Paul Kitching is known for his wacky dishes and his sometimes eccentric behaviour, but the chef created a big reputation at his destination Juniper restaurant and it was partly a slowing economy that led him to close it last summer. He has gone straight to Edinburgh to launch a new £4m outlet - but, Janet Harmer asks, with strong competition in the city, and in the current economic climate, has the chef has made the right decision?
"We've been living here for six months and must have eaten in every restaurant at every level in the city - from the Michelin-starred establishment to the simple brasseries," says Paul Kitching. "Not only do they all seem to be doing good business, but the quality of the food is generally great."
It is not difficult to see why Kitching and his partner, Kate O'Brien, were enticed away from Juniper, the restaurant they had run to great critical acclaim in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, for 12 years, to set up shop in the Scottish capital. Despite the Michelin star and countless column inches praising Kitching's highly creative, but frequently eccentric, culinary creations, Juniper was hampered by uneven business patterns.
"In the last two or three years, we were generally busy at the weekend, but bookings were sporadic during the rest of the week," says O'Brien. "Despite being in a wealthy part of the country, the locals seemed to do their eating out when abroad and in London, but not so much when they were at home. Ironically, from the time we announced that we were leaving Juniper, the restaurant was suddenly fully booked."
At one point, Kitching and O'Brien thought about relocating Juniper to the centre of Manchester, but they quickly realised that the city - for reasons they still don't quite understand - doesn't have the foodie culture to support a serious culinary restaurant.
Their move appears to be justified. The company that bought Juniper - Soups Ltd - has been forced into liquidation by the butcher, WH Frost, over an unpaid bill of £7,000. The restaurant, run by chef Michael Riemenschneider and his business partner, Bill Treloar, is now shut. "I'm really sad to hear that Juniper has closed under such a cloud," Kitching says. "We always had a great relationship with Mr Frost and it's a shame to see suppliers like that out of pocket."
Edinburgh is a completely different matter, however. "We first started coming to Edinburgh about 10 years ago and immediately knew it was somewhere we would eventually like to live," Kitching says.
"There is such a lot going for the place," echoes O'Brien. "For a city, it has so much freshness, with the sea on one side, the hills on the other and lots of green space in between."
And, of course, it has its foodie credentials, which are no doubt partly fuelled by the fact that it is a major tourist destination, with an arts and political scene heightened by the Edinburgh Festival in August and the presence of the Scottish Parliament.
Once the couple decided to move to Edinburgh, they swiftly found a property - previously occupied by the restaurant No 3 Royal Terrace - where they are due to open their new restaurant, 21212, on 20 May.
The four-storey, grade A building, dating back to around 1860, is in an elevated row of Georgian-style houses in the city's New Town area. It's a prime location within walking distance of the main shopping thoroughfare of Princes Street and the tourist attractions of Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The cost of purchasing the property, together with its refurbishment, is a hefty £4m.
The building, on Royal Terrace, is being gutted and totally revamped to create a 38-seat restaurant on the ground floor, lounge and private dining room for 10 covers on the first floor, and four en suite bedrooms on the top two floors.
Kitching and O'Brien's business partners are Alan Revie, chairman of National Tyres & Autocare, and his wife Joan, who have bought the freehold of the property. With National Tyres' head office in Stockport, near Altrincham, the Revies became regular customers at Juniper.
"Kate knew Alan and Joan for several years before I got to meet them," says Kitching, who, despite his charm and self-deprecating, quick wit, says he prefers to stay focused in the kitchen and not spend time out front. "They are being wonderfully supportive and are helping us create exactly the kind of restaurant we want," he adds.
For Kitching, that means designing a kitchen - divided from the restaurant by just a glass screen - that will be dominated by two bespoke MKN electric stoves from Germany. "Although I've always cooked on gas before, an electric stove seemed to be the friendlier option for the building," he says. "It will allow me to get the temperature down and be chilled out in the kitchen."
Behind this cool approach and laid-back exterior is an intensely serious and highly talented chef. Kitching has pushed the culinary boundaries with his dishes - including dried root vegetables with a peanut butter mayonnaise, curried white chocolate and almond nuggets, and a light mint jelly with a dusting of crushed Refresher sweets - and has had the food critics giggling and swooning in admiration in equal measure.
And when he really got into his stride, main courses combined ingredients that really should not have worked together - such as best end of lamb with saffron noodles, pineapple, a basil, tomato and pimento gâteau, brazil nuts, white chocolate drops and blue cheese dressing.
But although the setting of Kitching and O'Brien's new restaurant is far grander than they had at Juniper, the menu at 21212 is a great deal simpler. In Altrincham they had an à la carte and a selection of tasting menus, but customers in Edinburgh will be presented with just one set menu at £60.
The style of the menu is represented in the restaurant's name - 21212 refers to the fact that there is a choice of just two starters, followed by a set soup, a choice of two main courses, a set cheese plate, and, finally, a choice of two desserts. Although there will be a full wine list available, two wines specially selected to partner each course will be offered, priced at £4 and £8 per glass at lunch, and at dinner at £6 and £12 per glass.
"I've just got sick of à la carte menus, which some customers agonise over for an hour, deciding what to order, and lengthy tasting menus, which take forever," Kitching says. "So we've decided to chuck the whole lot out and serve one limited-choice set menu. It will change every day - and may even change between lunch and dinner."
A la carte menus often need bookings to be staggered - sometimes leading to a restaurant that is half empty - but O'Brien says the set menu will allow bookings to be bunched together more closely. "This will be a big bonus, as it will create a better ambience."
Set menus were popular at Juniper with customers enjoying the opportunity to try new dishes they would not usually order. "I won't serve ingredients that may be a problem for some people, such as foie gras and sweetbreads, and will probably concentrate on using prime cuts of fish such as turbot and halibut, and meat such as fillets of beef and best ends of lamb," says Kitching. "There won't be much offal, but I will definitely use chicken livers. And most dishes are likely to be cooked to order because I'm not really a slow-braising kind of guy."
But what about the flights of fancy that customers often experienced on the menu at Juniper - will they be in evidence at 21212? "There will obviously be similarities in style, but the cooking will be less complex and have more of a Frenchie classic nod," Kitching says.
Looking back to those heady days at Juniper when Kitching's culinary creations verged on the extreme, he admits now that he went "slightly crazy" with some dishes, which was probably the result of his insecurities as a chef and over-eagerness to please. "Our new partners in the business had just come on board and they encouraged me to cook what I wanted," he says. "It was also the time when Heston was creating headlines with his innovations and the likes of Simon Rogan at L'Enclume and Daniel Clifford at Midsummer House - and myself - were all following suit.
"Now that I'm more confident about my cooking, it's time for me to jump off that bandwagon and to produce a more sophisticated menu, cooking food that I like and is mine - and that will taste bloody nice."
O'Brien says that although there are many chefs cooking good food, there are few who don't follow trends. "Claude Bosi and Andrew Fairlie are two exceptions," interjects Kitching, who himself hopes to cook and serve food that, in time, will be recognised as his own.
PAUL KITCHING: CAREER TO DATE
1963 Born in Gateshead
1981 Becomes a pot washer, turning his back on labouring
1982 Embarks on three years of catering studies at Newcastle Polytechnic
1983 Joins Middlethorpe Hall in York
1984 Moves to No 6 in Harrogate
1985 Works with Ian McAndrew at Restaurant 74 in Canterbury, Kent
1987 Moves to Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon, with Shaun Hill as head chef
1991 First head chef position: Nunsmere Hall Hotel, Northwich, Cheshire
1996 Joins forces with Kate O'Brien, Nora and Peter Miles to open Juniper in Altrincham
2003 Damian and Pauline Keeling become new business partners.
2004 Juniper wins a Michelin star and is named England Restaurant of the Year by the Good Food Guide
2008 Kitching and O'Brien leave Altrincham
May 2009 Opens restaurant 21212
EDINBURGH - THE COMPETITION
Martin Wishart Wishart has worked with Marco Pierre White, Albert Roux, Michel Roux Jnr, John Burton Race and Marc Meneau. He achieved a Michelin star within two years of opening, in 2001, and has held it ever since. Wishart released a cookbook last year, has a cookery school in Edinburgh and another restaurant at Cameron House Hotel on Loch Lomond. Not for nothing does Gordon Ramsay regard him as "Scotland's next big thing".
Restaurant Martin Wishart, 54 The Shore, 0131-553 3557
Tom Kitchin Scotland's latest star. With a Michelin star coming his way in 2007 and an avowed obsession with the seasons, Kitchin has been making his name on a busy Leith seafront since the Kitchin opened in 2006. A "land and sea surprise tasting menu" guarantees six courses plus an amuse bouche and coffee for £60, containing dishes along the lines of whole mallard with braised Savoy cabbage and aux abats (giblet sauce) (£31).
The Kitchin, 78 Commercial Quay, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6LX, 0131-555 1755
Jeff Bland Along with Craig Sandle, Bland's food at Number One (at the Balmoral Hotel) combines Scottish ingredients with classic technique and the occasional Middle Eastern influence, such as Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese with chicory and medjool dates, or quail with quinoa, quince and walnut vinaigrette. Three courses come in at £55, and there's a tasting menu for £60, amid London club-type surroundings - framed photos, dark Venetian blinds and banquettes.
The Balmoral, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2EQ, 0131-557 6727
Tony Borthwick A former employee of the Yorkshire Water Board, Borthwick upped sticks to Scotland after time at the Savoy in London. He opened in Crossmichael, Dumfries and Galloway, and won a Michelin star, but was still seeking a market for his well-crafted food, so moved to Edinburgh. His style is extremely classical fare - pan-fried breast of guinea fowl with white spring truffle, thyme-roasted baby onions, spring morels, celeriac purée and truffled fowl stock is currently on the menu.
50-54 Henderson Street, Edinburgh EH6 6DE, 0131-554 5556
THE 21212 MENU - A SAMPLE
- Warm scallops, aubergine and banana confit, coffee and saffron
Breast of chicken, black pudding and smoked salmon ragoût, almonds and melon.
- Layered turnip, cauliflower and apple soup, linseeds
- Tender beef fillet, walnut scone, white asparagus, curried Welsh rarebit, pea and rosemary cream, sultana glaze
John Dory, Greek salad, feta, olive and broccoli purée, pumpkin seeds, pineapple and capers, horseradish butter
- Selection of artisan cheeses, Paul's oatmeal porridge biscuits, blueberries
- Lemon tart, glazed carrot, poppy seed and Champagne sorbet
OR Warm rice pudding, pimento and hazelnut anglais, prune purée
POACHED SCALLOPS WITH YOGURT AND GREEN GRAPE JUICE, ALMONDS AND SULTANAS
Ingredients (Serves four)
- 4 large, cleaned scallops, without the roes (save shells)
- 16 skinned fresh almonds
- 16 sultanas
- 24 dried pink peppercorns, roughly chopped and crushed
- Poaching liquor
- 2fl oz olive oil
- 2fl oz Noilly Prat vermouth
- 2fl oz sparkling water
- 2fl oz natural yogurt
- 8oz green grapes, blended and sieved
Halve scallops around the waists. Heat them in gently warming poaching liquor for about eight minutes in a heavy-duty pan, without taking them beyong simmering point (they shouldn't lose their shape).
Carefully warm grape juice, add the chopped ingredients. Remove scallops and keep warm. Strain the poaching liquid and reduce by half.
Add yogurt, set aside and blend with stickblender. Allow both sauces to cool and rest slightly.
To plate, arrange the scallop shell on a bed of sea salt to hold it in place. Place two scallop halves on top of easch other on each shell. With precision, spoon the green grape juice around the base of the shell. With abandon, spoon the white yogurt foam over the top of the seasoned warm scallops and serve.