Laurels for local heroes

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A CRASH of pallets can be heard coming from behind the kitchen. Sitting in another room, several yards away and out of sight, Shirley Spear can identify the sound without even blinking. "Scallops," she explains - briefly interrupting a monologue on the importance of cooking with fresh Scottish produce.

At The Three Chimneys - the acclaimed Skye restaurant she runs with husband Eddie - as much as possible is sourced locally. The scallops are fished from the waters of Loch Dunvegan, overlooked by the kitchen. Very impressive for guests and food critics, but nerve-racking for the Spears, who are relying on the scallops to feed two large group bookings whose arrival is imminent.

Shirley’s relief at their eventual arrival is palpable. "You can’t get any fresher than that, but of course using very local suppliers means you can’t always predict when things will arrive. It can literally depend on the weather."

This sort of daily worry is why the Spears are stepping back from their high-profile roles as they prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their restaurant at Colbost - a huge decision for a couple whose reputation has placed The Three Chimneys at the top of Scotland’s culinary tree. This spring, Shirley will hand over to a new head chef, while manager Eddie will cede to a new front-of-house.

Both will continue to run the business, helping in the kitchen wherever possible, but with fewer daily demands. "We wanted to be open and honest about this because people do want to know what they are getting," says Shirley. "A lot is made of celebrity chefs not being in their own restaurants. We still own and run The Three Chimneys and we still live in the flat above the restaurant. We want to keep expanding the business, but I’m 52 and Eddie is 58 and we just thought it was time we looked at our daily lives and thought about winding down."

The Spears have done a very rare thing - created a destination restaurant in a place known only to lighthouse keepers and Ordnance Survey cartographers. The word "remote" isn’t adequate to describe how far The Three Chimneys is from everything - one of the reasons guests love it so much.

The Spears moved to Skye in the early 1980s from Croydon, in Surrey, with their two children, Steven and Lindsay, then aged five and three. Neither had any previous experience in the restaurant industry, and Peebles-born Shirley is a completely self-taught chef. Her time at The Three Chimneys began not as a proprietor but as a guest on a camping expedition in 1974. After several damp nights in a tent, she sought out a B&B in Colbost whose landlady recommended the restaurant for an evening meal. Dinner was a grilled mackerel and chips washed down with beer. Ten years later she saw the restaurant advertised for sale, and by April 1985 she was open for business.

Menus from the early days reveal the food philosophy has changed little over decades - even if inflation and a surge in demand have transformed the prices. Grilled sirloin steak was available for 7.75 while Meadowsweet lamb hotpot cost less than a fiver. Its exposed location, at the end of a single-track road three-quarters of an hour away from the mainland, was both its greatest asset and biggest hurdle. Twenty years ago the restaurant was closed all winter, creating only seasonal employment.

The solution was to create a restaurant-with-rooms - a place where guests could enjoy the food without being at the mercy of the unpredictable Hebridean microclimate. Despite poor support from the banks, the Spears opened a six-bedroomed annexe, the House Over-By, to widespread acclaim in 1999. In a part of the world where plumbing and power supplies cannot be taken for granted, the flat-screen televisions, integral DVD players, bedside radios and tabletop fans for Skye’s sultry summer nights (all four of them) quickly earned five-star status - and took the fortunes of the restaurant to a new level.

Since then a row of trophies for industry excellence have been added to Shirley’s three AA red rosettes for outstanding food - culminating in a Restaurant magazine listing as one the world’s 50 best restaurants. Even in deepest February, securing a dinner table for four now makes booking at The Ivy seem a breeze. A room for two costs upwards of 215 a night, while a four-course dinner fetches 52. Gourmets will fly from London to Inverness and drive three-and-a-half hours across blustery terrain to sample turnip soup in a croft at prices to match the best rooms in Monte Carlo.

"We have proved it can be done, driven partly by being fed up with people underestimating Scottish cooking and Scottish hospitality," says Shirley. "Standards everywhere have improved enormously, and hopefully also a change in attitudes."

At the centre of their mission has been making use of Skye’s abundant supply of seafood, and to use as much fresh local produce as possible.

Her range of soups, breads and puddings are well-known for simple excellence - something acknowledged by legendary food critic Egon Ronay last week when he praised Scotland’s cooking and awarded The Three Chimneys an Egon Ronay star.

The food is good, but the worldwide reputation of The Three Chimneys owes much to Shirley’s gift of relentless self-promotion, a skill honed during a career in PR in London in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Constantly talking up the merits of one’s own business tends to come at the expense of modesty. But Shirley’s fellow islanders - many of whom, naturally, are also her suppliers - are unlikely to allow her to float far from the ground. "Aye," says a grudging admirer in Kyle of Lochalsh. "She’s not done bad for a woman who couldnae cook."

But the time has come to start slowing down.

Both Eddie and Shirley have had minor surgery in the past year to deal with niggling health problems. "It is just not possible for us to work in the kitchen and the restaurant day-in-day-out any more."

Having explained about slowing down, she bustles across from the restaurant to the admin office to tackle some unspecified problem involving that evening’s dinner. She is back across to the kitchen within minutes, checking up on progress.

It will not surprise regular diners that the Spears’ commitment to using the best local produce has extended from the kitchen to the office. New front-of-house manager Alasdair MacRae was born and raised in the Great Glen, while new head chef Michael Smith is an Inverness lad who began his cooking career in the Highlands.

For Jack McConnell’s "Fresh Talent" policy mandarins, MacRae must be a walking fantasy. The 25-year-old understands as much about the requirements of top-quality service as most mature London head waiters, casting a fastidious eye over table settings and reflexively adjusting candles and cutlery to perfection. He eulogises The Three Chimneys, and the opportunities it creates for talented Highland youngsters who must otherwise head elsewhere for work.

"It is so important to get people working in hospitality and to dispel some of the myths. Many are put off because it involves a lot of hard work, especially at the beginning of your career, but the rewards are fantastic.

"Hospitality and tourism are vital to the future of areas like this. Creating a buzz that sustains year-round employment has been fantastic."

He firmly denies any ambition to work in London’s top establishments - despite having the talent to do so. "This is my home. Why would I want to be anywhere else?"

Smith, 33, has had a more itinerant experience, venturing south to London after writing to La Gavroche - the Roux brothers’ triple-Michelin-star West-End legend - and asking for a job. He spent several years with Conran restaurants, culminating in a period at the Blueprint Caf, overlooking Tower Bridge. After being headhunted back to Glasgow for a start-up restaurant that never materialised, he headed the openings of two successful club-bar complexes before deciding, after a lunch with Shirley in Glasgow, to return to the Highlands.

He now lives in Glendale, a few miles further down the single-track road towards the coast, with French wife Laurence (they met in London while she was a waitress) and six-year-old daughter Margot. The couple are expecting another baby in June.

He is quite nonchalant about his achievements: "You have to be passionate about the food and not be afraid to put in the hours. I like Shirley and we get on because we both have the same ideas about the cooking."

When I ask about the possibility of a new coffee-table book featuring Smith and his cooking, Shirley shifts uncomfortably. "Maybe it could feature the both of us," she says.

In truth, Smith could easily become Scotland’s newest celebrity chef. Devastatingly handsome, with eyes as blue as the nearby Atlantic, he has an unforgiving sharp wit and seems made for television, despite an unconvincing denial. "I don’t know about that. I think you have to look pretty. And it’s not as if I know anyone in television anyway."

Shirley emphasises the smooth transition in the kitchen, where Smith has already been cooking for several weeks. "Many young chefs want to throw themselves into it and go for a Michelin star in their first year but we prefer to look at the longer term and concentrate on getting the basics right. We took a conscious decision not to go for the sort of cooking that they seem to want in order to award a Michelin star."

She points to her signature Neep Bree. "It’s turnip soup - simple and brilliant. It is exactly what people want after a hard day walking out in the wind and rain, and it’s made with local ingredients. But I’ll never get a Michelin star serving that."

And with that, it’s back to business. Eddie dashes off on a mission for supplies, heading down the coastal road towards the metropolis of Broadford - which boasts a 24-hour petrol station and a supermarket. It seems far from anyone’s definition of "winding down", and Eddie and Shirley still possess more energy than most. Shirley calls across the kitchen: "If you’re going to the supermarket make sure you get some mangoes because we’ve run out."

At The Three Chimneys, even the tropical fruits are sourced locally.