Out of the Frying Pan... a Q&A with Craig Wood

I've designed this  Q&A in order to give people an insight into working in the hospitality industry in order to prove that it's not all long hours stuck in a hot kitchen, having no social life and dealing with tricky customers.  Working in hospitality has given me the opportunity to learn essential life skills, travel, meet amazing new people, promote independent businesses and, of course, eat some amazing food - not many careers can offer that!  To help me paint the picture, I'll be catching up with a variety of different people to show just how diverse and rewarding life in food and drink can be.  

First up, I'm grateful to chef Craig Wood from The Wee Restaurant for giving me his time.  Craig and wife Vicki now have two restaurants, one in North Queensferry and the other in Edinburgh. Craig tells me about life as a chef/restaurateur:

Chef Q & A So, tell me how and why you became a chef?

Working part-time while studying for a business degree at Napier University. I fell in love with the buzz of a busy professional kitchen. Really enjoyed the military-style hierarchy and discipline.

Run me through your career.  Any particular highlights?

Pic courtesy of The Wee Restaurant
I have been fortunate enough to work in some great restaurants over the years and picked up some great experience. I started working part-time in a large kitchen under a head chef who had a great career working in Claridge’s and some of the best kitchens in London. A real old school character who ran a very organised kitchen. After completing my degree I realised sitting in an office just wasn’t going to be for me – loved the buzz of the kitchen too much. I took myself off to work in The Scandic Hotel in Edinburgh under a couple of French chefs who spoke little English. They were amazing chefs who had worked in many Michelin star restaurants in France. This was a real apprenticeship for me – very intense and not for the faint-hearted.

After gaining experience from my French apprenticeship, I applied for a few jobs in Michelin star restaurants. I got lucky and managed to get into The Airds Hotel in Port Appin working for the Allen family. This small family-run hotel was fantastic as it really focused on great local seafood and seasonal homegrown produce. Stints followed at the fine dining restaurant at Loch Lomond Golf Club, Hadrian’s Restaurant under Martin Wishart and the Crinan Hotel (voted best seafood hotel in UK in its day).

Working in Restaurant Martin Wishart when it was just a small kitchen on the day Martin received his first Michelin Star was a real highlight. This was an integral part of my career working alongside Martin, producing brilliant food as part of a three-man team, but also learning about how running a small business works as well. Executive chef at Malmaison Hotel Edinburgh followed by a couple of seasons on the Royal Scotsman luxury train, Opening The Hallion Private Members Club in Edinburgh, exec chef of The Outsider & Apartment Restaurants. Working for a few weeks in Chicago as a stager – Charlie Trotters Restaurant – who at the time was one of the best restaurants in the US / world (three star Michelin). Opening my own restaurant in North Queensferry

What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a chef/restaurateur?

Being a forces kid. I have to say I got pretty close to joining the Armed Forces.

The Wee Restaurant is known for championing local produce. Why do you think we have the best produce and what local ingredient is a particular favourite of yours?

Sea bass with asparagus en papillote
“Local“ to us is quite a loose term. We have lots of local suppliers all over the country and are always interested to hear about new produce and suppliers that are popping up. In Fife, we are really lucky to have a few suppliers who have become friends over the years and they share the same ethos as us.

I think people in Scotland now compared to when I started cooking are more interested in where their food comes from. They understand the seasons better and respect the work that goes into creating this amazing Scottish produce we have. Asparagus from Eassie Farm at Glamis or Myreside Farm in Angus, great beef from our butchers Henderson’s in Glenrothes, locally brewed Beer from Inner Bay Brewery – these people are all passionate about their product and you can taste the difference. We are the same; we take great produce, don’t mess around with it too much, prepare and cook with passion and care. Vikki, my wife, used to say to me “aren’t you worried about someone stealing your recipes/ideas”? My answer is always the same – that they can have the recipe but unless you make it with the same understanding of the product, care and passion then it won’t taste the same!

Tell me how you came to own your own restaurant? When did you know you were ready for the challenge?

I didn’t really to be honest. I never had any desire to own my own restaurant. We opened the restaurant in North Queensferry in 2006 by accident almost. Vikki was pregnant with child number three (Innes) and we were looking for a house with an extra bedroom. We saw the house there and decided to go have a look. A friend of mine mentioned that at one point this had been a restaurant (in the adjoining buiding). The house was nice but attached to it was a space where the restaurant had previously operated. At that point, our imagination started to wonder whether we could make this work as a business, as well as a home. Things snowballed and a month later we were in the house planning to open the restaurant – crazy days! I was working full-time in my existing job, coming home and setting up things for the new restaurant. When we did open in March 2006 we had a two week old baby to add to the mix – we didn’t get much sleep!!

Obviously now you have a Wee Restaurant in Edinburgh, as well as North Queensferry.
What were the difficulties in opening another restaurant whilst still running a successful one?

Although it was VERY stressful, I think having had the experience of opening North Queensferry was key. We knew more about running the business and had learned from our mistakes. We got the keys and had Ecryone lined up to do the work, everything on standby ready to go. We worked crazy hours during that set-up period; it’s amazing how little sleep you can survive on! We were lucky to have a great team working in NQ to support us and allow us to spend our time in Edinburgh. Three weeks after getting the keys we opened!

How do you divide your time between them now?

Crispy egg with East Coast Cured charcuterie
I have a head chef in each restaurant and a team to support them. I’m in the kitchen to work with them when it’s busy or staff are on holiday, and when we change the menus to show them how to prepare the new dishes. I love working in the kitchen still and think it would be hard to step back completely, but I also love disappearing for a game of golf once everything is organised!

If you could have dinner with a celebrity, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Difficult question.  I’m a big football fan so possibly Sir Alex Ferguson although this could be expensive if I was paying for the wine as I know he likes the expensive stuff!

If you could go to any restaurant in the world for dinner tomorrow, where would it be and why?

Ile de Re in France on the Port at La Flotte.  The food isn’t great but the family all love it there.

Who are your culinary heroes?

Marco Pierre White was an inspiration to us all those years ago. I also like Rick Stein in terms of his simple approach to cooking. Raymond Blanc has an incredible passion and I love his cooking. On a more personal level Nick Ryan, who recently passed away, ran the Crinan Hotel for over 40 years. He was charismatic, intelligent had a great knowledge of the catering and the hotel industry, and was always there if I had anything to ask him. A very funny man who always made me laugh.

How do you relax away from the kitchen?

Family of three kids and my wife Vikki keep me busy outside work. Walking the dogs, playing golf and watching my team Hearts FC (not always relaxing)

Do you have music playing in the kitchen? If so, what?

Yep, normally just stick the radio on. A few of the young lads in the kitchen moan if it's Radio 2, but I like all music so normally keep it random.

What’s the best thing about the food scene in Scotland? How has it changed since you opened?

Cheeseboard from I.J. Mellis
Lots of places popping up. Restaurants are changing the way we eat and the traditional format is shifting to a more modern, lighter approach with a more informal dining experience commonplace. When I worked in Edinburgh years ago there was only a few restaurants that were any good – now we are lucky to have a greater choice. Although people should be aware that there aren’t a lot of us small independents restaurants in Edinburgh left so please come and support us – we need you!!!!

What sort of food do you eat away from the restaurant?

Very mixed. I like informal restaurants, love seafood and sharing food and I really enjoy spicy food, too. As a chef we live on a lot of sandwiches, so I love good bread and charcuterie, cheese and maybe some wine.

What is your least favourite thing to cook and why?

Brussel Sprouts – enough said!!!

How can we encourage young people into the trade and, just as importantly, keep them there?

Work life balance is important to all our employees and we are always looking at ways to improve this. Attracting young people into the catering industry has become more difficult. I strongly believe that a YTS Apprenticeship like we had in the ‘90s would be excellent. We tend to take on young graduates from college and train them up ourselves and hope they stay long enough to promote them through the ranks within.

You probably don’t get much time to eat out but when you do, where do you go?

I love a few restaurants for different reasons; Ondine for Seafood, Barley Bree in Muthill for superb food, Dusit Thai Restaurant for lovely food and super friendly staff.

Finally, what’s it like working with your wife!?

Challenging !!!! We have our moments but, for the most part, we make a great team. Occasionally sparks fly – amongst other things in my direction!


From Bean to Bar: Ethical Chocolate with a Healthy Twist

I KNOW THERE are many chocolate lovers bracing themselves for a hefty gym schedule in the New Year.  Selection boxes and sweets – mandatory Christmas indulgences – are a neverending pursuit at this time of year.
If I were to tell you there is indeed a chocolate that is good for you, you’d probably believe me as much as one would a tubby bearded man flying through the sky with a troupe of

However, research recently conducted by Queen Margaret University has shown Scottish chocolatier The Chocolate Tree has a ‘bar-to-bean’ range produced using ethically sourced cocoa beans that will alleviate some of that guilt.

Nutrition experts at the university have found that when eaten in moderation, the premium chocolate produced by the Edinburgh-based company contains high levels of polyphenols that offer certain health benefits that include lowering the risk of heart disease.

Credit: Erik Hammar
Dr. Mary Warnock, Senior Lecturer in Dietetics, Nutrition, and Biological Sciences at QMU, explained: “Polyphenols actively work in the body to prevent certain disease mechanisms occurring. Polyphenols are antioxidants from plant foods and it is generally believed that they may reduce the risk factors of cardiovascular disease and can help protect the body from chronic disease.”

Importing cocoa beans from Madagascar, Ecuador and Peru, the company focuses on highly ethical sourcing, using only the finest raw ingredients to create their chocolates.  The minimal processing of such fine produce not only leads to a high-end, premium product, but also maintains the natural qualities of the raw ingredients to maximise the natural polyphenols and antioxidants.

Dr. Warnock added: “The study recognised that the great care taken by The Chocolate Tree to apply minimal processing methods in the creation of its high-end chocolate ensured the preservation of naturally occurring attributes within its final product.”

Credit: Erik Hammar
The Chocolate Tree was founded out of sheer passion by Ali and Friederike Gower in 2005 when the couple travelled around music festivals in a solar-powered geodesic dome tent, nourishing weary festival goers in their organic chocolate café serving cakes and hot chocolate.

The feedback inspired them to combine Friederike’s love of baking and Ali’s ambitions to run a business and they graduated to selling their chocolate bars at farmers’ markets, independent retailers and farm shops, gradually growing the reputation of The Chocolate Tree brand.  The success saw their first shop open in Bruntsfield in 2009, and their chocolate now sells to ethical, independent and high-end retailers around the globe.

The key factors in creating these exquisite chocolate treats compared to a typical bar you find on a supermarket shelf is largely down to the processing method, as well as the standard of ingredients.

Credit: Erik Hammar
Ali explains: “The difference cannot be understated. Techniques used to create mass produced chocolate are vastly different from those used by craft chocolate makers. It comes down to attention to detail in every step of the production, from the steps taken at origin to ferment and dry the cacao and the difference in the genetics of the cacao. At our end, it means obsessive sorting of the beans, gentle roasting, adding ingredients in a certain order and using specific techniques and equipment during conching (flavour development) to create flavours the mass produced market can’t touch.”

Now, chocolate this good does come at a price, with the average craft chocolate bar priced at around £6 for 80g, and there needs to be an obvious reason to convince people it's worth it. Ali elaborates:

“I’ve conducted taste tests that compare our bars to supermarket 'finest' ranges, and people are genuinely impressed. It’s important for me to show this, as the price difference is significant. It’s not too different from a blended whisky vs. a single malt, or a cheap wine vs. a good vintage.”

The Chocolate Tree’s ethos in terms of responsibly locating their ingredients and the importance of strong links with growers is highly commendable, and although this essential relationship contributes to the price, it offers numerous other benefits on top of the health ones.

Credit: Erik Hammar
“Working directly with the growers allows us to encourage agricultural techniques which benefit the environment, as well as introducing people to truly excellent chocolate, the likes of which many consumers have never tried before. It’s a great benefit for the farmers to work with people who really care about what is coming from the land. The most important thing is that they are paid a premium for the crops.

“A premium means a significantly better price than the typical market price or Fairtrade certified price. Craft chocolate makers will pay as much as $10 per kg for well-processed beans, while the New York Cocoa Price (standard market price) can be around $3 per kg. This money goes into social improvements and better post-harvest facilities to care for the cocoa.”

The Gowers made full use of the excellent facilities at the new Centre for Food Development and Innovation at Queen Margaret University, where they used the research not only to enhance their products' appeal and learn of its nutritional values, but also to showcase their principles in working ethically with organic farmers across the world.

Credit: Erik Hammar
“Queen Margaret University was able to provide scientific evidence of the antioxidant profile and mineral content of our organic certified ‘bean-to-bar’ range and provide professional guidance on the health and nutritional aspects of our products. This is helping us develop accurate information for labelling and marketing purposes.

“Ultimately, we hope to use Queen Margaret’s research to help us campaign for better transparency in the chocolate industry. It will also allow us to showcase how companies can work ethically by supporting organic farmers in Peru, Madagascar, and Ecuador by sourcing cocoa directly from the growers for the manufacturer in order to make ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate.”

Having sampled the merchandise, the differences in Ali and Friederike's chocolate compared to more commercial brands is truly worlds apart. The depth of character from each different variety and knowing that this craft is conducted with superb passion and skill means that I'll be looking forward to a guilt-free, choctastic Christmas with added health benefits.

Credit Erik Hammar
With a delightful range of chocolates to complement their ‘bean-to-bar range’, The Chocolate Tree offers quirky creations incorporating some of Scotland’s other outstanding foods and drink, such as Haggis Spice, Bramble, and Cardamon and Beer chocolate.  There is also a very special Christmas range on offer; what better festive gift can be found now that you can explain to loved ones the inspirational story behind these local, handmade goodies?

Web: www.choctree.co.uk
Twitter: @Choctree
The Chocolate Tree,
123 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh, EH10 4AQ
11 Hardgate, Haddington, EH41 3JW

For further information on the Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation visit: http://www.qmu.ac.uk/business_industry/scottish-centre-food-development-innovation.htm


Butter me up

WILL AND ALLISON Abernethy are the last of a dying breed.  They produce hand-made butter using traditional methods that date back thousands of years, in order to truly keep this wonderful art alive.

Back in 2005, the Country Down-based couple started out visiting farmers' markets and food shows with their butter churn to show people how real butter is made.  Three years ago, they spotted a gap in the market and realised there was a serious demand for artisan butter.

Using knowledge passed down from Allison’s father, the couple started churning around 10 litres of cream per week into butter.  Demand has been so high that they now churn 90 litres per week and have been able to give up their respective jobs to focus on the business.

Incredibly, Abernethy Butter is the only hand-churned butter produced in Northern Ireland, and Allison was good enough to take me through a typical day on her farm:

‘The cream comes in around 6am and we allow it to warm to around 12 degrees so it’s easier to churn. We churn it to remove the buttermilk from the cream and then wash the butter five times with water to remove any potential sourness from the buttermilk.

‘It is then salted and Will pats it out with traditional wooden panels, and we allow it to harden slightly before hand wrapping it by hand.'

The cream comes from a farm just eight miles away and the provenance of this vital ingredient is of utmost importance to Allison:

‘We know the cows are well looked after and are fed properly on grass, which has a huge influence in the flavour of the butter.  The farmer has 350 cows and they’re kept outside in the summer.  Getting to see they’re healthy is of the utmost importance to us.’

The butter has won several awards which include a two star Taste award in 2012 and bronze at The Royal Highland Show in the same year.  It is also highly regarded by a string of Michelin starred chefs, including Heston Blumenthal and Marcus Wareing, and is also stocked in the prestigious food halls of Fortnum and Mason.

Clearly very passionate about her work, Allison tells me what this means to her:

‘When we were called by the likes of Marcus Wareing I had to pinch myself.  I couldn’t believe someone of his stature knew about our butter and it just made me so proud.  

'We now supply five Michelin starred restaurants and a whole host of others too.’

It has only just been announced as I 'go to press' that Abernethy Butter has made it into the final three of the BBC Farming Awards 2014, quite an achievement having been only the market for three years.

When I first tasted Abernethy Butter, I couldn’t believe the difference in taste compared to spreads and butters available in supermarkets.  It was so creamy and rich that I found myself actually eating it straight up!

Butter has suffered a bad reputation since the ‘70s when a study suggested that saturated fat was a major factor in high cholesterol, but this was never actually proven.  More recent studies are starting to suggest that butter can actually be beneficial to our health.

It is rich in vitamins A, E and K as well as selenium, which helps prevents cancer and heart disease.   The short and medium chain fatty acids in butter are quickly burned off by the body and not stored, so it doesn’t create excess body fat.

Margarine on the other hand is full of trans-fats, which increase bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. It also lacks the fat-soluble vitamins found in butter.

The butter vs marg debate will no doubt ramble on, but as Allison, who is nominated for Business Woman of the Year, says ‘everything in moderation’ is always the best approach.

Being a successful artisanal product can attract attention from the supermarkets and I wondered if Abernethy Butter has been subject to attention from the big boys:

‘We don’t want to supply supermarkets with our product – we want to keep it with small businesses because we feel it makes the product more special.’

I was shocked at how few artisan butter producers there were in the UK, especially when you think how widely used butter and the various derivatives of it are in our diet.  Hopefully, Abernethy Butter can continue going from strength to strength and even inspire others to start making REAL butter.


A Day In The Life... of an Artisan Baker

FOR ME THERE’S nothing better than opening your oven and inhaling that wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread.  Jon Wood is one of few artisan bakers around these days and I was privileged enough to catch up with him and find out what a day in the life of a baker is like.

Bakery Andante opened in Morningside nearly three years ago and has grown steadily ever since.  The bakery employs nine people and prides itself on making bread the traditional way - using few ingredients, no additives and, most importantly, giving the dough time to do its job naturally.

Jon lets me in on a few baking secrets and tells me what he thinks sets Bakery Andante’s products apart from mass 
produced supermarket offerings:

‘Our secret is simple – we add time and care.

‘Bread made properly is naturally flavourful and fulfilling, as well as mould resistant and longer lasting. If we add time and care, we simply don’t need to add any more ingredients.

‘Our sourdoughs, for example, only have three ingredients: flour, water and salt. Our wholemeal bread has six ingredients, which when you compare it to an organic wholemeal bread from a neighbouring supermarket that uses 12 ingredients, tells a story in itself.

‘The modern Chorleywood Process or ‘no time’ doughs only use the yeast to give a bloom in the oven and it spends so little time in the dough that it doesn't have a chance to work its magic. 

‘All the additives make it worse, but a lack of time is the main culprit.  I’m always amazed at how sweet our wholemeal bread is given we add no sugar or sweetener.  I believe that it’s simply the slow process that releases the natural flavours and sugars.’

It’s hard graft being a baker, there is no doubting that.  I wondered what a typical day was like for Jon and his staff:

‘Generally, we start at 5:00 a.m. I was keen not to work night shifts on a regular basis, as it would be unhealthy for my family life, and I like that we have warm bread at 9:00 a.m. for customers, rather than bread that’s already been out for eight hours or so.

‘First job is to turn on the ovens and start the morning’s mixes.  We have croissants and some of the bread's ready to go immediately. As soon as the oven is up to temperature, we get them in to bake. 

‘The sourdoughs get turned to strengthen the dough and even out the air pockets, then we start to weigh and shape the breads.

‘We have doughs in three stages: those that have been mixed the day before, and made up; a larger set that have been left in bulk and either chilled to slowly ferment, like our sourdoughs; then those that we mix in the morning.

‘We try and start the sourdoughs for the next day at about 7.30, then move on to prepping the yeasted doughs for the next day.  

‘We mix our baguette dough and leave it overnight to prove slowly; that means that while we have a reduced volume, it doesn’t puff up as much in the oven and we get a much richer flavour. 

‘Home time beckons when we start to prepare our poolishes and feed the sourdough cultures so they are nice and active for the next day.  We clean the equipment, lay out the next day’s recipes and call it a day.’
That sounds like hard but rewarding graft, indeed; one that must require a great amount of passion and determination.  I wondered as to the source of Jon's committment:

‘It’s tempting to say that it’s in my blood as my maternal great great grandfather was a German baker who emigrated to London before WWI, and on my father’s side, my grandmother’s family owned a large bakery in England.  

‘More realistically, my mother used to bake wholemeal bricks, which as a teenage boy I used to devour. 

‘When I left home I missed real bread, finding what was available tasteless and unfulfilling.  After a while, I bought a bread machine and from there I experimented and played, and discovered how much I enjoyed the process as much as the end product. ‘

The Great British Bake Off has done a great deal to encourage people to give home baking a go.  Such shows are not only a great way to get people into the kitchen, but also remind us of the classic cakes and bakes that are engrained in British heritage.

What advice would the master baker himself give to the home cook?

‘Funnily enough I would not call myself a master baker – I’m a hobbyist who has taken it a bit far! I still have a huge amount to learn.  My experience came from reading in books, having a go, doing it again until I got it right.’ That in itself is great advice. 
Jon continues:

‘The best advice has to be “give it a go and don’t feel forced to ‘create’”.  I think that there is a tendency with things like Masterchef, GBBO and the plethora of celebrity chefs out there to think that to do it properly, It has to be fancy with hundreds of ingredients and flavours skilfully interwoven, cooked and presented with precision.

‘Some of the best meals are really very simple and start with great produce.  There is no better meal than a great baguette, some fine cheese or pate, a flavourful tomato and a glass of good red wine or beer.'

Jon’s bread flies off the shelves at my work and I’m amazed at how many people say it’s hard to find good bread in Edinburgh.  With supermarkets growing ever more powerful, it’s important that we remember our amazing baking history in the UK and support our artisan producers.

Once you’ve tried proper bread, you’ll grow increasingly disappointed at having to accept a supermarket alternative – trust me on that one!

‘We need to create opportunities for people to try it and be able to justify why it costs more, but is still good value.  Thankfully, consumers these days are aware that cheap is not best, and to eat good food you do need to pay a bit more. 

‘We also need to promote the benefits.  We know that much of the issues people have with bread is less to do with the product and more to do with the process of how it’s made. 

‘Research in Italy recently found that sufferers of coeliac disease could tolerate properly made breads.  I believe that giving the yeasts as much time to do the work as intended makes the wheat easier for us to digest and unlocks more nutrients.

‘Some legal support would be good too because when the likes of Sainsbury’s (next door to Bakery Andante)  can advertise itself as ‘Your Local Bakery’, when all that happens is that frozen bread, sometimes up to a year old, is merely put into an oven, and when other supermarkets can call themselves ‘Scratch bakeries’ when all they do is add water to a premix, it makes it difficult for consumers to see the differences.

Get along to Bakery Andante and sample the fantastic products Jon and his team have available.  As Jon himself says: ‘Once you’ve eaten proper bread, it’s hard to go back to eating cotton wool and air.’

You can find Bakery Andante at:
352 Morningside Rd, Edinburgh, Midlothian EH10 4QL