Andrew Fairlie: Scotland's most celebrated chef talks about Scottish independence

ANDREW Fairlie, chef proprietor of Scotland's only two-starred Michelin restaurant, is chilled. Sitting back in the august surroundings of his eponymous domain, he's relaxed and calm.

He knows the kitchen behind him is running like clockwork as his team prepare for tonight's usual full house, and in his chef's whites he looks younger than his 48 years, hair cropped neatly to his head, small framed glasses hinting at his perspicacity and hands that don't mind getting dirty scrubbed clean.

Around us, the dark aubergine walls seem to push inwards, inviting diners’ soft-spoken intimacies, while the pistachio and chocolate-toned seating and soft lights bestow a hushed, plush ambience. Staff appear silently at the table, their approach muffled by the thick pile that carpets every inch of the Scottish château of Gleneagles, which is surrounded by the rolling hills of Perthshire and some of the country’s richest farmland.

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Fairlie, who won his first Michelin star at One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow and his second after he set up his own restaurant at Gleneagles in 2001, is talking with relish about his forthcoming trip to Bangkok, how he can't wait to roll up his sleeves in the renowned Sukhothai Bangkok hotel for a week of cooking as one of the chefs invited to take part in its Art of Dining programme. Fairlie will be in good company as the hotel attracts culinary luminaries from across the globe.

You would think he might be taking things easier these days, having been diagnosed with a brain tumour when he was 41 and still living with the condition. “I had an operation and had chemotherapy but the tumour is still there and is always going to be there,” he says.

Fairlie had chemotherapy at the time the tumour was discovered, then another course a year ago, although in the middle of this he interrupted his treatment to climb Kilimanjaro for charity, as you do. “Since the operation I get seizures, which had been getting worse, so we tried chemotherapy and they stopped.

“Now I get them every now and then, and I know it’s going to be ongoing. My kids are great with it. I say, ‘I’m just going next door for a minute,’ then I come back. They don’t bother. That’s the way I like it. No sympathy,” he laughs. “I’m fortunate. I can keep getting chemotherapy.”

Fairlie still works a six-day week but these days makes more time for his family – his two daughters, aged 22 and 16, with ex-wife Ashley, and his partner Kate’s two girls, aged ten and seven, with whom he lives in a newly completed house in Auchterarder. Fairlie is a big family man and counts his blessings, never being happier than when he sits down with his family for a meal. Sitting down at the table with people he likes is a ritual for the chef – he also does it every day in his restaurant with the staff before dinner service – and something he remembers from his formative years as one of five children in Perth.

Family mealtimes were noisy, lively affairs where conversation was encouraged and debate devoured along with a menu of Scottish staples. Not only that, but it was the crucible where Fairlie’s cooking skills were forged, with the young Andrew pitching in to help his father get the tea on the table. “My dad was an economics teacher and cooked because my mum worked later in a shoe shop, and we would do it before she got home because everyone was starving. Simple things; omelette, mince and tatties ... For seven people every night, that’s a lot of potatoes to peel. But I liked it.”

Despite the happy memories, Fairlie’s family relationships were shattered in 1995 when his sister Katrina, who was receiving the now discredited Recovered Memory Therapy in Murray Royal Hospital, in Perth, accused their father Jim of abusing her. His wife Kay stood by him from the beginning, and with his children quickly convinced of his innocence, the family joined in his campaign to clear his name.

Denied his day in the civil courts, Jim Fairlie wrote a book about his experience, in tandem with his daughter, entitled Unbreakable Bonds: ‘They Know About You Dad’, published in 2010. In it he accuses the health service and social services not only of failing in their duty of care to his daughter, but of actually causing many of her problems. Katrina ultimately 
received an out-of-court settlement from Tayside Health Trust. “It’s something I have never, ever talked about,” says Fairlie. “It would take a week to talk about this. All I would say is I have never met a more principled, honest man in my life, and he is a huge influence on me.”

Back before the allegations and exonerations, when young Fairlie and his dad were getting the tea on the table, was that when he got the cooking bug and realised he was destined to be Scotland’s top chef? “No, I didn’t want to be a chef, I just liked food and eating. It wasn’t to be famous, or be on TV because the pay’s great, or to travel. It was just every single day we would sit down and have dinner together and it was great fun.

“Then, at 15, I got a part-time job polishing glasses at the Station Hotel in Perth. One Saturday I had my ‘tarragon moment’, when there was a wedding on and there was a sauce chasseur with something in it I couldn’t identify. The chef told me it was tarragon and that was when I asked to work in the kitchen. He made me do my exams first, then, when I was 15∫, I got a job as an apprentice. I’ve never wished I had done something else. ”

Fairlie cares about his homeland and isn’t ashamed of wearing his thistle on his sleeve. One of the issues most keenly debated over the young Fairlie’s family kitchen table was independence. This was a house where politics was in the air, along with the waft of mince and tatties, since his father was a big cheese in the SNP, being deputy leader from 1981 to 1984 and contesting Dundee West in the 1974 and 1979 elections. As a result, the young Fairlie’s weekends were spent “putting leaflets through doors, going up and down multi-storeys. That’s what we did, and I hung out at conferences when I was young.

“They called my dad a fundamentalist. He was a hard-line nationalist and was against the whole devolution thing. Now I would disagree with him. If they thought giving Scotland a devolved parliament was going to kill stone dead the move for independence, they were wrong. We wouldn’t have got as far as we have got now without it,” he says.

With such a pedigree, it’s no surprise that Fairlie is be part of the Yes Scotland advisory board, campaigning for a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum, along with the likes of Dennis Canavan, Elaine C Smith and Colin Fox. “My role is to talk about independence to people in the food and tourism industries. We have two years to make the case for independence, and at the moment the No campaign is so negative it has nothing to offer. I’m hoping that within two years people will realise we are not too stupid or too small.

“For so long, we have been told we don’t have the resources, we are subsidy junkies and completely reliant on bigger neighbours, our oil is going to run out. We have been fed that for so long, people believe it. But even with limited powers, we’re in a better position than people in England. Free care for the elderly, bus passes, no tuition fees ...”

Fairlie has also been outspoken in his response to former Liberal Democrat candidate Maitland Mackie, owner of Mackie’s ice-cream, who recently suggested that independence might mean customers elsewhere would refuse to buy Scottish produce, and view it as ‘foreign’. “It’s a ridiculous argument,” he says. “He has an agenda and wants to stay in the union, which is fine for him but not for the rest of us. It’s scare tactics.

“When it all came out, I was in Japan, in Tokyo fish market, looking at Scottish seafood. Do you think that Japan is going to stop buying our food just because it’s ‘foreign’. My English friends are not going to stop eating smoked salmon. People aren’t going to see us as a fringe country and stop buying our produce.”

Despite being on the Yes campaign board, Fairlie points out that he’s no poster boy for the SNP and is happy to voice concerns over issues such as the party’s proposed U-turn on Nato, which will be debated at the SNP conference in Perth this week. “If I felt I was being manoeuvred or having to defend policies I didn’t agree with, I would always speak out. The whole financial thing hasn’t been worked out and they are going to have to come up with answers, and I think the Nato question is going to be a problem.

“I think the SNP is trying to be all things to all men and you can’t do that. It’s too big an issue.”

Fairlie clearly has no qualms about stepping into the political arena, and thinks chefs have every right to express their opinions along with everyone else. “That’s how I am. I have always had debates about politics and Scotland wherever I go, and feel strongly we have been shortchanged. Apathy annoys me. I go to watch Scotland play football with my brother and dad, and look at 50,000 people cheering, then they don’t turn up to vote.”

But doesn’t it skew his vision somewhat, serving up the best Scotland has to offer for rich tourists and foreign diplomats? He famously catered for the G8 summit in 2005 at Gleneagles, when Chirac had a go at Britain over BSE, saying it was all it had to offer. “No, I don’t think so. I just happen to be cooking at this level, but I cook for ordinary Scots too. They save up for a big occasion, a special birthday and come here. It’s the same food.

“The whole Chirac thing made me laugh. It put the whole focus of the G8 on ‘Is Chirac going to eat anything?’ Of course he did. We served smoked lobster and Scottish lamb (from my brother’s farm up the road) and Perthshire berries. At the end of the meal, he asked to see the chef and stood up and said, ‘That was fantastic food.’ It put us on the front pages, from here to the Sydney Morning Herald.”

Fairlie laughs, refusing to get het up about such posturing, favouring the laid-back view, as he does about independence. “It’s not a quick fix and I doubt whether it will have an immediate impact, but I hope my children and grandchildren benefit.”

As well as the attractions of the wonderful food over in Thailand, Fairlie has huge respect for the Thai temperament and Buddhist way of life. “I like the Thai people, their hospitality and openness. I love the calmness of the Buddhist thing. I’m not religious at all but their way of leading their lives is something I would be closer to than any other. I can relate to it as I’m very calm as a person. Also, any show of aggression or unfriendliness, and the shutters go down.”

The same could be true of Fairlie, who is as far away from the Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White shouty chef model as you can get. After a baptism of fire in the kitchen of l’Hôtel de Crillon, in Paris, early in his career, he has eschewed raised voices and pan-throwing in favour of an atmosphere of mutual respect. “I don’t shout. When I was shouted at, it made me aggressive in return.

“My worst time was at the Crillon. It was brutal, really tough.” He shudders.

“Now, when I employ someone, I always have them in for two days and leave it to my staff to make the decision. They’re very choosy. We have never had to fire anyone in 12 years. We’re looking for attitude: are they going to work hard, do they respond to pressure, do they want to learn? And are they nice people you want to spend time with? At 5.30pm every day, we sit down and have a staff meal, and I’m not going to sit down and eat with someone if I don’t like them.”

For Fairlie, it’s all about quality of life and taking pleasure in what he does, whether at work or at home. He maintains that he hasn’t changed his outlook since the diagnosis of his brain tumour, but does it affect the way he lives his life at all? “No. There’s nothing you can do about it. I look at what other people have to go through.

“From the beginning the surgeons were brilliant and told me it was always going to be there because if they had taken it out, my whole left-hand side would be disabled. Even now, my left hand is affected slightly. But I’m lucky, I’m right-handed.”

“In every respect, I have been lucky from the word go. I believe in karma.” n

Andrew Fairlie will be cooking at the Sukhothai Bangkok, Art of Dining, 20-24 November