Interview with Craig Millar, 16 West End.

TAKING OVER a successful business is no easy thing, especially when a tried and tested partnership is in place, but when the opportunity to go solo arose, Craig Millar knew this was his chance to realise a dream – having his own restaurant.

Craig’s 13-year partnership with Tim Butler and The Seafood Restaurant brand had brought the duo a bag full of accolades, a solid customer base and a sterling reputation as one of the country’s premier seafood establishments. 

The business started in the sleepy fishing town of St.Monans in 1993, when the Butler family opened the first Seafood Restaurant in the former fisherman’s pub on the edge of the harbour; one of the most picturesque dinner settings you’ll find in the UK. 

Joining as head chef in 1997, Craig went onto be a director of the company, which saw it expand into St. Andrews in the shape of a spectacular glass box overlooking the beach and the famous Old Course links.

In the summer of 2011, Craig got his name above the door when he became sole proprietor of the St.Monans branch.  After a brief refit, the original Seafood Restaurant reopened as ‘Craig Millar @16 West End’.  After so long in business, I wondered if it was a difficult choice to make,

‘After I had worked out the financial implications like being able to pay staff, my bills and keep my wife happy, it wasn’t a hard decision.  The long term plan was always to own and run my own restaurant, the opportunity came along and here we are’.

The original restaurant has proudly held 2 AA Rosettes forover 13 years, in which time it was also crowned AA ‘Seafood Restaurant of the Year’ and, whilst Craig is obviously keen to hold onto loyal customers, he has chosen to shift away from seafood and stamp his own mark on proceedings by focusing onoffering a wider variety of dishes to attract people who are perhaps not so keen on fish.

‘I decided to move away from being branded as a seafood restaurant as the country has much more to offer other than just seafood.
 ‘I wanted attract more people, people that may not like seafood and give them the opportunity to dine in the restaurant; so the menu isnow split 50/50 between meat and seafood and I also run a tasting menu now.’

Craig has now been operating as sole proprietor in St.Monans for over a year now and is pleased to report business has been good this summer.  A great sign in today’s modern economic climate, especially when you consider the transition period following the re-branding of the place, but being in charge must lead to its own rewards.

‘The first six months were hard.  Having to deal with suppliers, accountants, bank managers and all other non- food stuff that goes on was tough, but most of them have been very supportive.

‘The kitchen side of things is mainly business as usual,although I tend to take on more work myself now rather than pay someone else,

‘I suppose the advantages, if you can call it that, are you get out of the business as much as you are prepared to put in’. Yes, it is nice to get awards and recognition from the guide books but first and foremost must be the customer’s satisfaction, that’s the best reward.’

I remember spending a summer at The Seafood Restuarant as a young commis, and one of my lasting memories was when we had a batch of lobsters delivered one morning.  As Craig checked them for size and quality, he found a female laden with eggs. 

I won’t repeat what he said but he was far from happy; he explained to me and another commis, Martyn, that the eggs would only maybe spawn one or two lobsters but it wasn’t morally right to use it.  He instructed Martin and one of the Kitchen Porters to take it down to the harbour and put it back in the sea. 

Craig, who also plays the bagpipes, is well known in the industry for giving young chefs like myself experience in  fine dining and enjoys passing his experience and knowledge on to up and coming chefs.

‘I think it is very important for young aspiring chefs toget experience in good kitchens.  Too many are lost to the industry disillusioned by working for facelessorganisations where fresh produce and creativity are absent.  My kitchen is always open for anyone who wants to gain experience.’

When it comes to creating his menu, Craig always uses the best seasonal and sustainable produce, sourcing most of it from Fife’s wonderful larder. 

‘Seasonality has a major impact on the menu.  I look forward to the first wild garlic ofthe season, the first asparagus and also the game and mushroom season in particular. I get produce from Kellie Castle where I visit two-three times a week; I have a walk around with the gardeners, pick what is ready and develop dishesthat way.’

The former Rugby player spoke of the partnership with local suppliers at Kellie Castle, who are just a couple of miles from the restaurant and even has the gardeners growing vegetables specifically for his menu.

‘I was approached about a year ago to see if would be interested in local organically grown fruit and vegetables.  I had a chat with the head gardener, who was delighted his produce was going to a good home and they now grow some produce exclusively for me.

‘At the moment they are growing different salad cress, kale, cabbages, apples also cape gooseberries but also offer a lot more depending on the time of the season, they even do 28 different varieties of rhubarb! Unfortunately, this year hasn’t been a very good year for fruit and vegetables because of the weather.’

I remember finishing my shift late at night and looking inat the cosy restaurant, envious of the diners enjoying the experience in thismost exquisite location.  As the dark nights set in along the east coast of Fife, I can’t think of anywhere who canmatch this quality of cooking with such an idyllic setting.