Imagine trying something for the first time again. Imagine trying an orange, a banana, a dragon-fruit, fresh horseradish, new spices, a specific wild mushroom or even a fresh black….truffle. I remember my father buying spinach of the frozen variety for dinner once and that’s what it was, once. Now this would have been what I can remember my first encounter with this leafy product and it was bloody awful. I think we were all in agreement about this and only communicated it by what was left in the dish on the table.
When starting off as enthusiastic young cook, new flavours soon started getting my attention and this new door was beginning to open. Foods that I had never cooked before, a new world of varieties of fish, meats, herbs, spices cooking techniques and cooking with wine, yes the wine went into the dishes it would be later in life an appreciation would develop for it.
Now the health food shop was certainly a place that I would often frequent, buying things that I had never tried before. Obviously this was well before any delicatessens opened in Stornoway and when getting the chance to get to Inverness would start to find other food gems. I would love to go back in time to see the difference in how our shops and styles on Lewis have changed in the last 20 years or further back. I see one of the supermarkets have started stocking fresh turmeric, probably not the fastest or well known items to be sold in Stornoway I can only imagine but for medicinal value compared to the dry in jars. Can we also remember when a little berry called Physalis started to appear on every pudding across the island which played no real significance to a dish apart from filling a corner or to add a little colour to it because one lacked a little more creativity or imagination.
Now getting the chance to branch out to Inverness was exciting with the different food courts and speciality food shops, spending hours looking at condiments, sauces, vegetables, spices and a host of other worldly items that seemed treasure like, bringing on creativity and excitement for a keen young chef. When it came to creating new dishes, the ideas that followed got my mind buzzing with creativity. One of the newly purchased items was white winter truffle oil. For me it was the new kid on the block of the nineties, and oh so very nineties it certainly was, when most dishes came in tower form, balsamic syrup, a time when parsley garnished most plates, the sun dried tomato was prominent, squid ink pasta is still out there, when the Caesar salad was given a boot up the back side by a chicken, taking over from the classic original Caesar. When Ready Steady Cook was one of the nations favourites, Gary Rhodes was driving around Britain in Ferrari’s, Jamie Oliver was bish-boshing it, but inspiring a new generation in a way to think about food, getting people to cook yet at the same time, leading young cooks into this belief that a world of cooking and cheffing can be made so easy with little effort to be made, that it will automatically come to you along with the big bucks and a career on main stream television.
For some, they start off in the pot wash or as a commis chef with little knowledge if any about food. Earning a pittance, working their backside off, your first wage that you get, ideas of what you could do and imaginations running wild, it’s like a new direction and lease of life. Eventually you start learning your trade, slowly getting better, the hours start to increase the Fridays and Saturdays you once knew are now turning into any other, long days and friends eventually stop asking if you want to go out and when you eventually catch up with them you end up sharking your drinks just to catch up with them, oh the days that were. You want to do the best, be the best, stay on top of your game, show no weakness, all that matters is food. How ever hard you push yourself and the creativity that you have within, perhaps isn’t always enough. Don’t get me wrong, I think we will all have regrets and there is no point in squandering thoughts on the what ifs, it’s great to be driven by food, food is knowledge and you have to make yourself more knowledgeable about food, in fact when ever a food related comes up on quizzes like The Chase, I do feel secretly proud of myself for knowing the answer and if I don’t, I feel this sincere disappointment within. When you are young and have all this ambition, in whatever career path you choose, it must be directed and challenged with guidance to lead you in the right direction, when life can throw many things at us and challenge us, it is important to remember that we are all on our own life clock, things happen at different times in life for us all.
I ended my last Head Chef position over two and a half years ago. Starting off focused, energized, enthused with plenty of ideas. This lasted for maybe three to four years out of nine and a half, a time scale that I never imagined to be in for so long. It was hard work, but food and succeeding was my focus and that is all that mattered. I didn’t really have any other commitments thus leading to clocking in one week a hundred and twenty hours… what an idiot. It was a hard slog and for what? Even though I spent more time with staff than with family, I drank far to much every day (after shift), not an excuse, I was miserable and in the early years was an asshole in the kitchen, nothing mattered but the food and I didn’t like the man I had become.
Then things started to slowly change. I met Kirsty in that time, now my oh so patient wife, my best friend and my rock and I’m not afraid to say that I know that I am her rock as we are stronger when we are together, protect, support, care and love each other and I understand that at times wants to put my head through the television. It was also in this time that my father was diagnosed with dementia, which threw us all as a family, but in turn made us stronger, even though it slowly began creating some kind of distance between our dad, I know that even nearing the end there was definitely moments of clarity and that a light was still on in his mind. In this time, we came together as a family, which at times was strained but we cared for our dad the same way he did for us, giving back the same time he gave us, it was only fair and I can’t write this with out saying how unfair it was to be struck down in life with such a bastard of a disease. After he passed away, even though we aren’t a hugging kind of family, though still close, we did realise that we had just lost the glue that held us all together all that time.
Them years opened my eyes to a new avenues in life. It started me in charity work for the first time with sky dives, Santas Grottos and the day club in CEN. Even though in my latter years as head chef, even though I put the same effort into roasting some good bones to create the best, gravy, to name the simplest of dishes and a platform to lead to other greater dishes, my heart was not truly in it and had to leave that behind, getting out of the kitchen, eventually, which also led to starting up Stramash with my wife and at the same time working for Marine Scotland as a cook, and I can proudly use the word cook and still offer my chef influences and creativity into my menus which keeps my mind still buzzing with ideas. The only difference being that I do not cook with anger any more as I believe that negativity seeps into the food. I may not have notched up any recognised food/restaurant awards in my time as chef but I know I had the pleasure of people travelling to eat my food which what it was about for me and making money obviously and I know that in the time of leaving a head chef role to even starting Stramash, there was one day that I was angry about something to do with work and as I was pinning out my oatie biscuits, a song came on the radio that I had not heard in years, it was then that the thought occurred to me that even though I was used to people coming to where I was cooking, I had managed to turn the tables and have the products that people, over the years, have asked me to sell, and now having them in there own homes and swore to myself that there would be no negativity or anger filtered into our products. That is why I like to have the radio on and belt out some tunes while working, I might just hear another forgotten classic that inspires me.
The first time I had the opportunity to have fresh truffle in one of my meals was when I was in London and had lunch in Harrods, fillet steak with seared foie gras, sautéed spinach and truffle jus, a simple sounding dish but executed to perfection, the cooking degree of the fillet, the richness of the just seared foie gras, the silkiness of the spinach finished with a robust beef jus with slithers of black truffle. Now I understand that people think truffle is overrated, but to have the opportunity to have had this on many occasions is certainly a treat for me, even in the form of a toasted sandwich, and a far cry from the first time buying the truffle oil in the early years of one very excitable young chef who is still reaching to try new things, from all corners of the globe, but has a better understanding from the school of life that you can’t just wait for things to come to you, you have to go and get it, throwing that time old phrase of good things come to those who wait out the window. In order to succeed you need three things, you need to have a skill, you need to be hard working and a bit of luck to come your way. Many a time I have had the phrase of you’ve made your bed so lie in thrown at me, well, yes I have and its darn comfy, but don’t get me wrong a few more pillows would be nice, I’ve just got to go out and get them.