The Big Interview: Michaela Kitchin, co-founder and executive director at Kitchin Group

It is one of only nine Michelin-starred restaurants in Scotland, has picked up a slew of other accolades, and now sits as the linchpin of five sites that form Kitchin Group.

The businesswoman says she looks after everything apart from the food and the kitchen - overseeing HR and interiors, for example. Picture: contributed.

Tom Kitchin and wife Michaela – who had met while both working in the kitchen of legendary Swiss chef Anton Mosimann – pooled his stellar culinary skills and her high-calibre background in hospitality to open the Leith institution in 2006, mere months after they relocated to his native Edinburgh.

The restaurant was initially full of friends and family, but once bookings fell off and reality kicked in, they wondered as they gazed at empty tables if they’d done the right thing, Michaela recalls.

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But The Kitchin’s reputation gained momentum, and she fondly remembers the first time it was fully booked (“the room was buzzing”) and official recognition followed. “We started to be busy every weekend, and then eventually every week – it was a really fantastic feeling.”

The duo have since added Castle Terrace (led by Edinburgh-born chef proprietor Dominic Jack), The Scran & Scallie, Southside Scran – all located in the capital – and The Bonnie Badger in East Lothian. The latter marks a move into the hotel trade, boasting 14 guest rooms.

Michaela is co-founder and executive director of Kitchin Group, and explains that in terms of how duties are split between the husband-and-wife team, she looks after everything apart from the food and the kitchen.

“I try not to interfere with that,” she laughs. “It just works… we are very much a team and I think that’s the strength of what we do. I’m very, very lucky – I have the best job ever.”

Her broad remit includes overseeing all the five sites, HR duties – the group now has more than 250 staff – and she spends a great deal of time mentoring the workforce. “I do a lot of catching up with teams and managers, making sure everybody has what they need.”

Also in her jurisdiction is the aesthetic aspect of all the premises, with the “Scandi chic” seen in her native Sweden evident in The Bonnie Badger in particular.

Talking of the husband-and-wife partnership, she says: “I think it’s not for everyone, but it really suits us. We like working together.”

Michaela has longstanding roots in hospitality, realising immediately that she had found her calling when she started working in the industry in Sweden. “I just loved interacting with people more than anything,” she says.

She came to the UK in the late 1990s to do a degree in hotel and restaurant management at the University of Surrey, during which time she worked for Mosimann in London – meeting her future husband when he was in the kitchen there on a day off from Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire.

She then worked at The Savoy, accepted on to its management training course and working in all departments of the hotel, followed by a spell at what was then known as the Savoy Group. “It was a great time – I really enjoyed it very much.”

Michaela subsequently spent nearly three years at the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai – which calls itself the world’s most luxurious hotel and is famous for its iconic sail-shaped silhouette.

She and Tom had by then decided to realise their long-held shared ambition of owning a restaurant, and a few locations were weighed up before Edinburgh was deemed as offering the best chances of success.

They moved back in January 2006, with The Kitchin opening that summer. While it was a pretty compact timeframe, “it was a dream that we had been working on for a long time – for a number of years – so we knew what we wanted to do”.

The couple's vision was catapulted into reality with a small overdraft, some savings, and staff you could count on one hand – but the intervening 13 years have been a “fabulous” journey, says Michaela.

The Kitchin proudly notes that Tom is Scotland’s youngest Michelin-starred chef proprietor, having achieved a star in 2007 aged only 29, fattening up a culinary CV that extends from early training at Gleneagles to three-star restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris, for example, and Alain Ducasse’s equally-ranked Le Louis XV restaurant in Monte Carlo.

As for how the Kitchin Group expanded, the duo had been looking to open a “gastro pub” with the sort of ambience, décor and level of service that they looked for in venues they patronised.

The couple by then had a young family and saw an opportunity to create a family-friendly place to dine, The Scran & Scallie, at a site in Stockbridge.

That restaurant opened in 2013, to be followed in November 2018 by Southside Scran in Bruntsfield. “It just felt like the right location for us to be on that side of town.”

A month later in December last year The Bonnie Badger launched, with Scotland football legend Kenny Dalglish helping kick off proceedings by popping in, even stepping behind the bar to pull a pint.

Regarding the genesis of the fifth member of the Kitchin portfolio, Michaela says that when the site in Gullane came up, it was “totally the wrong timing”. But the property – which dates back to 1836 and was formerly The Golf Inn – “was calling us to take it on and do something with it, and we just decided, ‘Let’s just go with it and try’.”

It was a “little bit hectic last year” opening two places in such a short timeframe, but stresses that the “restaurant with rooms” is a project very close to her heart.

“The old hotel really needed a lot of love,” she says, and it was stripped back to showcase the natural features of the building. “I just thought it was such a fun project and it’s something that I’ve been dreaming about for years, to try and create a real special ‘away from home’ feeling.”

The group has pursued pretty rapid expansion during a challenging time for restaurateurs in the UK, who face an unappetising recipe of business rate stresses, increased staff and ingredient costs, and consumers tightening their belts.

The casual dining sector has been particularly badly hit, and TV chef Jamie Oliver recently and controversially said in the aftermath of the collapse of his Jamie’s Italian chain that if he’d spent 13 years “opening posh restaurants… they’d all be open today”.

As for where Michaela sees hurdles, she flags up the amount of competition in Edinburgh – including many restaurants coming up from London. Such arrivals include steakhouse Hawksmoor, “Bombay Cafe” Dishoom, and The Ivy, which are all located around St Andrew Square.

“We feel that, of course, we’re all striving for the same customers at the end of the day,” says Michaela, adding that the Kitchin Group – which has a “nature to plate” philosophy – just has to keep ploughing its own furrow.

“We just know that what we deliver is a really good product and we’re just continuing to work hard and try and be a leader and be ambitious and always deliver consistency and great quality – that’s what we believe in.”

The duo’s efforts were rewarded with the Restaurateur of the Year gong at this year’s National Restaurant Awards “as voted for by an elite academy of chefs, restaurateurs and food writers”. The Kitchins were branded “Scotland’s power couple” and praised for their “small but perfectly formed restaurant group”.

Michaela says the pair were “delighted” with the recognition. “It was just a lovely acknowledgement, I guess, for many years of working very hard… it meant a lot for both of us.”

But what’s on the cards now – more locations? The group has no such immediate plans – there is plenty to be getting on with now with five sites, and the current focus is to get them as busy as possible, responds Michaela.

“We’ve had some amazing offers over the years to expand, to go abroad, to do other things [like] collaborations,” she explains, but they are happy for now with their “small family business” mindset and Edinburgh-Gullane reach, which enables the top team to regularly visit all sites. “It works for us – we can actually manage to get there and back and in between fairly easily… we like the control we have here.”

With the duo’s professional commitments (they are both "control freaks", favouring a hands-on approach, she says) and raising four sons, “we’re managing – and I think it would be hard if we were abroad”. But it’s a case of never say never, she adds.

“We’re quite happy where we are just now… we just want it to be five really, really good places for people to eat and have a really nice hospitality experience… Looking at how the last 13 years have been, it’s been pretty crazy. But we’re not sitting still yet.”

As for whether one of the next generation could one day take over, while her sons show some foodie tendencies, “at the moment all four want to be footballers”, she laughs.