After winning The Caterer's 2015 Restaurant of the Year competition in association with Seafish, Derek Marshall of Glasgow's Gamba is making the most of his series of successes, says Karen Peattie
It's a cold, dreich, wintry Tuesday in Glasgow, but the weather certainly isn't dampening Derek Marshall's spirits. With his batteries charged after some much-deserved time off following a busy festive period, the chef-owner of award-winning seafood restaurant Gamba is looking forward to building on an "outstanding" 2015.
Indeed, it was Gamba's best ever year, and while Marshall isn't entirely surprised at how successful his two-AA-rosette restaurant has become, his modest nature dictates that he remains firmly grounded and grateful for Gamba's consistent performance in a challenging and ever-evolving restaurant scene.
"Back in 1998 when I came up with the concept for Gamba, I always believed that if I could let the food speak for itself, use the freshest ingredients in season and keep things honest, simple and consistent, I'd have the perfect recipe for success."
Marshall's down-to-earth approach is exactly what you would expect of a boy from Glasgow's East End. Leaving school with no qualifications and being somewhat disengaged, Marshall admits he could easily have "gone off the rails". Then he walked into the kitchen of the now-closed Fountain restaurant, once one of Glasgow's most popular eateries.
"I got on a youth training scheme," he explains. "I'd no idea what to expect, but when I set foot in that kitchen, I knew I'd found my vocation."
Inspired and motivated to succeed there by his first head chef, Jack Mulanere, Marshall was a quick learner and flourished in the heat of the kitchen, taking the anti-social working hours in his stride. He then set out on a culinary journey of discovery that would take him to the Channel Islands, the French Alps and Spain.
But it was during his time as head chef at Rogano, one of Glasgow's most famous restaurants, that he fell in love with fish and seafood - so much so that he took a sabbatical from his much-coveted job to spend a year in Spain honing his skills in sourcing and cooking the produce he now works with every day.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Gamba is Glasgow's premier seafood restaurant, its many accolades including The Caterer's and Seafish UK's 2015 UK Restaurant of the Year, in association with Seafish. The competition set out to recognise and reward restaurants demonstrating excellence in the cooking and serving of fish and shellfish, but also evidence of fish and shellfish knowledge among staff - both front and back of house.
"It was fantastic to win because it was the inaugural year of the competition and we knew that we could tick all the judges' boxes," he says. "Sustainability was also very much to the fore and that's something I'm particularly passionate about - it was one of the reasons I decided to enter.
"Another thing is that it keeps you on your toes because you're wondering when the judges will come in. I still don't know who came to judge us or when, and I'm really looking forward to being a judge myself this year." What's more, the chef is currently working on his second cookbook which is inspired by winning the 2015 UK Restaurant of the Year and will be published later in 2016.
Nose to tail eating
Gamba, a three-star sustainability champion of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) for the last three years, was also the first Glasgow restaurant to become a member of the SRA back in 2012. "Sustainability is also about not being wasteful and there's no waste in my kitchen," adds Marshall. "We use fish bones to make our fish soup. I get great satisfaction from using everything."
Gamba's legendary fish soup - or ‘foup' as it's become known - is, for many, the restaurant's signature dish, with its combination of crab, stem ginger, coriander and prawn dumplings seducing diners time after time. While other stalwarts, such as classic lemon sole, have also been on the menu since day one and offer that consistency he believes is so important, Marshall is not afraid to experiment with new ingredients and flavours. Indeed, many of his recipes have an Asian twist.
"Our menus change with the seasons and there's more scope for us to create new dishes during the summer when different species are more plentiful and easier for our suppliers to source," he explains. "But it's not all about fish and seafood - I love cooking with asparagus when it's in season and we only use soft fruits like raspberries and strawberries from Blairgowrie in Perthshire."
The suppliers the chef mentions are carefully chosen. Not surprisingly, he insists they share his own commitment to sustainability. Suppliers such as Marrbury Smokehouse in Dumfries and Galloway, Gigha Halibut based on the stunning Isle of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides and 'Stevie Fish' from West Lothian-based Fish Brothers work in partnership with the brigade to ensure that only the most exceptional produce arrives in the Gamba kitchen.
It is that exceptional produce that Marshall believes is the real key to his success. "Yes, you have to be skilled at what you do, but you need the tools to do the job," he points out. "For me, that is great produce and at Gamba we use it to put together dishes that we believe are classic but with a modern twist - dishes that allow us to use the best, freshest ingredients that are locally sourced and lend themselves to our style of cooking."
While the experienced chef enjoys experimenting and finding inspiration from a variety of sources - holidays in Paris and Majorca, eating out and suppliers, for example - he often has to curb his enthusiasm. "I have to remember I have a tiny kitchen," he explains.
"We have to be very light on our feet if we're not going to bang into each other - on busy days like Saturday there will be three chefs and a kitchen porter all vying for precious space.
"But a small kitchen also means the menu has to be designed in a way that allows dishes to be prepared quickly without taking up a lot of space," he continues. "Stevie Fish might arrive with something a bit more unusual, but do I have the space to get to grips with what I need to do to it? Sometimes, but not always.
"I enjoy hearing the reactions of customers to new dishes and, of course, it's important to try new recipes because it keeps your menu fresh and exciting," he says. "But I know the place would be in uproar if I was ever to take my fish soup off the menu and deviate too much from what I've built the business on - and that's consistency.
"Food is like fashion - it comes and goes. Look at the trend for small plates. This is really big in Glasgow just now, but when will it go out of fashion? It's important to give people what they want and offer a point of difference, but diners can be fickle and will quickly move onto the next big trend. And as I've said before, in Glasgow you can't fool people."
In a city that has seen an influx in visitors on the back of the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the opening in 2013 of the SSE Hydro - an impressive events and conference facility that is now the second-largest entertainment centre in the world after the O2 in London - there is a huge opportunity for local restaurants to make their mark. In April, Gamba is taking part in the first ever Glasgow Restaurant Festival - a two-week event celebrating the city's flourishing dining scene, which will see top restaurants offer specially priced menus, pop-ups and special events.
"The city is changing and for the better," says Marshall, "and it's important its restaurants recognise this, too. "We want the business that visitors bring to the city and in the Glasgow Restaurant Association we have a great organisation that is doing a great job for its members by helping us tap into a lot of new and different opportunities to get people through our doors. The festival will create a lot of excitement and interest in what the city's restaurants have to offer and it's great to be involved."
As he looks to the future, Marshall pays tribute to the people who have helped get him where he is today. "At my level you have to look at your business as a partnership - one that involves your suppliers, staff and customers," he points out. "Without good suppliers you're on a hiding to nothing. Without good staff you don't stand a chance because your customers won't come back if the service isn't good and the staff aren't knowledgeable.
"I'm delighted with my team - both in the kitchen and front of house. There's 18 now and they all share my passion for good, honest food," he says. "Some of them have been with me for many years and have developed their careers here at Gamba - and that's something I'm proud of." And with typical modesty, Marshall signs off: "I think I've nailed it."
2016 Restaurant of the Year
The deadline for entries for The Caterer's and Seafish UK's Restaurant of the Year competition is 6 May. Restaurants do not have to have a standalone fish menu or exclusively offer fish and shellfish to be considered, and applicants are invited from all sectors of hospitality.
Applicants are asked to focus on examples of excellent customer service, innovative ideas to drive sales of fish and shellfish, outstanding fish and shellfish promotional activity and evidence of varied species of fish and shellfish alongside sustainable policies and practices.
For more information, visit http://seafish.org/seafoodrestaurantoftheyear
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