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King of the Castle: Dominic Jack on the newly refurbished Castle Terrace in Edinburgh

08 March 2016 by
King of the Castle: Dominic Jack on the newly refurbished Castle Terrace in Edinburgh

After a £1m refurbishment, chef Dominic Jack is enjoying presiding over Edinburgh's Castle Terrace restaurant even more. Neil Gerrard asks him about the new kitchen, changing working practices and the impact of Michelin

The new oven in Castle Terrace is such a powerful piece of kit that when the restaurant suffered a power cut during service just days after reopening, chef Dominic Jack assumed it was the might of his new kitchen suite that was responsible.

The Maestro by Bonnet suite offers a mix of induction hobs and electric plates, and features oven doors that require a satisfyingly large amount of elbow grease just to open and close.

"We were just starting off a lunch service and everything went down. I was getting quite panicky because I thought we had so much that we had just blown everything. But it was across the city and luckily, after 15 minutes, it came back on," he says.

Fortunately, the effect on the service was minimal, but it must have been a nerve-wracking delay, especially since Jack had already waited a year for the suite to be installed.

However, drainage problems in the kitchen of Castle Terrace meant that the plans had to be postponed for 12 months until the issues were fixed, leaving the kitchen suite to sit in a warehouse awaiting its delivery.

Finally, during a 28-day period over Christmas 2015 and into the New Year of 2016, the extensive renovations of the kitchens and the dining room above took place.

And what a transformation it has been. Castle Terrace already benefited from a fairly massive basement kitchen, but it was something of a maze, with walls separating the main kitchen and the pass from the pastry section. There was a chef's table that sat in a recess opposite the old pass, but thanks to a breakdown in the air conditioning, Jack had been forced to stop using it for all but the hardiest of restaurant guests who were prepared to have their eyebrows singed as they ate.

Now the walls have come down, creating one-third more space downstairs, and the air-conditioning is so fierce that when The Caterer visited in January it was turned off so the chefs didn't get too cold. Meanwhile, a new chef's table has been created, with four places off to one side of the pass, allowing diners to watch Jack in control of a remarkably calm kitchen, plating dishes with a meticulous precision, and calling out orders that are responded to with an enthusiastic chorus of "oui chef!"

Thanks to the extra space, there is a new built-in freezer - an essential for Jack, who uses a lot of ice-creams with savoury dishes. There are also two "life-changing bits of kit" - a stock pot and an enormous bratt pan, which Jack and his team somehow managed to carry down the stairs to the kitchen. Not only will this save time and effort for Castle Terrace's staff, but the team also hopes to help out their colleagues at the Scran & Scallie pub in Edinburgh's Stockbridge by producing stocks and sauces for them to use too.

It is wholesale change upstairs in the ground floor dining room too, thanks to a redesign by Michaela Kitchin and Stephen Paterson of Burns Design - the same team that revamped the Kitchin last year. Most striking of the changes is a large hand-drawn mural by Scottish artist Nichol Wheatley, showing an outline of Edinburgh Castle on the wall of the restaurant that conceals the view of the castle itself.

Gone is the old private dining room, which has allowed the main dining space to be opened out and extended to 70 covers, while a new private dining room behind the reception desk, which is semi-open but can be closed off with screens, offers a naturally lit space for 16 diners.

It is noticeable just how much lighter the dining space is thanks to the changes, with a new colour scheme that mixes whites with a deep Royal blue and gold to provide a hint of elegance and glamour.

Jack admits that he left much of the interior design details to Michaela. "She knows what she is doing and I have got complete confidence in her," he says.

A new working week

Castle Terrace opened in 2010 and this is the first major refurbishment for the restaurant. And it isn't the only significant change to take place within the business over the past few months. Before Christmas, The Caterer revealed that, along with the Kitchin, Castle Terrace would change its working practices to help try and create a better environment for staff.

From this year onwards, staff will get a week's holiday every three months and two weeks at Christmas, and the restaurant will close during these periods. Previously, the business, which is open from Tuesday to Saturday each week, would close for a month over Christmas, with staff having to snatch holiday when they could during the rest of the year.

It's the type of approach that has been popular among high-end restaurants recently. Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham announced last year that it would move to a four-day week, Le Gavroche in London switched to a five-day week, and the Raby Hunt in Darlington has scrapped weekday lunch services.

"I think it is something we have to do," says Jack. "Times have changed. I think the old days are gone where you would work a 90-hour week. People just don't accept that any more, which is fine. Seven months without having a holiday, working quite intensely, was pushing everyone to their limits. Especially when we had the Edinburgh Festival in the middle of that for a month, which was tough. I think it will be a much better working environment for everyone."

And that comes from Jack, who isn't afraid of a bit of hard work. Having started his career as a young chef at Gleneagles in Scotland, he went to the Michelin-starred Fleur de Sel in Haslemere, before cutting his teeth at some of France's top restaurants. He moved to Paris at just 21 to work at three-star Michelin restaurant l'Arpège, before going on to the two-star Hotel Vernet restaurant Les Elysées, where he worked his way from trainee to sous chef in fewer than four years. Legendary French chef Alain Solivérès recognised his talent and took him to three-Michelin-star Taillevent, where Jack then held the position of sous chef de cuisine for over four years. After a spell at the Swissôtel in Istanbul, he returned to Edinburgh in 2008 and worked for Kitchin for two years before launching Castle Terrace.

So how did he find it as a young chef, given that he must have been working a few 90-hour weeks, if not more? "I never saw it as hard because when I was younger my dad worked extremely hard. He was a motor mechanic but I would never see him because he worked so hard. It was just normal and everyone else was doing it - my friends and colleagues. When I moved to France, you just didn't have a social life. You started in the mornings and you finished in the mornings."

Millefeuille of Wye Valley asparagus served with Paddy's Milestone cheese and aged balsamic

So in a strange way, are the chefs of today losing out by being allowed more forgiving working conditions and not being submitted to quite such an intense baptism of fire?

"It is a tricky one," says Jack. "Working so intensely and doing such long hours means you learn twice as quickly. In one week we were doing what a normal person does in two weeks. But you were exhausted by the end of the week. On my days off, I would spend one of them in bed for the whole day. So it was a massive sacrifice but I have no regrets doing it - I loved it. But the world has changed now and you have to embrace it and give the young ones the social life that they want. Social media has changed things as well - they are a lot more aware of what is happening out there."

Michelin-starred restaurants have been a feature of Jack's life for some time now, and indeed he won his very own in 2011 at Castle Terrace. He held the star until the 2016 edition of the Michelin Guide was released last September, when it was deleted in a move that shocked both the restaurant's customers and the wider culinary world.

"It surprised me as well," says Jack with just a touch of understatement. "It was a real kick in the teeth, but what can I do? We had people in the restaurant that night so we had to get on with it. I am very proud of what we are doing and I don't believe I changed anything, I have just improved it."

Maxime Adam, Carole Gayard, Shaun McCarron, Aisling Finnerty and Joel Bastian

And he is insistent that, despite all the changes, none of them were informed by Michelin's decision, not least because they were more than a year in the planning. Nor has he asked Michelin for any feedback on their decision. It seems he'd rather just get his head down and keep working away.

"I would love to know but I am quite stubborn as well. It bugs the hell out of me because sometimes I will wake up in the middle of the night and go 'what is it?'. But I know what we are doing here because I am here every service. I know what food goes out, what the waiting staff are doing, so it is not like I wasn't here for two weeks and maybe we had a bad time.

"We had Pierre Koffmann here the week after it happened. I came out to see him and he said: 'Dominic, I wouldn't give you a star for that meal.' I thought 'oh Jesus Christ, this is terrible', and then he added: 'I would give you two!' It was great to hear something like that from someone like him, especially when it was all still a bit raw."

It may have knocked his pride, and there is no doubt that Jack would like to win the star back, but he isn't about to go tearing up his menu to achieve that. The food is one aspect of the restaurant that is undergoing an evolution rather than a dramatic change.

"We are constantly trying to see how we can get it better and tastier," says Jack. "When I come up with new dishes or revisions to dishes, it is a case of calling on my experience. Or I will get an idea in my head and I will start bouncing it off the guys. The produce is paramount, and that will decide the dish at the end of the day."

He recalls coming up with an inventive appetiser, a panna cotta of Arbroath smokie, when he was up at the Highland Games, for example. "I saw the smokies being cooked right in front of us and I said I'd love to do something like that, and it is just how it started," he says.

He also looks forward to the added freedom that the new kitchen will give him.

"Just having the stock pot and the bratt pan is going to save us so much time because before we were making it in small cocottes and it was taking one person all day just to make sauces. These changes will give us more time and make us more efficient so we have more space to work on new dishes."

The chef is already excited about the possibility of being able to get asparagus from the Wye Valley in January - far earlier than normal. And although he has several loyal suppliers who he has worked with for years, he is always on the lookout for more. In fact, when The Caterer visits, there is the pristine carcass of a roe deer, supplied by a former gamekeeper who was one of the 190 people to queue up for the opening party at the restaurant following its refurbishment.

And so, with a completely refurbished restaurant, a solid team around him, and plenty of ideas, Jack can look forward to gearing up for another busy year. Normally the restaurant would expect to do 400-500 covers a week, but during the Festival in August that is expected to rise considerably. "It certainly keeps us out of trouble," the chef says.

An enduring friendship: Dominic Jack and Tom Kitchin

Dominic Jack and fellow chef Tom Kitchin, who runs the Michelin-starred, five-AA-rosette the Kitchin in Leith, are business partners. Along with Tom's wife Michaela (who is also a director of Castle Terrace and the Kitchin) and director of food and beverage Philippe Nublat, they run the Scran & Scallie together. But they have also been friends ever since they worked together at Gleneagles as teens, moving onto London and then Paris at around the same time.

"When I was at l'Arpège, Tom asked me if he could come and sleep on the floor in my kitchen for a couple of weeks until he found something," Jack recalls. "My now-wife and I had a one-bedroom flat because Paris was quite expensive. A year later he was still there, which was lovely."

Jack reckons the pair get on so well together because they have very similar values and have an endless capacity to talk about food and restaurants. "When we were working, we would finish at 1am and have a beer until 3am and then we would still be in work again at 7am," he says. "It was such a buzz when we came in from work - Tom was at Guy Savoy and I was at Hotel Vernet and we would ask each other what we had been doing that day - we were just so into it. Anyone on the outside looking at us would say 'these guys are freaks!' But you kind of have to be to do this. There were so many guys I worked with who couldn't hack it because it was so intense, especially when you are working in a foreign country, speaking a different language."

That tradition of having a beer after work continues today, with the pair making an effort to meet each other on Thursday nights after service, at the Scran & Scallie, which was named AA Pub of the Year in Scotland at the AA Hospitality Awards in 2015. They may offer their input to the chefs there and give the menu a tweak if they think it merits it, although Jack says he has a lot of faith in the team. "Tom and I try to go down there as much as possible," he says. "It's really nice because they know my style and Tom's style and they also know that produce is paramount."

Recipe: risotto of organic spelt from Eden Valley served with crispy ox tongue, confit veal heart and seared hampe of Scotch beef

Dominic Jack discovered spelt for the first time as an ingredient in fine-dining restaurants when he worked for Alain Solivérès at Hotel Vernet. Preparing it to Solivérès' exacting standards was an almost Sisyphean task.

"We used to get 20kg bags and we would tip it onto the table and I had to pick through it in case there was a husk or a wee stone in there," says Jack. "We are getting 25kg bags in now. It scares some people that they may have to come in and spend an hour picking through spelt, but I will be one of the first ones to do it."

Serves 4

For the spelt

  • 20g bone marrow, chopped
  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • 200g spelt
  • 1 dash of white wine
  • 1.5 litres of chicken stock
  • 80g butter
  • 50g Parmesan
  • 10g spring onion, diced (white part only)
  • 2tsp cream, whipped

For the ox tongue

  • 1 ox tongue
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery sticks
  • 2 onions
  • 10 whole black peppercorns

For the chicken mousse

  • 200g chicken
  • 75ml cream
  • 50ml egg white

For the bordelaise sauce

  • 1 slice of pancetta
  • 12 shallots
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 10 whole black peppercorns
  • Red wine
  • 800ml veal jus

For the ox boudin

  • Ox tongue trimmings
  • 4 sprigs of marjoram
  • 200g beef hampe
  • 1 veal heart
  • 500ml duck fat

For the spelt

Melt the bone marrow in a pan, add the shallots and sweat down. Add the spelt and deglaze with white wine, then add the chicken stock so it just covers the spelt. Cook until al dente, keeping the spelt covered with stock until ready. Strain the spelt through a sieve, retaining the liquid, then cool the spelt on a tray.

To finish the spelt, put the spelt back into the pan with the remaining chicken stock. Warm gently and add the butter, stirring continuously until all the butter is melted and has emulsified, coating the spelt. Season to taste and add the Parmesan. Add the diced spring onion and finish with the whipped cream.

For the ox tongue

Place the ox tongue into a basin of cold water for 24 hours. Then place it into a pot, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Once boiling, pour the water away and clean the pot.

Place the ox tongue back into the pot and cover again with cold water. Slice in half two carrots, two celery sticks and two onions and place in the pot with 10 black peppercorns. Gently simmer for five to six hours until there is no resistance when spiking the tongue.

Remove the tongue from the water and allow to cool slightly, then peel away the skin, also removing the nerve that runs through the tongue. Wrap tightly in cling film and place in the fridge to firm up. Once firm, cut into 2cm cubes and pan-fry until golden.

For the chicken mousse

Dice 200g of chicken into small pieces. Blend the chicken together with the cream and egg whites until smooth, then pass through a drum sieve.

For the bordelaise sauce

Caramelise a small piece of pancetta in a pan. Thinly slice the shallots and add a sprig of thyme to the pan with 10 crushed black peppercorns. Sweat it down, cover with red wine and reduce until dry. Cover for a second time with red wine and again reduce until dry. Finally, cover with red wine and reduce by three-quarters. Add 800ml of veal jus and bring to the boil. Allow this to reduce slowly to a sauce consistency, then pass through a fine chinois.

For the ox boudin

Using the trimmings of the ox tongue (from when it was cut into cubes), roughly chop and pan-fry until crisp and drain any excess oil intoa colander. Mix the tongue with the chicken mousse, bordelaise sauce and marjoram.

Place the mix into a disposable piping bag and cut a 3cm diameter hole. Pipe onto cling film and roll into a tight boudin shape. Tie at each end with string. Poach in simmering salted water for 10 minutes, then chill in ice water. Once firm, slice into 1cm pieces and pan-fry on both sides until golden brown.

For the beef hampe

Make sure the beef has a nice marbled appearance and trim any sinew. Cut into 2cm strips, going with the grain. Cook to your liking and carve, against the grain, into small pieces.

For the veal heart

Place the veal hearts into a basin of cold water for 24 hours. Then remove the hearts from the water and place in a basic brine for 24 hours.

Cook the veal heart in duck fat for 24 hours at 80°C. Remove excess fat and cartilage, cut into slices and pan-fry until golden brown.

To serve

Place the spelt generously in the bottom of a bowl and arrange the seared hampe of beef and crispy ox tongue decoratively on top. Place the boudin and veal heart on either side of the arrangement and serve.

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