despite the cosmetic changes to the restaurant, Tom’s menu has not been substantially reworked, although it goes through a constant evolution as the seasons vary and the available Scottish produce changes.

At the time of our interview, he is enthusiastic about sea kale, which is grown on Eassie Farm near Glamis, which also supplies him with asparagus.

“It is really expensive – it is a bit like forced rhubarb, but comes up white and is just the most wonderful winter vegetable,” he explains. It has helped give rise to a couple of new dishes, including seared, hand-dived Orkney scallops, served with a ragout of sea kale.

“That’s the great thing about seasonality, you are always evolving your dishes,” Tom says. The crockery has changed though – out go the more traditional white plates in favour of bespoke crockery by a local artist that has a more rustic feel and reflects the muted grey and greens in the restaurant’s colour palette.

With their recent work to the Kitchin, their interest in the Scran & Scallie gastropub, and their involvement with Edinburgh’s Castle Terrace restaurant (albeit run as a completely separate business by chef-patron Dominic Jack), as well as four children to look after, Tom and Michaela certainly have a lot on, but what of the future?

“I don’t know – we never actually make plans like that,” Tom answers honestly. “We just assess every opportunity we come across and see if there is anything in it,” adds Michaela.

Even if something else does arise, it is likely to be in Scotland. “We are ambitious, but I will be honest, we have turned down London and we have turned down Dubai,” admits Tom.

“Why do I need that? I don’t need the stress of going up and down in an aeroplane. I want to be here, in the restaurant, cooking. I want to see my children and I want to see my suppliers. I actually want to fillet that fish and butcher that grouse. That is what I enjoy – I am a chef.”

“We are really hands-on and that is why we keep it small,” says Michaela. “Edinburgh is fairly small and we have a balance that works for us. Although never say never.”

Whatever happens, Tom seems happy for the time being to focus on getting the most out of that new kitchen. “I keep saying this – I need to find a kitchen that I can grow old in like my mentors did, so that you feel you can create a kind of institution.”

Hopefully now he has.

Shellfish rockpool

Serves 4

For the shellfish stock

  • 1kg langoustine bodies
  • 1kg lobster heads
  • 500g crab shells
  • 1 tbs vegetable oil
  • 6 carrots, thinly sliced
  • Peel and juice of 1 orange
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 20g fennel seeds
  • 100g ginger
  • 3 star anise
  • ½ onion, diced
  • 1 fennel, diced
  • ½ leek, diced
  • 1 celery, diced
  • ½ bulb of garlic
  • 2 tbs tomato purée
  • 100ml brandy

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Roast the langoustine, lobster and crab shells in a roasting tray for 15 minutes. In the meantime, heat a large, heavy-bottomed pan and add the vegetable oil. Sweat the carrots slowly until the oil becomes orange in colour and add the orange juice, cardamom pods, fennel seeds, ginger and star anise.

Add the onion, fennel, leek, celery and garlic along with the shells. Then add the tomato purée and brandy before reducing until dry.

Once dry, cover with water and bring to the boil. Reduce and leave to simmer for one hour, skimming when required.

Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Once cooled, pass through a wet muslin cloth to remove all traces of the shells. Season to taste.

For the rockpool

You can use any combination of fish, shellfish and seaweed for this recipe and I tend to use what comes in fresh that day, or what my suppliers
recommend, but here are some suggestions for you to try.

  • Olive oil
  • 8 mussels
  • 2 razor clams
  • 8 surf clams
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 tbs chopped parsley
  • 50ml white wine
  • 50g squid
  • 8 squat lobster tails
  • 40g brown shrimp
  • 50g fresh cooked crab
  • 1 scallop
  • 4 oysters
  • 1 fillet mackerel
  • 20g keta salmon eggs
  • 200g seaweed – ideally channel wrack seaweed
  • 60g samphire

Heat a heavy-bottomed pan and add some olive oil. Add the shellfish – the mussels, razor clams and surf clams. Add the shallots, parsley and white wine and place a lid on the pan.

The razor clams should be the first to open, so as they do, take them out of the pan. Then add in the squid, the squat lobster tails and brown shrimp and cook in the pan.

Once the mussels and surf clams have opened, take them out of the pan and away from the heat and remove from the shells.

Prepare the razor clams by removing the tender flesh from the intestine. Start to build the dish by dividing the shellfish between the four bowls.

Then add the cooked crab to the bowls evenly. Add a quarter slice of raw scallop, oysters, mackerel and the salmon caviar.

Garnish with blanched seaweed and samphire.

To serve

Pour the shellfish consommé into a jug. When you’re serving the dish to your guests, it’s great to explain all the different ingredients you’ve used,
and then pour the shellfish consommé over each dish at the table – I always like to tell my guests that it’s like the tide coming in! A genuine
recreation of a rockpool!

Tom and Michaela Kitchin on…

…working together

“It may not be everyone’s cup of tea to work as husband and wife, but for us it is ideal,” says Michaela. “We aren’t in each other’s face all the time and most of the time I don’t go near the kitchen.” While Tom is very much focused on cooking at the Kitchin, Michaela works across all three restaurants (the Kitchin, Scran & Scallie and Castle Terrace) as a director, in conjunction with Philippe Nublat and Tom’s father Ron, with a particular focus on HR, front of house and interior design.

To add to the challenge, Tom and Michaela have four boys ranging from two to seven years of age. “Tom still has crazy days, but he has a little break in the afternoon for an hour so we can have a cup of tea at the house. But I will work in the morning and then have the afternoon with the boys,” says Michaela. The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays, which helps them have some time as a family.

“The thing with Edinburgh is that we can go from the school to the house to the restaurant relatively fast,” says Tom. “Many of my friends who have restaurants in London will work in Mayfair, but live in Wimbledon or somewhere like that, which means things take a lot longer.”

…the restaurant scene in Scotland

Restaurants have evolved massively in Edinburgh since 2006 when the Kitchin opened, according to Michaela and Tom. “There’s everything from coffee bars, where you can get a proper coffee and nice homemade sandwiches, to great gastropubs and iconic guys like Andrew Fairlie and Martin Wishart, who have been cooking for years,” says Tom.

“You have great chefs in Edinburgh, like Dominic Jack at Castle Terrace and Roy Brett at Ondine, and Glasgow is also coming up.”

He also feels that the Scottish attitude to hospitality has changed somewhat, with a much greater willingness to be flexible about what customers want and when they want it.

“Before, tourists would go out to the Highlands to see Nessie or whatever, and if they arrived at a pub at two minutes past three and asked for lunch, they’d be told ‘no, sorry, it is 3pm and we are closed’.

It was that kind of mentality. So Scotland has really changed and it is great to see it embracing its natural larder as well.”

…finding, training and retaining good staff

“I’d love to see some more Scottish and British front-of-house guys coming through,” says Tom. “In my kitchen there are lots of home-grown chefs, but I would still like to see more in front of house, with people really embracing the joy of hospitality.”

Michaela believes the key to that is seeing hospitality as a career. “We want them to be proud of the industry and what they do,” she says. “There is so much in this industry of ours and so much you can do. It makes me very upset when people don’t respect the industry.”

Fortunately, the Kitchin has a number of long-serving and valued members of staff. Tom credits Michaela with helping to put the systems in place to retain people. This includes regular appraisals, where staff get the chance to set out their career plan, extensive front of house and kitchen training, and also exit interviews for those who do decide to leave.

“Some of them come back to us with more strength and experience, and it’s nice to see that growth that maybe we weren’t able to give them,” says Michaela. “But we always believe in promoting from within and encouraging the guys to show initiative in wanting to develop.”

They cite the example of Levi Sweeney-McGrath, who started at the Kitchin and who is now manager of the Scran & Scallie. “When we proposed the Scran & Scallie to her, she was so shocked and couldn’t believe it, but her parents have a pub in Ireland and she has it in her blood and we could see it.”

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