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The Caterer

Better business – the Three Chimneys

01 June 2011
Better business – the Three Chimneys

Everyone talks about sourcing local produce - but it has been standard practice for years at the Three Chimneys, where Great British Menu star Michael Smith is head chef. Aaron Morby reports

Need to know The Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye is one of the most remote restaurants in the UK.

So Shirley and Eddie Spear were taking a huge gamble when they decided to give up life in Croydon to start up the business.

Their achievement in building a thriving restaurant and rooms business is all the more remarkable because neither had any professional experience when they started out in 1984. Until then, Shirley had worked in the British Gas press office and Eddie was a driving instructor looking for a change.

She says: "We picked up a copy of Caterer and Hotelkeeper and saw the Three Chimneys was up for sale. I remembered the magic of the place from a holiday during my youth, and knew instantly it was going to be our restaurant."

The couple visited the Three Chimneys on a blustery, frosty day in October, and when Eddie realised it was on the remote north-west corner of the island he couldn't conceal some misgivings.

But they went ahead and raised the £47,000 needed to secure the premises.

Target audience In the early days, the couple had to leaflet passengers on the local ferry to lure them into taking the 25-mile trip across the island.

Nowadays many people visit Skye because they are staying or eating at the Three Chimneys. The iconic Scottish restaurant with rooms still counts Scottish guests among its main customers, filling its six spacious suites with couples on special breaks.

When feared New York Times food critic Frank Bruni named the Three Chimneys among his five world favourites, New Yorkers started to arrive in search of an authentic taste of Scotland.

Favourite supplier Shirley says she always relied heavily on Skye suppliers, and wherever possible sources solely from Scotland.

Her fish merchant, Andy Race, has been a key figure in the development of the rest­aurant.

"In the early years he would give advice on how to cut fish and handle it.

"He has always understood what we are trying to do and has always been on our side, supplying us with the best of the catch."

As well as fresh white fish, shellfish and local langoustines, Race also supplies peat-smoked salmon.

Development In 1999, the Spears decided diversifying into accommodation would help them smooth out the seasonality of demand and keep open all-year round.

Shirley is quick to point out that restaurant business still retains its distinct rustic identity, open to all types of people.

The House Over-By was built from scratch for £500,000 and has six spacious modern suites, each with a sea view. "We were told there was demand for much more than simply B&Bs and that has proved the case," Shirley says.

The suites, which cost £295 a night, appeal to all kinds and ages of people. "We attract the silver pound, the pink pound, honeymooners and there's hardly an empty bed until September.

"It is very tempting just to build more rooms, but we took the decision to invest £300,000 in a new kitchen, before we started developing any other way."


Facts and stats

â- General manager - Angela Finlay
â- Head chef - Michael Smith
â- No of staff - up to 40
â- Restaurant covers 50
â- Number of rooms - 6 bedroom suites
â- Average weekly occupancy - 99%
â- Room rates - £295


Michael Smith
Michael Smith
Spotlight on the chef
During 20 years as head chef, Shirley Spear forged a reputation for showcasing delicious Scottish home cooking. After bringing out a successful cookbook, she realised the time had come to step aside to concentrate on the business and on promoting Scottish cooking, which is her main cause.

In head chef Michael Smith she found somebody who shared her passion for local sourcing and promoting great Scottish cooking - he was Scottish and came with an impressive CV.

Smith joined the staff of Le Pont de la Tour in London, rising to the position of senior chef de partie. During his time there, he also gained the opportunity to spend a valuable two-and-a-half months at Le Gavroche.

His most formative time, though, was working at the London Design Museum Blue Print Café with chef Jeremy Lee.

"He called chefs cooks and was passionate about seasonality," Smith says. "Nowadays this is all the rage, but the Blue Print was doing it 15 years ago. I find myself cooking new dishes, thinking what would Jeremy do."

Wood pidgeon
Wood pidgeon
He describes the Three Chimneys as a contemporary traditional restaurant - and as a fine-dining restaurant, but not in the metropolitan way.

His dishes have evolved over six years. "When you're cooking seasonally you have to be very creative. It was very difficult to begin with, but you soon build up an extensive repertoire.

"We have an ecosystem of diversified crofting on Skye and we are supporting people growing salad leaves, mushrooms, seasonal fruits and berries and the usual root vegetables - as well as people farming quail."

The menu also sports foraged nettles, Scottish asparagus, wild garlic, sea trout and, of course, now rhubarb.

To show off the richness of local ingredients all-year round, Smith introduced a seven-course tasting menu sourced from Skye and Lochalsh.

Maramlade Pudding
Maramlade Pudding
Naturally, this menu draws heavily from the sea, starting off with langoustines, followed with a crab risotto, then hot and cold smoked fish with quails' egg. This is followed by oysters with trout caviar, then a dish of roast fillet and shredded beef, finished off with a hot marmalade pudding soufflé.

"My philosophy is to let ingredients sing for themselves," Smith explains.

His palpable passion for Scottish food and produce saw him invited on a Government-funded trip around North America to champion Scottish restaurants and cooking.

All sorts of articles and coverage have followed, including the recipe for his popular three-salmon kedgeree.

His love of Scottish cooking and technical prowess helped him saunter through the regional heat of the BBC2's Great British Menu. The next thing on the cards for Smith will be a directorship at the Three Chimneys, capping an incredible three months.

To see our interview with Michael Smith go to www.caterersearch.com/video.

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