YOU’D think there would be a ready supply of goats nibbling away on the heather in the foothills of the Cuillins on Skye, along with the red deer, the juicy scallops, crab, lobster, the heather-reared lamb, the local herbs and luscious raspberries that make up the island’s rich food source.
But when Michael Smith came up with his ambitious recipe for goat tagine – the dish that won him the hotly contested main course section of Great British Menu last week – he had to look a little further afield for his ingredients.
A great champion of Scottish produce, the chef at Skye’s world-renowned Three Chimneys is nonetheless unrepentant at the theme of this decidedly unpatriotic delicacy. “This year’s event wasn’t about locality,” he says. “It was my third Great British Menu. The first two were all about provenance, the region the chef was representing, and I do that day in, day out at the restaurant anyway. This year there was an opportunity to use ingredients from any part of the world.”
The brief was to represent 25 years of Red Nose Day, and each chef had to come up with edible, witty interpretations of the true spirit of Comic Relief for an elaborate feast for 100 people at the Royal Albert Hall. “I did some funny ones for my other courses,” says Smith. One was a set of sticky buns hanging from strings between mini-kilts, which Prue Leith declared the best doughnuts she had ever eaten. “But what I did for my main course was to represent the serious side, which was giving aid to Africa.”
It was a dish he imagined might be eaten as a celebration in Africa, and the ingredients included sugar from a plantation that has directly benefitted from Comic Relief’s financial help. “I did research for about two weeks to try and find someone in Scotland who could supply me with goat,” he adds. “That’s the thing people don’t realise about Great British Menu. First of all you have to come up with original ideas in a very tricky brief. Then your dish is going to go to a banquet for 100 people, so you have to make sure the suppliers and everything else are achievable. It’s very complex.
“It’s not just about standing in front of cameras and trying to come up with witty one-liners – there’s a huge, huge amount of planning.”
However, Skye’s finest produce was represented in a small but vital way. “I used Talisker – Skye’s malt whisky – in the barbecue glaze for the meat,” says Smith.
He describes GBM as “probably the hardest competition for professional chefs in the UK”, and so to win against such tough competition was “absolutely amazing”. It’s the first time in the competition’s seven-year history that anyone from Scotland has won, and is the sort of thing Smith dreamed of as a 16-year-old, elbow-deep in manky suds at the Glen Morrison Hotel, in his home town of Inverness. “My folks told me I had to start earning my crust,” he says, “so I got a job washing pots and pans in a local restaurant.
“I’d always been interested in eating; always really enjoyed the pleasure of sitting down and receiving something you know someone’s put their heart and soul into. That’s what it should be all about and that’s why I really believed in that main course, because it wasn’t restaurant food and it had nothing to do with what we do at the Three Chimneys in that respect. But, ultimately, food that tastes the best is the food that people have put love into, and that’s always evident in the dining.”
Suitably inspired, he went on to work in the kitchen at Arisaig House, on the west coast, until he was tempted to the pressure cooker of London, where he rose to the position of chef de partie at Terence Conran’s Le Pont de la Tour, and also spent time at Michel and Albert Roux’s two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche. He had his tough times. “It was the 1990s and that was the British restaurant scene coming into its own. Yes, there was a lot of hassle, a lot of aggro but, actually, now I’ve installed a table in my kitchen where guests are invited to sit down and interact with the chefs. They get up, they take photographs – it’s to show how far the British restaurant scene has come in the last five, ten years.
“It’s not Gordon Ramsay effing and blinding and chucking pots and pans at people’s heads, it’s actually the opposite now. Kitchens are very calm places, they’re very focused places, they’re very accessible. That’s for many reasons,” he adds, “but one of them is that young people just wouldn’t accept that any more. You’d have lawyers on top of you, health and safety, and you wouldn’t have any staff.”
Eventually though, the nature of pressure cookers being what it is, something had to give. He had met his Parisian wife Laurence, the couple had had their first child (they now have two, Margot and Oscar), and they were living in a tiny flat in Camden, “which was great for a young couple but not a family”. They were tossing a coin over whether to move to France or Scotland. “It was always my idea that I would go to London, learn my craft with the best of the best, then come back and try and represent Scotland as well as possible.” So when the offer came to run Glasgow’s Blue Bar and Restaurant, they packed up and headed north.
A position at Stefan King’s Arta followed, before the call came, in 2004, to take over from Shirley Spear in the kitchen at Skye’s Three Chimneys, which had just been named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. “Because I had been in London and it is so London-centric, I didn’t know about the Three Chimneys, I didn’t know about its huge reputation, and I didn’t know anything about Shirley,” admits Smith.
“We were living in Glasgow, I was in between jobs, and for the first time in my career I went into an unemployment agency in Paisley and said, ‘Right, I’m looking for work.’
“They said, ‘There’s this woman, Shirley Spear, she’s looking for a chef, do you want to meet her tomorrow?’
“I didn’t think I had anything to lose. I was actually getting a bit jaded and we were thinking it wasn’t going to work out and we were probably looking for a major move. I met Shirley and we ended up having a five-hour conversation/interview followed by another six-hour one a week later, followed by another one.”
He took the proposal to Laurence. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve met this woman, she’s really passionate, we’re really bonding, she has this restaurant on the Isle of Skye and apparently it’s very well known.’ My wife said, ‘We are not moving to the Isle of Skye.’”
That could have been the end of that, except Smith felt duty-bound to give the job offer serious consideration. They had been invited to Skye for dinner and an overnight stay, so they dropped their children off at his parents’ house in Inverness and drove west – “the whole time knowing I’m going to turn down the job offer the next day”.
Dinner was served, they had a lovely stay, and in the morning awoke to their destiny. “I said, ‘Right, let’s go and see them and we’ll be polite, say thanks for the job offer but I’m not going to accept it.’ And my wife said, ‘No, actually, why don’t we just go for it?’”
He laughs. Their family’s plan for the future had literally changed overnight. “In London, in the tiny bedsit in Camden, Laurence had always talked about living in a country house, with a dog and all the trappings of a lovely rural lifestyle, the 4X4,” says Smith.
“You can imagine these young people in London thinking, ‘One day we’ll get there.’
“It didn’t make any odds to me. When you’re in a kitchen working 15 hours a day it could be anywhere. But it was daunting. Probably for the first two or three years I was still thinking, ‘This might not work out.’ I know Laurence was unhappy some of that time and the winters are really tough on Skye. It was very, very difficult. But what I’m saying is, it was the wife’s decision.”
They have now been on Skye for nine years, and he can still remember the day they arrived as if it was this morning. Since then he has presided over the Three Chimneys’ busiest year ever, with guests that have included Roman Abramovich, who dropped in for lunch in his helicopter, and Prince Rainier of Monaco. But not Madonna, who had to be turned away because the restaurant was full. “I don’t discuss any of our guests’ details – that wouldn’t be discreet,” he says.
And this month Smith will be representing his country at Scotland Week in the United States, appearing live on The Martha Stewart Show and generally promoting Scotland’s cuisine to anyone who will listen.
So, to finish, I feel I should mention that old adage about never trusting a skinny chef. Smith, it should be said, is more whippet than Mr Whippy. “I’m eating all the time, I’m tasting constantly,” he insists.
“It’s just my metabolism. When I’m off duty I eat like a horse – anyone who knows me will testify to that. When people say, ‘I like kids but I couldn’t eat a whole one,’ actually, I could eat a whole one.”
Fortunately he didn’t put that on the menu at the Albert Hall.