Tributes paid to visionary operator and first Scottish Michelin-starred chef David Wilson

17 May 2021 by
Tributes paid to visionary operator and first Scottish Michelin-starred chef David Wilson

David Wilson, former chef-proprietor of the Peat Inn in Fife for 35 years and believed to have been the first Scottish chef awarded a Michelin star, died peacefully in his sleep on 15 May.

David and his wife Patricia ran the restaurant with rooms until 2006, when they sold the site to Geoffrey and Katherine Smeddle.

Born in 1938 outside of Glasgow, David left school at 16 and enrolled as a part-time student on a marketing course following the death of his father, selling nuts and bolts for a local engineering distributor on the side.

National Service interrupted his studies and he played the clarinet for his RAF station's band. He initially pursued a career as a musician on his return to Glasgow, although later returned to his prior job and resumed his diploma. He passed with honours and took up a marketing executive job in the manufacturing industry.

He met Patricia in 1963 and both shared a love of good food and wine, although lamented the standard of food in the country. It wasn't until 1968 that Patricia noticed an advert in the Daily Telegraph seeking "a young person to train in all aspects of restaurant work" that resulted in him taking up an apprenticeship at the Pheasant Inn near Kettering, Northamptonshire, for a year, his first hospitality experience at the age of 30.

The family returned to Scotland and an advert in The Scotsman led them to Fife's Peat Inn – a "damp-ridden, shambolic old pub" built in the 18th century on the edge of a peat bog. In November 1972, they moved in and continued to trade the venue as a pub while refurbishing the site, offering a simple menu.

The couple used their time off to visit the top restaurants in England and in 1976 undertook a gastronomic tour of France which had a profound impact on David. The Peat Inn pub and eaterie was relaunched as a restaurant serving French-influenced cooking using local, seasonal produce.

In the 1985 Egon Ronay guide the restaurant was awarded two stars, and in 1987, the Peat Inn was awarded a Michelin star, the third restaurant in Scotland to do so following Glasgow's Malmaison and Inverlochy Castle, which it held for five years. The Peat Inn also achieved three AA rosettes and David was made a Master Chef of Great Britain.

He is survived by his wife Patricia and their two children, Saskia and Byron.

Owner of the Peat Inn Geoffrey Smeddle said: "I knew of David by reputation even before I'd moved to Scotland as he appeared in a chefs compendium I owned as a young commis chef. I didn't meet him until the spring of 2006 when he showed me round the Peat Inn when I was one of a number of potential buyers. It wasn't hard to hit it off with him and we spent about three hours chatting about food and restaurants: he was relaxed, genial, very humble and wore his success and fame lightly. He was full of guidance and helpful suggestions throughout the purchasing period and beyond, while remaining realistic that a new owner would mean a new way of doing certain things. It was evident how much his life's work meant to him.

"He was clear that the business should be sold to a chef patron upon his retirement and not to some large company. He always joked that he'd never set foot in the place again once we exchanged contracts. So we were all enormously touched and privileged when eventually he did return for a lunch with friends many years later. He and Patricia subsequently celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at the Peat Inn, a moving day for all of us present. It is touching and strangely appropriate that he should have had his very last restaurant lunch here at the Peat Inn with his wife on Thursday.

"He was rightly renowned for being among the first to recognise the benefits of using local and seasonal ingredients. But he also had a deep knowledge and love of burgundy wines. His love of cooking was fuelled by all things French, he was open in his admiration for Roger Vergé and his style of French country restaurant on which he modelled the Peat Inn. Adding rooms in the late 80s is just one example of his visionary style. He was simply a chef ahead of his time. It should be no surprise that he was the first chef in Scotland to be awarded a Michelin star."

"The atmosphere at the wayside inn is, like the man, convivial and easygoing," wrote Kit Chapman in his 1989 book Great British Chefs, describing David Wilson as "a charismatic individual, brilliant at his work but seemingly incapable of taking life too seriously".

Chef-restaurateur Paul Heathcote posted on Twitter that the Peat Inn was a "legendary restaurant ran by the most hospitable couple, David was great fun, genial and a great chef".

He added: "He left his mark on Scotland as one of the very best flag bearers for produce and standards."

Meanwhile, Scottish chef Nick Nairn described him as "hugely talented" and "trailblazing", crediting him as "a huge inspiration" and "in many ways instrumental in my becoming a chef".

"Impossible to overstate his influence on Scottish cooking. A true legend and wonderful man," he said on Twitter.


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