THE story of Ondine, the Edinburgh seafood restaurant, has been one of highs and lows since it was founded 15 years ago.

And chef patron Roy Brett is eager for the next chapter to begin.

From the joy of winning awards and critical acclaim to the crashing lows of Covid, there has been plenty to occupy the mind of Mr Brett during his first decade and a half at the helm of the George IV Bridge restaurant.

Currently, one of the most pressing challenges is presented by an external “wrap”, which has been installed around the restaurant because of structural works being carried out to the building.

It has been in place for two years now, but Mr Brett, who hopes the work will be complete by the spring of next year, has refused to let the distraction hold Ondine back.

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While the work has been going on outside, a complete refurbishment of the interior has taken place, with the restaurant’s designers adapting the layout to take the focus away from the scaffolding.

Portholes have been installed as windows to the outside world which, as well as minimising diners’ exposure to the external works, give the interior a nautical feel.

“Hopefully by spring it will all be nice and shiny and back to its good state, and the fantastic views that we have got from the restaurant will be reopening,” Mr Brett told The Herald. “It’s really exciting. I am really looking forward to it coming down.”

He added: “It has given me a focus to be in the best possible position we can. I feel like it is going to be the unveiling of a new restaurant.”

The challenge brought by the scaffolding is different to the darkest days of the pandemic. In an interview with The Herald in October 2020, Mr Brett expressed his fear that there could be an exodus of talented chefs from the hospitality industry in Scotland to England because of the restrictions in place at that time to suppress the spread of Covid. At that stage, he said many business owners were “two to four weeks” away from having to make decisions on the future of their outlets.

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Thankfully, those days have passed, but the scaffolding has brought difficulties of a different kind. Asked if it has affected passing trade, Mr Brett said: “It has its challenges. Because it (the restaurant) is not visible, it is not easy for the person who is visiting the city to find. It does have an impact on day-to-day work.

“We have got visual signage up and we are trying our best. After 15 years there is a following that we have built up.

"It’s pretty ugly on the outside but inside it’s still good. I feel like I am in a submarine! Our brilliant design team in Glasgow, Atalanta, did a fantastic job in screening off all the windows so you don’t actually see the scaffolding. They created portholes. When I say I feel like I am in a submarine, I am just looking forward to when we hit the top and come out of the other side.”

Mr Brett is frustrated yet philosophical about the ongoing works, which as fate would have it have been taking place as restaurants have faced soaring costs amid the ongoing inflation crisis, and diners are being more cautious with regard to how often they are eating out.

Loyal customers are continuing to visit, but perhaps a little less frequently, as they keep an eye on outgoings, while at the same time the restaurant’s energy and raw material costs are significantly higher. The Ondine menu relies heavily on Scottish seafood such as oysters, lobster, mussels, and scallops.

“I think the hardest thing that hit the fishermen were the costs,” Mr Brett said. “The cost of seafood has gone up tenfold. A lot of the prices we are paying just now would not be too dissimilar to what you’d be paying in the winter months. That’s to do with the diesel costs and how far they have to go out to get the basic product.

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“In the fishing industry, to keep employing to get the skilled labour that they need [costs more]. Our fishermen have found it really hard and they need all the support they can get from us. They’re still the best in my eyes. We love working with local businesses and wholesalers. There are so many good ones out there just now in Scotland.

“And I think there has been a lot of creative work getting done. I actually see more shellfish and seafood on menus now than ever before. There is more of an appetite for fish now than I have seen in the past.”

Elaborating on what is spurring this demand, Mr Brett said: “I think people really enjoy eating fish. You have seen a real good surge in Glasgow. There have always been great seafood restaurants in Glasgow. It is a pity Rogano isn’t there just now, but you just look at Crabshakk and they have opened another fabulous place and by all accounts it is really great. Shucks has opened up as well. You just see this surge in young dynamic businesses opening up and Crabshakk is a great example.”

Asked if he would considering adding a further restaurant to his stable, Mr Brett, who has built staff numbers back up to 24 after headcount dropped to 8 from 40 because of Covid, said: “This year marks the fifteenth year of Ondine. I’m definitely looking to reinvest into the business to make it even stronger than it has been before and give it the attention it deserves.

"For the loyal customers we have built up over the years, we want to show them that we still care. We want to make this the best destination that we possibly can.

“The answer is yes [to expanding]. We have had thoughts about having a second site. Just now I just need to get this one right.”

Mr Brett added: “There is a good nucleus of people here I trust and respect and I just want to go on the next journey with them and hopefully make this successful as much for them as ourselves.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

For business and leisure, it would have to be Singapore and also South Africa. Singapore for the diversity and the food cultures. It is a melting pot of so many different countries. The Hawkers market is where you get to taste the most delicious food, with simple, stripped back surroundings. Also, if you want to go high-end there is an abundance of choice. Burnt Ends restaurant is my favourite, it is a unique BBQ dining experience that I highly recommend. The standard and attention to detail is above and beyond.

South Africa also have such an incredible range of wineries and an extremely high standard of service. The quality of produce is not often talked about or celebrated nearly enough.

My favourite spot is Ken Forrester vineyard. It sits in the heartlands of Stellenbosch. Ken makes the most incredible Chenin Blanc. It’s the best wine tasting you could possibly wish for.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I guess I always wanted to be a cook. I used to watch Keith Floyd on TV growing up and used to think, I would love to do that. I didn’t know his name at the time but watching him made me want to be a cook as he would always made food look really interesting. I followed my passion.

What was your biggest break in business?

My biggest break was working with Ken McCulloch. He had this incredible attention to detail, and he was so forward thinking with regards to hospitality. He was always my inspiration. I worked with him at One Devonshire Gardens, Malmaison and Dakota. Then to be able to work with Rick Stein was up there with the biggest break. Being able to understand the background and how he created his restaurants, what was involved and being able to live and breathe the fishing community and how it all operated.

What was your worst moment in business?

It would have to be when the scaffolding was erected and covered the entire exterior of the restaurant. This has definitely been my biggest challenge to overcome so far.

Who do you most admire and why?

It would have to be the late Andrew Fairlie. Following all the accolades that he received over the years, he always stayed humbled, and he was the exact same guy that I met 30 years before. It was a friendship that I cherished and will always hold on to.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

The book that I am currently reading is Roast Chicken and other stories by Simon Hopkinson – he is witty and a fun food writer. The music I am listening to at the moment is Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys.