Top chef: credit crunch will cull bad restaurants

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AS A man who has cooked for crowned heads and world leaders Andrew Fairlie might be expected to be as well versed in diplomacy as he is in kitchen wizardry.

But with restaurant owners feeling the heat as the recession begins to bite, Scotland's leading chef has fearlessly turned up the temperature: the only Scottish-based holder of two coveted Michelin stars believes the credit crunch cull will actually work in the public's favour by weeding out a host of substandard eateries.

While his claims have been backed by some in the hospitality trade, they are sure to leave a nasty taste in the mouth for dozens of restaurateurs.

The chef, who conjured up banquets for the Queen, Tony Blair, George Bush and Jacques Chirac during the G8 Summit in 2005, insisted some good would come out of the dire economic conditions. "Every cloud has a silver lining," he said. "In this recession, I'm sure the bad restaurateurs will go out of business. It will leave room for people who want to come in and do the job properly. The more good restaurants, cafes and delis there are out there will force everybody else to lift their game. Those who don't want to, will throw the towel in."

Last year in Scotland about 400 restaurants went bust, up 32% on the previous year, and the figures for 2009 are predicted to be even worse.

Even celebrity chefs are not escaping unscathed, with Antony Worrall Thompson putting four of his six grills into administration and reports that Gordon Ramsay's 25-branch restaurant empire is renegotiating a multi-million pound loan.

Fairlie revealed that his peers were also affected. "I was in London last week and I was speaking to Heston Blumenthal, Gary Rhodes, Brian Turner and Michel Roux, and they were all saying they were down from the same point last year. Nobody, apart from the likes of McDonalds and Burger King, is immune from the downturn."

But Fran James of the Edinburgh Restaurateurs Association said a number of fine eateries could go to the wall through no fault of their own. "I've heard it said recessions are good for weeding out weaker restaurants. But the situation is now potentially much more serious than that. Ultimately, we will lose some very good independent restaurants."

The proprietor of Creelers seafood restaurant said owners were struggling because of the soaring bills for utilities and ingredients. "Some restaurants which are not reaching the standard will go, but sadly a lot of others will get lost in the crossfire. The recession is starting to affect us seriously and I foresee that it will get worse."

But Miles Quest of the Restaurant Association, which represents more than 11,000 businesses throughout the UK, backed Fairlie. "Those restaurants that provide good value will survive comfortably and those which don't are likely to go under. Many of the restaurants that will close during the recession would probably have shut eventually anyway."

As part of his own bid to beat the recession, Fairlie is, for the first time, preparing to welcome 50 people to Gleneagles Hotel for a culinary course next month. The chef is set to use the occasion, which sold out within a week at 490 per couple, to unveil the secret of his trademark dish, which was served to world leaders at the G8 Summit in 2005. "Smoked lobster is my signature dish and it seems to be the one dish that people want to see," he said. "It has been a closely guarded secret and a few chefs have tried to replicate it over the years. But it is now so synonymous with the restaurant that I don't mind opening it up to the public."

The 44-year-old, who was thanked by Chirac for his cooking, admitted that it was one of his easiest working nights. "Everybody kept asking if it was nerver-racking to cook for so many important people. But it was quite an easy couple of days for us. It was a set menu for a set amount of people, whereas the next day we were back into a full restaurant of paying customers, which is much, much more challenging."

Smoking out a secret recipe

Andrew Fairlie's signature dish of smoked lobster has wowed thousands of diners including the Queen, Tony Blair and George W Bush.

Even Jacques Chirac, who famously dismissed British cuisine as among the worst in Europe, was so impressed with the seafood dish that he personally passed on his compliments to the Gleneagles chef during the G8 Summit in 2005.

The delicacy was previously a closely-guarded secret, but now Fairlie is willing to give an indication as to how his culinary alchemy is achieved.

The Scottish lobster is first blanched for two minutes.

The meat is then removed and the empty shells are smoked over Auchentoshan whisky barrels for 12 hours.

Slices of the lobster are then returned to the shell, which is reheated gently so that a subtle, smoky flavour is imparted to the meat. The final touch of lime and herb butter rounds off the melt-in-the-mouth masterpiece.

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