Scottish chef Mark Donald joined Michelin-starred restaurant Number One at the Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh earlier this year. He talks to Emma Lake about his 13 years working overseas, ending his travels as head chef of Bentley Restaurant and Bar in Sydney, Australia
What led you back to Scotland after 13 years working overseas?
I wanted to see more of my family and I wanted to be closer to Europe. I love travelling but I wanted my next role to be in Scotland – a classic case of ‘it's where you're from'.
How have you found your first months at Number One at the Balmoral?
I have been met with a lot of challenges. I inherited my team and didn't bring anyone with me. Trying to get them to understand my approach and style can be quite difficult, especially when they have been shown and trained another way in the same four walls. They are a great bunch; they have embraced change and have been incredibly receptive and supportive.
What did you learn during your time in Australia that you have bought back to Edinburgh?
There's obviously the produce and the seasons, which are the biggest difference. The flora and fauna are incredibly different in Australia, and a lot of it is indigenous to the country. Australian dining in general is definitely a lot lighter and fresher than most of the UK. I think that's probably due to the climate and lifestyle. I also found there to be a lot more challenging dietary requirements in Australia than in the UK, so I'm better equipped in that department. I enjoy dealing with something different off the cuff during service.
Number One at the Balmoral celebrates Scottish produce. What are you particularly enjoying working with?
Any chef will tell you that the shellfish in Scotland is some of the best in the world, and for good reason, too. I really missed it when I was away. Strawberries, raspberries, cherries, etc, have been sensational this year in Scotland – so good, in fact, that if I didn't know they were from Blairgowrie, I would have said they were from somewhere else.
You also said your team's travels would feed into development – how has this happened?
I don't want to pigeonhole our cuisine into Scottish only. Yes, a bulk of the produce is Scottish. At certain times of the year not much is growing here and I don't want to limit the menu by saying we only use produce from within a 10-mile radius. It is a romantic and lovely approach, but not possible every month of the year. If we can make a dish better by using bonito, Ibérico pork or coconut, then we will.
My team is international and, although young, most are well travelled and they are encouraged to develop and give input on the menu from what they have experienced gastronomically.
What are your ambitions for the restaurant?
I have worked under great chefs and learned from them, all while maintaining their impeccably high standards. I will continue to work to the same standard and share knowledge with my own team.
Really, I just want to cook decent food and let the restaurant evolve with a solid and happy bunch of chefs beside me.
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