Nick Nairn on his fall and rise as a celebrity chef

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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In the 1990s Nick Nairn was a huge star with restaurants, TV shows and an ego to match his celebrity chef status. The recession and a new generation of TV cooks forced him to rethink his life – for the better

Like the rest of us, Nick Nairn has guilty pleasures, things he shouldn’t do but can’t resist. “Cheese and chocolate,” he says. “I can eat really good stuff all day long but then it’ll come to 9:30 at night. I love my own oatcakes – try Nick Nairn’s Black Pepper Oatcakes – although one of them with some vintage cheddar soon turns to five. And then I’ll move onto the Lindt.”

Already you’re probably getting a clear picture of Nairn the salesman, also Nairn the obsessive. How does he sleep, after all that cheese? “Terribly. But last night in bed I had some great ideas. There’s something really big I want to do but I can’t tell you about it.” Go on, I say, sensing he does. “OK, I can tell you but you can’t put it in your story because everything I do ends up being copied. Well, maybe you can put it in. I want to open a cooking academy ... ”

There’s more. The university of cheffing can’t quite happen in Aberdeen today just mere hours after him dreaming up the wheeze but a pop-up restaurant can, which explains why we’re in the kitchens of the city’s Hilton Garden Inn checking on the progress of the menu – “Black pudding crumble? Is that a wee crunchy bonbon-type thing? Like it!” – although not why Nairn has suddenly switched to a cockernee accent. But we can forgive him this because he’s excited. He’s back in the game after being out of it for quite a while.

A couple of times he’ll say, “I haven’t done this for so long,” meaning talking about himself. This usually results in an interview going one of two ways: the subject will tell you nothing or they’ll tell you everything. Fuelled by copious amounts of coffee, Nairn will talk about the bust-up with his first wife, the bust-up with Gordon Ramsay and the bust-up with Tony Blair. He will talk about how fame went to his head, how he was “chewed up and spat out” as a celebrity chef, and how a £1 million business collapsed. And he will talk about how all this has been good for him.

He’s back on TV, in a show with his best pal and fellow chef Paul Rankin. “I’ve known Paul for 20 years and am closer to him than I am my brother,” he says. This must be nice for Rankin to know, less so Nairn’s brother, but our man can be quite revealing. “We’re both obsessed with food,” he continues, “and can talk for hours about, say, a particular vineyard in Burgundy, mutton from the Hebrides, the concept of pure vegetarian zen cooking or the gutsiness of long, slow dishes and their European heritage.”

The “reinvention” of Nairn also includes a new restaurant, the pop-up being a taster for his full takeover at the Hilton Garden come October, under the name Native. This increases his presence in Aberdeen where his second cook school was opened last year. And for all those who think he’s a proper pest on the subject of Scotland’s nutrition and in particular school dinners, these outpourings are only going to be increasing as well.

We meet at the school, two doors along from one of Mr Subway’s fine dining establishments, where he’s just welcomed a coach party of international food tourists, mildly reprimanding one for sporting a C U Jimmy head-dress: “That’s not the image of Scotland we project here.” He’s 54 but looks younger: lean, tanned, casually attired in jeans and a lumberjack shirt. His father is Jimmy Nairn, a small-screen frontiersman going all the way back to The One O’Clock Gang, and they share a long face and – something you discover when you dig up the old man on YouTube – a stiff-armed walk. The son exits a foodies’ convention in exactly the same way the father used to enter a heedrum hodrum howff. His father has been a key influence on his life, but following him onto the box wasn’t part of the original plan.

Brought up in Port of Menteith, Stirlingshire, on traditional Scottish fayre, Nairn discovered there was more to life than his mum’s mince and tatties when he travelled the world as a Merchant Navy navigating officer. On his return, 1980s-style dinner parties were all the rage so his friends were invited round his flat on Glasgow’s Byres Road to try out exotic recipes. “I worked on them all day but that lot would turn up pished, wolf down the meal as fast as they could and disappear to the pub. I just thought: ‘F**k you, I’m good at this, I’m going to open a restaurant.’”

Just as important to this decision was a magazine article predicting the future. “It said that we’d had the 1980s and greed being good but now it was bad. Bankers were no longer going to be the icons but craftspeople, maybe gardeners, maybe chefs. I liked the sound of that.” Nairn’s first restaurant was Braeval, dug out of an old watermill near Aberfoyle, which he ran with his wife, Fiona. “I love spontaneous things such as this pop-up and Braeval was a bit like that, making up a menu every day. Folk get misty-eyed about it. ‘Oh, Braeval,’ they say. I’m like: ‘Yeah, 100 hours a week, made no money, cost me my first marriage.’” Braeval did, though, make him the youngest Scottish chef to win a Michelin star. So was the divorce amicable? “No. I met someone else.”

Nairn fell for Holly who worked behind the scenes in TV, and for TV itself. He was a star of Ready Steady Cook as the small-screen got stuffed with kitchen whizzes telling us what to eat and the life-change was dramatic. “My world before was tiny. I wore a chef’s jacket and checked trousers. I saw the same four walls every day. I was pale and tired. Then suddenly I was travelling by plane, people were recognising me and waving, it was heady stuff.”

RSC was followed by more Nairn shows, Wild Harvest and Island Harvest, and he was liking TV’s flattery of him. “It has a vested interest in making you feel important. At first, when TV sent a car for me, an E-class Merc driven by a man in a hat, I was self-conscious and wanted to sit in the front. But before too long I’d get impatient when it didn’t turn up at the appointed time. A story my father told against himself flashed through my mind. He’d left TV, gone into business with P&O, and was flying to London a lot in the days when cars could drive right onto the runway apron. One morning he was left kicking his heels while Sir Hugh Fraser and the other guys were driven away and he allowed himself to get annoyed. I suddenly thought: ‘I’ve turned into that arsehole.’”

Around this time, Nairns was Glasgow’s hot new restaurant, with the New Labour seal of approval. He reels off the entourage: “Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Anji Hunter ... I was one of Blair’s babes. We thought we ruled the world. We thought anything was possible, that everything was going to change. How wrong did we get that?” There were prestigious foreign trips. “In China I shared a stage at Food for Britain with Tony, Cherie and the Mayor of Shanghai. You think you’re somebody when that happens – more than you are. More valuable and more important.” He needed the right clothes for this inflated version of himself. “I wouldn’t wear a suit unless it was by Issey Miyake or Paul Smith. There was a Jil Sander one which cost me £1,200. My shoes were hand-made in Italy. But then Blair met Jamie Oliver and that was it – bang. I went from No 10 Christmas cards to nothing. I thought he was a good guy!”

It should be said that Nairn recounts all of this with a wry smile. He’s not bitter, or at least he isn’t now. He’s still smiling – just – when I bring up Gordon Ramsay, who also came to Nairns during the 1990s, sparking a long-running foodie feud. “He said my restaurant was crap and that I was only interested in decor. Scotland on Sunday phoned me for my reaction and I said something snotty back. This went on for 18 months. I wasn’t very media-savvy back then. Every interview I had to talk about me and Gordon. He was opening his own restaurant in Glasgow, so knocking the biggest guy was good publicity for him. And then he employed my ex to work front-of-house – that was below-the-belt.” It was Ramsay’s mum who eventually bashed their heads together. “Being down in London, Gordon wasn’t getting stopped in the street about the row but she was. She told him: ‘Would you two bloody well make up?’ The last time I saw him was three years ago. It was with our wives and all very amicable.”

Nairn needs another coffee for the next bit of this tale, the battering he took in the recession. “We had the cook school [the original at Lake of Menteith], the restaurants and the outside catering and Royal Bank of Scotland were our best clients. We looked after their corporate HQ and they’d send a lot of high-level people to us for team-bonding. But then they went tits up and we got fired straight out the back door. After that we lost Stirling Castle. We’d been the caterers for four years and that also brought in a huge amount of corporate. I had to wind up a £1 million business; I had to reinvent myself.”

No-one knew the world economy was going to deflate like a badly-made soufflé, I say. “My dad did. When there was so much money around he was like: ‘There are people buying 16 homes – this can’t last.’” Jimmy Nairn gets mentioned a lot by Nick Nairn. “Dad was the first person Lord Thomson hired when STV started. He formed his own shipping company after that. I remember him asking me: ‘How much did you turn over last month?’ ‘Enough,’ I said. He wasn’t impressed. ‘Get your finger on the detail,’ he told me, ‘get on top of it.’ Back then, everything was easy. Folk would pay me stupid money to go: ‘Hi, I’m Nick, thanks very much.’ I could earn £10,000 for a cookery demonstration. But when it’s that easy you get complacent and lazy.”

Right at the time of the financial meltdown, Nairn and Holly had just bought a farm in Buchlyvie for themselves and their children, Daisy, ten, and eight-year-old Callum. “Top of the market, 30 in a bidding war and it was a total wreck.” But he refused to get depressed. “What would be the point? I’m a fairly upbeat fellow and was quite accepting of everything. I genuinely believe that a knock like that now and again can do you a whole lot of good. Suddenly I had to re-engage with my business, get rid of the people who weren’t doing their job, bring in new folk, enthuse everyone. And I had to get cooking again.”

Who cooks at home? “The wife most of the time. I do the dinner parties and the posh stuff.” But Holly isn’t intimidated by his culinary prowess and neither are his friends when it’s their turn to host. And the dinner-table chat among the Nairn set in the Trossachs? “Oh the same as everyone else: schools. We all have kids who’ve grown up together and who’re about to start their secondary years. We’ll be going state. Some of our friends fancy Fettes College but we reckon our kids are insulated enough. They need to grow up in the real world.”

Education has always been a Nairn watchword, from before his former friend, Tony Blair, started banging on about it. At his own secondary he had some exceptional teachers but also a dreadful one. “What we want is the very best teaching for our children, with each generation turning out better, more balanced and more informed, and it’s through education that the unevenness in society can be ironed out. This has got to be the most important thing in life. Cancel that new road and those nuclear submarines. Put the money into education.”

We talk about the splurge of cookery programmes on TV and the glistening nature of the chefs’ celebrity status which outshines their pans and knives. Chefs’ rocky marriages, their nightclub bust-ups over pouting blondes (“Do you cheffin’ want some?”) and even their need for hip replacements are deemed newsworthy. Nairn mentions Paul Hollywood: “He was always just a baker! Phil Vickery, Brian Turner, Antony Worrall Thompson and myself – we were a gang, the chefs. And then, bloody hell, Paul becomes bigger than all of us put together!” While admitting that all chefs have egos, especially those on TV, he says he doesn’t envy the current flavours-of-the-month their higher profiles. Not now, anyway.

Knowing the telly game, Holly had cautioned him against a return. “She’s the boss,” he says of their relationship. “If I ever lord it in the kitchen or anywhere – and this has been known – she’ll tell me to get back in my box. And she’s even hotter than me on making sure our kids eat well.” For a long time that return wasn’t being offered him, a situation he was entirely happy with. Paul & Nick’s Big Food Trip marks a low-key comeback, being picked up by STV for its second series after a first only seen in Ireland. In any event he already has a lot on his plate: the Kailyard restaurant in Dunblane, which was his first hotel tie-up, the cook schools and a consultancy business. And this time round there are bigger fish to fry.

He’s possibly more passionate than ever about Scotland’s diet. “I want to hijack St Andrew’s Day,” he says. “We should only eat Scottish food that day and know everything about it.” They know quite a lot about Nick Nairn at the Scottish Parliament. Divert the road money to education and remember food education – very important when your health record’s as poor as ours. Oh, and school meals: can we have some more, sir? And please can we have better?

They’ve improved a lot since his schooldays when lumpy rice pudding made him sick in his bowl and a teacher suggested he carry on eating, but more needs to be done. “I know I p*** people off,” he says of his campaigning. “I sometimes wish I didn’t give a f**k but I do. I have this platform because of who I am and I feel I have to use it. Billy Connolly once said of me: ‘That Nicky Nairn – half of Scotland’s starving and he’s running round the country stuffing prunes up ducks’ arses.’” I love that, and it’s blown up on a wall at home, but there are more important things than ducks’ arses.”

Paul & Nick’s Big Food Trip continues on STV on Mondays at 8pm.