Interview: Virginae Dumon and India Innes - 'There's no swearing in my kitchen'
Sweaty, bandana-clad alpha males slogging it out behind the scenes in some of the country's top restaurants have become essential TV fodder for the viewing public, who get their kicks watching these angry men screeching maniacally at some poor, confused kitchen menial, blowtorch in one hand and carving knife in the other.
Virginae Dumon and India Innes have worked under two of television's most famous shouty chefs: Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay respectively, so between them they've experienced their fair share of heat. However, they've now left it all behind for the relative cool of an all-female open kitchen in the newly opened Cafe Fish in Leith.
The latest restaurant on the city's "Michelin Mile", Cafe Fish opened at the end of April. Situated between the Michelin-starred restaurants Martin Wishart and The Plumed Horse, it offers fuss-free seafood in a chic and airy setting, and with two women – ahem – manning the stoves as joint head chefs, there's a distinctly calm vibe about this newest addition to Leith's dining scene.
"I think it's better this way," says chef Dumon in a heavy French accent tinged with a Scottish twang. "Guys sometimes … I like working with them, but sometimes they are rude and they shout when they do not need to. One of the customers commented that there's no swearing in my kitchen. Of course there's no swearing – it's not necessary.
"It's the first time I've worked in a kitchen with no men and it's great," adds chef Innes. "Virginae is like my mum and we just bounce off each other. Maybe men are a bit more big-headed and egotistical, in the kitchen."
The 24-year-old Innes knows a thing or two about egos in the kitchen. She appeared on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares in 2007 as the put-upon chef at Piccolo Teatro, a vegetarian restaurant in Paris which Gordon Ramsay was trying to revive. The restaurant closed, but Ramsay saw potential in Innes and offered her a two-week work placement at his Boxwood Cafe at the Berkeley Hotel in London, then a permanent position. Missing her native Edinburgh, she turned down the offer of a full-time job, but has nothing but praise for the famously feisty chef.
"My experience in London was amazing," she says. "Gordon is a great guy, he was good to me, taught me lots and I love him to bits. He's a total gentleman and a family man."
Dumon, 36, has worked in hospitality for 16 years, working in restaurants in her native Nice and Monte Carlo before moving to Edinburgh from the South of France four years ago. Spritely and friendly, she is brimming with that famous Gallic passion, waxing lyrical about everything from fresh langoustines to the benefits of Scotland's wet weather.
"People at home say to me, 'oh the weather in Scotland, it's not nice', but I find almost it's romantic," she says. "I love it here. Where I am from it is beautiful, but they built everywhere and then it's suffocating. In Edinburgh there's this strong architecture, so beautiful, so powerful and the streets are large and there's green space everywhere."
Asked about working with the famously temperamental Marco Pierre White, whom she worked under at Drones in London, she is suitably diplomatic: "He was a fantastic guy and it was a very good experience," she says. "He's a very professional guy, and he's always right. He's got a sharp eye for detail and I learned a lot – that's the most important thing." Was he fiery? "It depends on the day. You have good days and bad days…"
Both Innes and Dumon are excited to be a part of Cafe Fish, businessman Richard Muir's latest venture. The approach is one of simplicity: no unnecessary sprinklings on the plate, an industrial-looking, minimal interior and, above all, the highest quality fish and seafood available, most of which is sourced from Skye. Having come to Edinburgh from Nice, I ask Dumon if Scottish seafood stands up to the offerings in the South of France.
"Oh, it's better. The seafood here is amazing, the best in the country and much better than in Nice," she says. "When I lived in the south of France as a child I would take a sea urchin, break it on the rock and just eat it straight away, but you can't do that now because of the pollution there. I love working with seafood. It's a beautiful art to know how to cook a fish properly – it's so delicate, but you want to work with the best."
Of course, this brings us round to the great Scottish food debate. From beef to seafood, Scotland has an enviable natural larder, but do we make the most of it? Our seafood might trump that found on the south coast of France, but it's what we do with it that matters. Does our collective attitude towards food – both in our kitchens at home and in our local restaurants – put us to shame?
"When people say that in Scotland there's not much good food culture, I'm getting pissed off. All the chefs in France want to work with the best produce, and in Scotland for me it's wonderful," says Dumon, before launching into a story about foraging for wild mushrooms and berries with her 12-year-old daughter.
"However, I learned a lot from working in France; there's a real passion for food. For me, if people here are still thinking that this industry is not a proper profession, it's going to stay like that.
"We need to bring back strong apprenticeships, the real technical skills, because a university knows how to make fantastic brains, but what about the hands? I find there's a gap there and I make that comparison with my country."
With that, Dumon leaves to tend to an emergency in the kitchen, and I ask Innes about an emergency of my own. I'm cooking dinner for some friends tonight: I've got four monkfish fillets in my shopping bag and I'm feeling a little uninspired.
"Lemme see," she says, inspecting the fish. "Keep it basic, don't overcook it and serve it with a wee bit of salsa. Simple." It's a word that's used frequently by both Innes and Dumon in this crisp, clean restaurant where the ethos is clear: no mess, no fuss, and above all, no swearing.