Stealing the crown from Nick Nairn as the youngest Scottish chef ever to receive the culinary gong, at age 29, was the easy bit. The star sparked such an increase in business that a two-month waiting list was created overnight.
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He’s just moved from a flat to a large Victorian house with a garden, bought a BMW estate and is preparing for the arrival in September of his second child with Michaela, his Savoy-trained Swedish wife and front of house manager. Breathless? You bet he is.
Oh, yes, and he’s about to open a second restaurant in Edinburgh. Not bad for the kid from Kinross who left Dollar Academy with no qualifications at the age of 16.
“It’s mad,” concedes the 32-year-old over a rare coffee break. “I get up at 6am and don’t get to bed until at least 1am, but although it’s exhausting it’s also exciting. I’m constantly on an adrenaline rush. It’s like a drug.”
He reflects on how much has changed so quickly. “People see us full all the time, but they forget that when we opened in 2006, we were broke and begging the bank for money,” he says. “We’ve reinvested every penny back in to the business as much as possible. It’s not like someone has written us a cheque.”
Kitchin’s mentor and ally, the legendary Pierre Koffman, was helped to set up the three-starred La Tante Claire in London by his own mentors, the mighty Roux brothers Albert and Michel. But Kitchin says he’s had no such help, and had to borrow money from his bank, father and grandfather to set up on his own. However, Koffmann gave him his entire stock of crockery, pots and pans, utensils, glassware and cutlery from La Tante Claire, which closed in 2002, at a “friendly” price. And Albert Roux is keeping his eye on Kitchin: earlier this year he said that of all the chefs in Scotland, Kitchin is the one most likely to gain three Michelin stars. He is booked in to eat there next week.
A mark of his standing in chef circles was underlined last month when Kitchin was personally invited to a celebration at The Waterside Inn, Michel Roux’s restaurant in Bray which has retained three Michelin stars for 25 years. Koffman was head chef there when it first opened.
“It was surreal,” says Kitchin, in his curious French-tinged accent -- acquired from Koffmann but also from training with Guy Savoy in Paris and Alain Ducasse at his Louis XV in Monte Carlo. “Pierre picked me up at the airport, and we had a drink together at Heston Blumenthal’s Hind’s Head gastro pub. Sitting at the bar were Jean-Luc Naret, world editor of the Michelin Guide, and Derek Bulmer, the former editor of the UK edition. At the dinner, every top British chef was there and we had the most amazing food, all dishes served at the Waterside Inn over the 25 years. You really saw the evolution of British cooking that day, from cordon bleu to nouvelle cuisine to regional cooking by British-born chefs.”
Kitchin is a passionate believer in using traditional Scottish cuts in his French-style cooking. He often serves tripe or bone marrow with snails or seasonal woodcock with their heads split in two to resemble little spoons, and his signature dish is boned and rolled pig’s head with roasted langoustine tails from Anstruther served with a crispy
ear salad. “I’m more refined than Fergus Henderson,” he half-jokes in reference to the English chef noted for his nose-to-tail cookery using offal, pigs’ ears, ducks’ hearts, trotters and bones. Kitchin now goes through 25 pigs’ heads each week, all from saddleback pigs reared at Clash Farm in Wigtownshire.
His latest obsession is cooking “a la minute” -- meaning made to order. “Items such as asparagus, spoots [razor clams] and lobster are now made to order. It’s about maintaining the whole ethos of freshness,” he explains. “I’m really fanatical about that now.” This phrase is borrowed from Alain Ducasse, the three times starred chef of the Dorchester and with whom Kitchin trained
at the Louis VX in Monte Carlo. He’s also “excited” about his new supplier of wild salmon and seabass, Usan of Montrose, who can deliver the same day. “The crazy thing is I can’t cook the salmon straight away because rigor mortis hasn’t set in yet and it’s too soft. But I like to know I have the fish here with me. It’s all about pushing myself to be the best every day. I can’t help it.”
Backstage, little Kasper is growing up fast. His father reveals that he is learning to speak Swedish with his mother Michaela, who was born in Stockholm and is herself a bi-lingual high-flyer who trained in management with the Savoy group and executive-managed top establishments Claridge’s, The Connaught and the Berkeley in London, and the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai. She is a director of the business and is also in charge of the interior design at both restaurants. When Kasper was just a few weeks old she took him to work with her and he instantly became the darling of the team.
“Kasper and Michaela have a little secret language going on and he loves that I don’t understand it,” smiles Kitchin. “It’s very cute because sometimes he gets English and Swedish mixed up.”
When he was born he was given a baby cookbook by Alain Ducasse and a floppy rabbit by the comedian Ronnie Corbett, a regular at the restaurant. The little family enjoyed late-night catch-ups when daddy came home and Kasper was feeding. Now there’s another baby on the way, and it’s another boy -- the busy couple wanted to find out the sex because they wanted time to prepare for his arrival.
The expanding Kitchin family will have many hands to help. Kasper already spends a lot of time with his paternal grandparents in Kinross, and adores his 92-year-old great-grandfather “Poppa”. He also travels regularly to Stockholm to visit his maternal grand-parents. Kitchin’s father is his business manager, and he pays tribute to both sets of parents. “The help that grandparents can give in helping their children care for their own children is unmeasurable.”
Kitchin’s younger sister, an art teacher at Glenalmond whose boyfriend is the cyclist Mark Beaumont, is also on hand to help out.
Kitchin was the only boy in his home economics class at school, and left early to study cooking at Perth College. His entire life has revolved around food, and the nature of the job means his friends tend to be from within that circle. Kitchin will be sharing his carefully nurtured list of Scottish suppliers with one of his oldest friends, Dominic Jack, 35, who will be head chef proprietor of the new Kitchin restaurant Castle Terrace (formerly Abstract, whose sister restaurant in Inverness featured in Gordon Ramsay’s television series Kitchen Nightmares).
The pair, both born in Edinburgh, have known each other since they were 18 when they were trainees at the Gleneagles Hotel. Their developing careers have followed a very similar route. They met again in Paris, when Jack was at the three-Michelin-starred l’Arpège and Taillevent, while Kitchin was at Restaurant Guy Savoy. Jack has been at The Kitchin for the last 18 months, and the pair have had time to plan their next move. Jack has part invested in the new restaurant alongside Kitchin, who describes the venture as a sister restaurant -- which he claims is the first such concept in Scotland. They will share Kitchin-trained staff and management, and the buying of food and wine. Kitchin says he will never cook at Castle Terrace, and praises his friend’s “absolutely fantastic” flavours. “It’s important that Dominic creates his own name within the group,” he says. “We’re creating a brand.”
Are more joint ventures on the horizon? “I’d dearly love to do something in Glasgow. But first, we’re planning a gastro pub,” he reveals.
Running your own business is clearly all-consuming. “Michaela dreams of the day when I say I’ll take the night off and just come home,” he admits. “But that might be the night someone important comes in [to the restaurant]. You never know who’s going to come through the door.”
He freely confesses to being ambitious. “Yes, I’m ambitious, but what’s wrong with that?” he says, “I’m very conscious our fantastic life could change just like that.”
With that, he picks up his car keys and speeds back to his beloved kitchen.
Life and Loves
Career high: Our first waiting list -- the first time I had to say, “Sorry, we’re full tonight,” was such a thrill.
Career low: Being banished to clean the fridge by Pierre Koffmann for making a mistake in the kitchen at La Tante Claire. I had to clean the fridge and then was told not to come back. Of course I turned up next day and everything was forgotten.
Favourite food: The first grouse of the day on August 12.
Favourite holiday destination: Provence, south of France.
Favourite film: I’m always asleep within five minutes of sitting down to watch a film, so I never see any to the end. My body just shuts down as soon as I’ve finished dinner and settle down. That’s why Michaela encourages us to eat as late as possible.
Last book read: Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw.
Best personality trait: Always pushing myself to the next level.
Worst personality trait: I’m too fanatical. When I see one of my chefs handle something badly, I tense up and feel the stress run straight down my back.
Best advice received: Always cook from the heart.
Biggest influence: Pierre Koffmann and Michaela.
Perfect dinner guests: Alain Ducasse, Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Kenny Dalglish, and Cheryl Cole