After a series of calamities that kicked off with the business-bashing pandemic lockdown, followed by a flood, and climaxed in a fire, Nick and Julia Nairn are back on course.

 

In 2000 Nick Nairn, Michelin-starred chef, TV presenter and author, opened Nick Nairn Cook School by the quiet shores of Lake of Menteith. Today there are no students, but a busy lunch service is in full swing. Cheery staff wind through tables with pizzas, burgers, chicken tikka skewers and glasses of fizz. Even on a weekday lunchtime the atmosphere is celebratory.


It’s a gorgeous space: huge glass windows overlook leafy gardens, muted tartan panels and comfy chairs adding warmth and colour. Outside there’s an inviting covered seating area with cosy blankets and heaters.
The restaurant is thriving after a tough few years for Nick and his wife and business partner, Julia Nairn. Like all hospitality businesses they struggled through the pandemic with changing rules and lockdowns. Then they were hit with a flood that brought a ceiling down in the cookery school. Finally, any business owner’s worst nightmare, a devastating fire that completely gutted their popular Bridge of Allan restaurant – on a Saturday night, in the middle of service. Thankfully all staff and customers were quickly evacuated.

Nick Nairn and his wife and business partner Julia
 “The fire was like the final injustice because we were just getting back on our feet again,” says Nick, “but we’re so lucky that nobody was hurt.”
In the aftermath of the fire, keen to keep their staff busy, they quickly pivoted and opened their cook school as a restaurant. “The following weekend we opened here,” says Julia “and half of Bridge of Allan came out to support us. Staff were walking around hugging customers and it was really overwhelming. That first weekend, I was struggling to talk to people, you know, there was just too much kindness in one room.”


At Nick’s at Port of Menteith it’s a surprisingly simple menu: steak, burgers, sole goujons, pizza, but that I learn is the point. Nick has decided to focus here on perfecting popular family friendly dishes: “We’re very much putting Michelin star attention to detail into the food that people eat every day.”
Details indeed, even the roast chicken is served with barbecued hispi cabbage, black garlic emulsion and Hasselback potatoes. “We’ve just put obsession into every dish,” says Nick, “Everything is made in house, everything is stress tested.”


I try the cured salmon, a Nairn family recipe, it’s so tender and delicious I’d keep the recipe secret too. It’s served with crunchy apple, kohlrabi and garden dill, along with a generous wedge of sourdough. A creamy burrata collapses perfectly with sweet grilled peach, and a chilli raspberry vinaigrette adds vibrancy. The squid tempura is light and crunchy with tender squid and a piquant Vietnamese-style sauce for dunking – chilli, fish sauce, plenty of fresh coriander and no doubt more secret ingredients.
Nick Nairn has long been a huge advocate for Scottish produce in his restaurants, TV programmes and books: “Game and shellfish are the two things I’ve always been excited about,” he says, but there’s a new addition: “salad has really excited me this year”.

Nick Nairn and his wife and business partner Julia
Nick has been learning to garden, and it turns out he’s pretty good at it. “There must be positives that come out of this year. I’ve always wanted to do this, and finally I had the time,” he says. “I’m not a gardener, but I taught myself to cook so I thought, if I can learn to cook, I can learn to grow things. I’ve always had this passion for local food and reducing food miles.”


It’s only the first year and already the restaurant is self-sufficient in salads. As we chat, we munch on sweet baby tomatoes straight from the vine, and later in the restaurant a beautiful array of colourful peppery leaves. 
He’s trying everything – sweetcorn, aubergines, peppers. “Next year I’ll grow fewer things, this year has been about learning – and getting flavours you can’t get in the supermarket,” he says. “It’s been good for the business, and good for my head. It’s been an amazing refuge and distraction.”


The upheaval also threw Nick back into the kitchen after years in management and teaching: 
“I started cooking because I loved it and I’d forgotten; I’ve re-discovered that I really do love cooking and I love food.”
A year on from the fire, the restaurant is wildly popular, the food is fantastic, and Nick and Julia are, as ever, full of ideas and plans. The Bridge of Allan restaurant is being rebuilt.


“We’ve been told February but I’m open-minded,” says Julia. If there are further bumps in the road, then no doubt the resilient Nairns and their “stronger than ever” team will take it in their stride.