TURNING 60 in January holds no fears for Nick Nairn – or, as I tend to think of him, the Peter Pan of the culinary world. Turns out he has other fish to fry than fretting and, with typical enthusiasm, he can’t wait to get started.

Uppermost in his mind is kickstarting his Cook School at Port of Menteith, near Aberfoyle, following the painful experience of calling time on his Aberdeen venture. He closed his Cook School there in June, and Nick’s Pizza Bar and Café, which had opened in 2016, in July. His focus now is on maximising the long-established asset that is his fabulous purpose-built building on the banks of the famous lake. Pizza at the Port, where customers’ orders are made by the chef himself, has already proved very popular.

“Coming out of Aberdeen was a tumultuous, difficult period, just horrible,” he says. “But it was also a blessing because we’ve realised what we’ve had here for so many years but have perhaps under-used because we had so many other things on the go.”

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His multi-million-pound Aberdeen cook school, which opened in 2012, was very successful, but ran into trouble when in 2016 the price of a barrel of oil went from $100 to $30 almost overnight and the oil and gas companies stopped spending money, and corporate business dried up. “Our Cook School income halved from £1.1m to under £600,000 in three months,” says Nairn. “Yet labour costs, coupled with running costs, remained the same. It became unviable. And we couldn’t get the pizza business to work on the same commercial terms.” His association with Native, the restaurant in the Hilton Garden Inn, Aberdeen, ended three years ago but he remains closely involved with Kailyard restaurant at the Hilton Dunblane Hydro.

I ask if the final straw was being assaulted in Aberdeen city centre in December last year – he famously posted a shocking photograph of his bruised and battered face on Twitter after the incident – but he says: “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all. It wasn’t the reason I came out of Aberdeen; the two aren’t linked at all.”

It appears the former merchant seaman has sailed into calmer waters. His ambitious long-term plans for a permanent food offer at Lake of Menteith are underway, with the help of his long-term colleague and business partner Julia Forster. They are to marry in February and will live in their newly-purchased Victorian villa in Bridge of Allan, which they’ll share with their blended family of his two children Daisy, 16, and Calum, 14, and Julia’s son Cameron, 20, and daughter Sophie, 19. Nairn divorced his second wife Holly in 2014.

Though Julia has worked at Nairns Ltd since 2006, the pair only got together last year. They giggle like children when Julia admits she didn’t actually like him when she first joined the business at Lake of Menteith as PA to his PA. “It was at the height of what I call his ‘Diva Days’,” she says. “For a long time he didn’t even know my name.”

So what was the trigger for change? “Aberdeen,” they chorus.

“When it started to go wrong, Julia was a rock,” he says. “We were travelling there and back from Glasgow together in the car for hours at a time, and gradually we got to know and like each other. I suppose it was a bit like Peter Kay’s Car Share.” He reckons Paul Rankin, his best friend and co-presenter on ITV’s Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip, spotted there was something going on between them before even they knew. Nairn proposed when Julia joined them in New Zealand to film the current series.

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He says the turning point in his career has been meeting Julia. “I have changed and I know I’ve changed,” he says. “I’m far more self-aware and a lot more analytical. I don’t want to be a diva any more. All that striving for excellence didn’t produce a person I’m particularly fond of.

“Julia used to hate me. She thought I was an arrogant so-and-so. And it’s true I was full of myself. But when you meet someone who is more important to you than you are yourself, everything changes.”


At age 31 Nairn shot to fame when he became the youngest chef in Scotland to gain a Michelin star for Braeval Old Mill near Aberfoyle in 1991, and he is still regarded as Scotland’s first celebrity chef due to his early TV career and a series of glossy cookbooks celebrating Scottish produce and modern ways of cooking it. Once an advisor to the Scottish Government’s food tsar Gillian Kynoch under the then Food Minister Richard Lochhead, he was a passionate supporter of its national food and drink policy and a fervent campaigner for better school meals. Nevertheless, he is happy not to have been offered the role of Scotland’s first national chef. “I’m very forthright and that doesn’t really work in government,” he says.

He acknowledges that one of the effects of Scotland’s national food policy is “a greater awareness of the Scottish larder and more chefs taking advantage of it”, but is wary the appeal of Instagram may divert some from the real job of cooking.

For him to go from Michelin star food to pizza is an interesting move, and all the more so given that Nairn is usually ahead of the trend curve. Is it a reflection of the modern demographic, that there’s a move towards a more casual food offer that appeals across all age groups?

“There’s as much going into my pizza as goes into Michelin star quality food,” he insists. Not the least is the 72-hour process of creating the stretched thin pizza base, a six-hour slow-cooked sugo using the best Italian tomatoes, and a carefully chosen selection of three different cheeses including a Scottish one, and top quality Scottish-sourced ingredients. On his menu on the day we meet are Dolcelatte with wild broccoli, black pudding and pancetta, and anchovy with olives and capers.

He cites the movement currently being led in the US by celebrity chef/restaurateur David Chang, whose Netflix series Ugly Delicious exploring the taste potential of street-food like pizza, tacos and dumplings, is a hit; and Wolfgang Puck’s new venture into high-end pizza restaurants.

It’s not all about pizza, though. Plans for 2019 include the launch of an impressive programme of monthly masterclasses with celebrity guest chefs, including Atul Kochhar, chef/baker Richard Bertinet, Ainslie Harriot and Great British Bake-Off winner Candice Brown. Nairn himself will hold an Asian Street Food class in December, and has just launched a bespoke offer of one-to-one cooking lessons.

He says his love affair with food began in 1976 when in Singapore with the Merchant Navy, which he joined after leaving McLaren High School in Callander. “Asian food was what made me a chef,” he says. “Nasi goreng, satay, fish sauce, limes … I cook with these at home, and the kids love it more than mince and tatties. Young people’s tastes are much more international than in our day. My base ingredients are Scottish, but the flavour profiles are global.”

He adds: “There will be a permanent food offer here. Suddenly there’s a lot more time to do what we have always wanted to do here at Port of Menteith. A stand-alone cook school is no longer relevant; people are looking for different experiences.”

The Life and Loves of Nick Nairn

Favourite meal

I ate a chunk of Parmesan cheese with a ripe pear warm off the tree five years ago in Bologna. It was so delicious, it was like the first time I’d ever tasted it.

Last book read

Val McDermid’s A Darker Domain – on my Kindle.

Best piece of advice received

My dad once said to me, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you become’ and he was absolutely right.

Worst piece of advice received

“The streets of Aberdeen are paved with gold” (from somebody at BP, now retired).

Advice to young/aspiring chefs

Make sure you’re cooking with a genuine passion for real food, rather than for Instagram.

Career high

Getting a Michelin star for Braeval Old Mill in 1991.

Career low

Closing my Aberdeen businesses this summer.

Ideal dinner guests

Andrew Fairlie. Dougie Vipond. Chris Hoy. Doddie Weir. Muriel Gray. Hamish Barbour.