The last couple of weeks have been exhilarating. At the end of May, I was a finalist for the Chef of the Year title at the CIS Excellence Awards. A few days later I was named a Food Pioneer at the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards 2016. And yes, my head is swelling ever so slightly as I write those words.
The latter title is a new category which is sponsored by The Scotsman. Looking at the press release, the award was given in recognition of my “skilled, innovative use of and passion for Scottish food and drink”. The panel also noted my work in “nurturing young talent” and my role as “a champion for the use of local produce”.
After 32 years in the kitchen, this 45-year-old is no spring chicken but my enthusiasm for finding and cooking fantastic local produce is just as strong as my belief that core cooking skills have to be passed down to each new generation of budding chefs.
Food Pioneer is quite some title to receive but it is one I am very happy to be associated with. In the world of modern food production, buying food while carefully considering its provenance and weighing up its quality can be a minefield. However, pioneering, and sometimes blundering, a path through that minefield has been as pleasurable as it has been challenging.
Scotland's larder is huge and I have not yet used, cooked and eaten all that it offers. This is not through lack of trying. If you are indeed what you eat then I can safely say that I am now probably more Scottish than French! I also feel extremely privileged to live and cook in Scotland and both proud and happy to have received such a prestigious reward.
I always say that good cooking starts by good sourcing and buying. When a product is well sourced, much less needs to be done with it in the kitchen. If you start with beautiful langoustines or fantastic venison then the job of the chef is to make the most of those flavours and make them sing. If I am eating excellent Mull scallops or top quality Ronaldsay mutton then I would much rather taste their unique flavours than see them drowned in unnecessary seasoning and spices.
Good sourcing means buying from good producers and Scotland has many of them. I like to work with people who are deeply committed to and passionate about the food they produce. That passion shines through in their products but putting quality first can be a hard path to follow.
Like many people who do what they do despite adversity, these producers love to talk to customers who show an interest in their work. They like customers who share their passion. Who wouldn't?
In the past, I have flown up to Barra to source snails and gone to Orkney to find PDO beef. I'm not suggesting that you need to become a frequent flyer in order to make your dinner. I would suggest that you speak to your butcher, your fishmonger and your cheesemonger. Go to the farmers' markets which take place throughout Scotland and speak to the primary producers who are there selling their wares.
Ask them how they produce their food. Ask them for cooking tips. Ask them what wine pairs with their product. You don't have to start swapping Christmas cards with them but develop a relationship, show an interest. You may be surprised what you come home with.