Interview with an Innovator

Restaurant Andrew Fairlie’s Stevie McLaughlin: 'For the time being I’m no longer a chef - I’m a home cook and it’s teaching me new things'

Food Spark speaks to head chef McLaughlin to find out how arguably Scotland’s most famous restaurant is adapting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic

27 March 2020

McLaughlin on paper

  • Studied at Glasgow College of Food Technology
  • Joined Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles Hotel as sous chef in 2001 and worked his way to head chef
  • Took over as executive chef on the death of Andrew Fairlie in 2019
  • Recently retained the two Michelin stars.

Taking over the reins of a great restaurant from a legend is never an easy thing. But in chef Stevie McLaughlin, the late Andrew Fairlie knew he had the perfect replacement to take the kitchen he started forward into the future.

We’re talking about Scotland’s most decorated and, arguably, most famous, restaurant: Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, located within the world-famous Gleneagles Hotel and with two Michelin stars to its name. According to legend a wealthy American paid a “significant sum” to have the restaurant to himself and his guests during the 2014 Ryder Cup week held at Gleneagles, such is the grandeur attached to Fairlie’s gastronomic institution.

McLaughlin was the only candidate to take over. He’d been Fairlie’s right hand man for years and had been at the restaurant since 2001 when he joined as sous chef. He took over the reins of the kitchen upon the death of his mentor in 2019, and his understanding of what makes the restaurant the destination it is has helped business to stabilise and grow.

The sudden arrival of COVID-19 has thrown many restaurants into confusion and panic, but Andrew Fairlie had had a unique training that has enabled the kitchen to react in an unexpected way. Against the advice of his peers a young Fairlie went to work for The Walt Disney Company in their restaurant division to learn how a restaurant should work from a business perspective. He learnt two simple lessons: cost analysis and staff contracts.

As a consequence the way the restaurant was set up has enabled it to close down very easily and already has systems in place when it reopens. Fairlie was a keen advocate of not overworking his staff too. The restaurant is only open for dinner and always closed in January when most staff take their annual holidays.

What has surprised McLaughlin, however, is how the staff have bonded together following the recent closure, how he’s helping his suppliers stay in business and how he’s getting to know what his children really like to eat.

image credit: Myburgh du Plessis

I wasn’t worried about taking over from Andrew. We’re not doing anything different and if he were here today he’d be doing the same thing. I’ve added a few things like a Japanese BBQ but I’m sure Andrew would have done the same. He was always looking at technology to see if things could be improved.

Right now, he would want to look after the staff and the suppliers. It’s just the man he was. I owe him a great debt. He was a brilliant restaurateur and chef.

Because of the way Andrew set up the business the arrival of the COVID-19 virus has not been a great shock. We saw it coming and we knew we would be closing. We’re used to it as we do it every year in January. The whole staff take the month off and it’s when we all take our holidays. So, when we were forced to close down because of COVID-19 we thought we’d just close like we normally do.

But because we are likely to be closed for longer, we decided we were not going to let any of our staff go. We are situated in one of the world’s most famous hotels, Gleneagles, and we will be opening again as soon as the hotel opens. We value our staff very highly and don’t want to lose them. So, we are going to keep them on as if nothing has happened for a further two months. This will cost us but it is an investment in them and a declaration of how important they are.

We are using the time off in different ways. We want to stick together and learn from the experience. All our staff are in a WhatsApp group and today, for example, we are holding an afternoon quiz with restaurant manager Dale Dewsbury compiling the questions. They’re all related to the business so there will be culinary questions, as well as wine knowledge and even questions on fine china. The more we can learn at this time the better and that means getting to know each other better, too.

We’ve all now got different jobs. I am cooking at home which is something I have never been able to do on a regular basis. I am now a cook, whereas at work I am a chef. There is a difference. A cook works at the stove, while a chef is a leader like the conductor of an orchestra. When you train as a chef you are doing more than training to become a professional cook - you are training to become the conductor, a master craftsman.

Now I’m at home I can get back to being a cook. My main passion in life is cooking and right now, I am enjoying cooking for my children. I have an 11-year-old and a seven-year-old, and they do home schooling with their mum in the morning and cook with me in the afternoon.

What’s really refreshing is how I am now working. My family are my customers and I have to work on dishes that we all enjoy. This is making me think in a different way about what I cook - but I can approach it as a chef. For example, I have the week’s menu sorted and the kids know what they’ll be eating every day. My wife can’t believe how organised I am as she’s never really seen me in action at home. Today we’re making gnocchi and I’ll be teaching my kids about caramelisation and seasoning.

image credit: Jean Cazals

I think that there will be a lot of families and children that will benefit of this time spent together. I really believe that Britain will come back stronger. I’m very upbeat because I believe there will be a lot more people who are interested in cooking. With restaurants shut everybody can’t just live off tins and ready meals. There are going to be an awful lot of people making soup, for example. And that will just be the beginning.

I don’t want to be frivolous with the ingredients that I have. I am going to have to use what is available. Clearly, this is something I do every day, but actively cooking myself is going to be a joy. And I think many families are going to have to do the same.

Last night we had chicken, which is a case in point. At the restaurant we have a list of local suppliers who produce ingredients to a very high standard. One of those is St Bride’s Poultry who are struggling right now to switch from supplying restaurants to supplying the general public. This is not easy for them as the birds they produce are of a similar quality to Poulet de Bresse. They have a delivery run going to various local areas and we are on one of those runs.

We are still buying chickens at their normal price. They need our help now and through our staff group we can buy more. We are also buying bread from Wild Hearth and dairy from Katy Rodgers. In many ways this is how food used to be bought.

We forget that the origins of French cuisine began this way. It was local, seasonal and ingredients were grown or harvested by local people. The old adage is true: what grows together goes together.

As time goes by and the season starts to change then other dishes will come into my mind… all this will be a way of reconnecting with the seasons in a way our forefathers did. I will not be cooking restaurant food and I think that will do me good as a chef.

I am also spending time in the restaurant vegetable garden. Right now, there’s salad and herbs and I am busy bagging it up so that everyone in the group can get some. That way we are eating up our own produce and helping to keep our costs down.

The problem we face is that we don’t know what season it will be when we open up again. We imagine this might be the summer but it could be longer. I’m planting seeds for the autumn at the moment - root vegetables like celeriac, for instance. What’s already been planted will come with the weather and we’ll harvest that and distribute it as the season goes on. It’s going to be a fascinating time.

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