The wealth of fresh, local produce grown in the ‘Secret Garden’, the guidance and mentorship offered to the next generation of top chefs and, of course, the culinary masterpieces served in Scotland’s best restaurant combine to make Andrew Fairlie’s lasting legacy, says Paul Trainer

Stevie McLaughlin walks between the planting beds in his own field of dreams wearing a chef jacket and wellies. This is a working visit to check on the rare and heritage vegetables, fruit, herbs, and edible flowers grown specifically for Scotland’s only two Michelin star kitchen. Timings will be assessed, some discussion on what deliveries will be made for the week. Season to season, menus are led by remarkable ingredients from the place Andrew Fairlie called his Secret Garden.

The name is still traced on the wooden gate door, eight years on from when Andrew convinced a local landowner to allow him to use the Victorian walled garden, sitting in anonymity off a country track.

There’s a Narnia moment walking into the orderly greenery. 

It has its own sense of calm and a microclimate with the Perthshire sunshine reflected back from the thick stone walls that removes this space from the outside world.

When Andrew Fairlie died in 2019, the garden was part of his legacy as the restaurant team, led by head chef Stevie and general manager Dale Dewsbury, continue to develop dishes to showcase the best of Scottish ingredients.

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Head grower Jo Campbell leads the way at this special place. “We’re always looking at how we can improve things and trying to find something new or different for the kitchen. We do have our favourite varieties that suit the canapes” she says. 

Globe artichokes are new for this year, something the kitchen requested, and the garden growers worked out how to supply. Jo’s phone is always ringing each day, part of an ongoing conversation about what raw ingredients can populate the plates.

Stevie says the chefs all enjoy spending time in the garden too, both because of the special atmosphere that the place holds and the opportunity to talk about colours and shapes for ingredients. 

“I want my chefs to understand what it takes to produce food, what it takes for somebody to deliver. 

“Our heritage vegetables, we’ve chosen the variety and explained we want it at a particular time of year. It’s Jo and the team’s hard work that makes it happen. 

“Just last Friday, one of the chefs, Evelina, came down and we were sowing parsnips. So, for her to see what a parsnip seed looks like and how we’re growing it, it’s fantastic because chefs are so used to a box turning up. They might never see the top half of a fennel because it arrives chopped. I’ve always believed it’s really important and I don’t think there’s many growers in Scotland growing to such precision.”

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Jo will also take her team to watch service in the kitchen to see how leaves and vegetables are used: “That’s important for us, we then understand if we can improve anything, if we are getting the sizes right. We understand what our goal is.”

“A lot of it goes straight on the plate, but some things you have to trim with a paring knife”, Stevie explains, instinctively reaching for a small radish and preparing the leaves.

“When it is this quality, we want the vegetables to be clearly identified on the plate.”

We move to the greenhouse where there are rows and rows of plants and vegetables, a chorus of green leaves ready to be inspected. There’s land cress and broad bean flowers to taste, spinach, pea tendrils, beetroot and a freshly pulled Perthshire pak choi leaf.

“It’s the instant freshness. 

“We will pick something up in the morning and serve it in the afternoon” Stevie says, “that’s a real joy”.

The Restaurant

Sitting in Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, we are talking about the future while remembering the past. “There’s an obvious part of the jigsaw that’s missing” general manager Dale Dewsbury says.

“The first 19 years of the restaurant, Andrew was the centre. Now we make sure that people can see and experience a brilliant, world class restaurant in its own right. We’ve got a huge connection to Andrew, but it needs to be forward looking. I think that has been the transition over the last three years”.

There’s a tangible change in the dining room, it looks different after a recent refurbishment but still recognisably the restaurant that set new standards for Scottish cooking.

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 “For as long as we’re here, neither myself nor Stevie are going to let go of that connection to Andrew, but this has to be a modern restaurant. We will fly the flag the same way he did.”
The last two years have been a period of self-audit for anyone working in hospitality. Within the pause, there were moments that clarified the purpose of the restaurant for Stevie.

“I take confidence from the sense of freedom that we had while Andrew was here. We do know where the parameters are. Every plate that we serve, it needs to be brilliantly consistent. We can change the look of the room, we can add more colour, we can use different ingredients while still staying true to what the ethos of the restaurant is.”

“We’ve come through that process. You see a lot of our contemporaries, they’ve gone through that audit and they have decided they want to work in new professions. Collectively, as a team, we’ve been the through the same two years and come to the conclusion we are in the right place, with the right people”.

Growing up, it was comfort food Stevie was looking for rather than lavish dinners. “I remember a chip sandwich with proper homemade chips, cooked twice, lots of sea salt. Sunblest bread with butter. Fresh fish in breadcrumbs. That’s a vivid memory.”

Stevie is now recognised among the top chefs in Europe, but things could have gone differently. It all started with choux pastry.

“Leaving school after fourth year, Skillseekers came to deal with people like me. They gave the computer my details and the printout said I should be a welder. I got sent to the college for an open day, I did three different types of welding. Cut things, soldered things together. The patter from the lecturer was phenomenal. I’m going to be a welder.”

“We went back in the afternoon and the group were taken to the home economics class. There they made this crumbly, warm pastry with some cream in it and that was it, that’s what I wanted to do.”

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He enrolled in Glasgow College of Food Technology. Part of the second year of the course was to find a placement. “I used to get the bus from where I stayed in Glasgow, it passed One Devonshire Gardens in Great Western Road. I thought, if I’m going be a chef. I want to work in the best place. Pavarotti goes there. The Spice Girls go there. I want to work there.”

“I arrived in for an interview, I had blue cords, brown brogue shoes, a stripy shirt and a purple leather tie. I get to the door and say I have an appointment to see the head chef. That was Andrew. He immediately put me at ease without even trying. 

“He took me in every Thursday through college. It was a small, quite intense kitchen. I loved hearing the characters that were in the kitchen. I loved the work I was doing. I think chef thought I had a good work ethic. He helped me get a job at Malmaison and then, after about a year, when a job came up at One Devonshire Gardens I came back to work with Andrew.”

Restaurant Andrew Fairlie has signed a lease at Gleneagles for the next 10 years, with the team eager to write a new chapter. 

“It’s coming up to the anniversary of the first service. I don’t think any of us had a 20-year plan but the reality now is 30 years of the restaurant and the people you meet along the way,” Dale says. 

“I’m serving people now who are the children of people I served when I 
started.

“Stevie has a right hand that’s been in the business for 10 years, my restaurant manager has been with us for nearly nine years. The sommelier is seven years in. We’ve all come back ready to keep going.”

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The Kitchen

Restaurant Andrew Fairlie opened in 2001, receiving its first Michelin star eight months later, followed by a second star in 2006. That’s the level they have attained ever since.

The kitchen is organised at close quarters but with individual sections. The restaurant is empty, set with cutlery and glassware. There’s already a quiet, determined industry among the chefs. Getting ready to put on a show. It’s not as bombastic an experience as you might imagine from watching cooking shows. The only common theme is that timing is everything.

One of the enduring dishes on the menu is lobster smoked for five hours over whisky barrel chips. I find these laid out ready to be dressed for the evening’s service. You really can smell the smokiness. 

Canapes are being assembled. A balance act in some cases, others will be as simple as a frozen oyster leaf from the garden. There’s a collection of vegetables and leaves that are now been arranged for use later. 

Chefs stand at station, methodically working through their own preparation. It’s later when the orders come in that they begin to synch together in a balletic delivery while Stevie works to assemble the constituent parts into a plated whole.

 

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From the a la carte menu, those smoked lobsters, the crab claw with grilled langoustine or the veal sweetbread will be the most popular choices tonight. For mains herb crusted lamb loin or roast fillet of turbot. 

Dessert orders for Grand Marnier souffle or warm rhubarb and ginger tart. Dale is a reassuring presence between the dining room and kitchen, relaying specific requests and letting everyone know how the plan for the night is unfolding. 

There’s a crowd participation element of the delivery to the pass where the dish is assembled, each part of the cooking process being confirmed for all the team to hear. 

Waiters breeze in and out to carry silver trays with the degustation menu underway. Razor clam, foie gras, halibut. Canapes continue. 
 

I notice and appreciate the consistency, the attention every plate receives and the common thread of those colourful specks of flavour from the Secret Garden.

This feature was the cover story for the June edition of Best of Scotland magazine. Photography by Sonya Walos

andrewfairlie.co.uk