Chef Tom Kitchin talks to Ilona Amos about his love of fish and shellfish and how he hopes his new book will encourage people to step out of their comfort zone to try something different.
If there is any truth to the adage “you are what you eat” then we should all take a leaf out of chef Tom Kitchin’s new book.
Despite long hours toiling behind a hot stove, he remains fresh-faced, bursting with energy and full of passion for his craft.
After training with internationally renowned chefs such as Pierre Koffmann, Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy, he arrived on the culinary scene in a blaze of glory, opening his flagship restaurant, The Kitchin, with wife Michaela in Leith in 2006. Six months later, at the age of 28, he became the youngest chef/proprietor to win a coveted Michelin star.
Since then the couple have launched two other successful ventures – the high-end Castle Terrace restaurant, a collaboration with chef Dominic Jack, and the Scran & Scallie gastropub in Edinburgh’s fashionable Stockbridge area. And this year they are adding another two to the stable – Scran Southside, in Bruntsfield, and the Bonnie Badger, a restaurant with rooms in East Lothian that will mark their first foray outside the capital.
Now aged 41, the Edinburgh-born chef is a household name, appearing on TV shows such as MasterChef and The Great British Menu. He is renowned for championing seasonal cookery and Scotland’s local produce. Today sees the publication of his fourth cookbook, Tom Kitchin’s Fish and Shellfish.
He wants his recipes to inspire folk at home to experiment with the enormous choice of fresh seafood on offer in Scotland, with dishes based on everything from haddock and plaice to octopus, skate and squat lobsters.
“Fish and shellfish are a massive passion of mine,” he says.
“These recipes are quick. They’re about making fish and shellfish accessible, to get people cooking, enjoying cooking, and trying different things – monkfish curry, how nice would that be on a Sunday night?
“If I have any ambitions for this book it is to break the barriers for people, break their comfort zone, to get them thinking, ‘Do you know what, I can do this, I can go there, I can eat this.’
“The book is for everyone, for families, for home cooks, but it’s to push the boundaries as well.”
Food fads may go in and out of fashion, but he believes classic cookery and quality ingredients are timeless.
“My food is really steeped in tradition and seasonality, which isn’t a trend. I’m interested in the trends but I’m not really influenced by them.
“I really believe in what I do. I believe in honest food, the best produce you can get and moving with the seasons. That’s what I do in the restaurants.
“Trends come and go, but there are recipes in this book – like the Scran & Scallie fish pie – these are trends that will never die because people want to eat this kind of food. It’s just real, proper food.”
He says nature and his French cookery background guide him when creating new menus.
“My flavours are pretty classical. Often people ask how I think about the way dishes come together. But when you learn about classical combinations, your food naturally comes together.
“People from the outside might think, ‘Mackerel and gooseberry?’ Someone might not think of them naturally coming together but it’s a very classic combination – and nature has decided that these two ingredients are in season at the same time in the same place. It’s a natural story and that’s really the big thing about all my cooking.”
Many of the recipes featured in the book are inspired by friends and family. There is an obvious Scandinavian influence in many, thanks to his wife’s origins, as well as some rather more outlandish-sounding options – Auntie Charlotte’s Thai Cod and Banana Soup isn’t one most people will have tried before.
“My wife is Swedish and quite a few dishes are inspired from her heritage. I love Scandinavian food. Pickled cucumbers – they’re great to have in the fridge all the time.
“I have also included lots of influences from travels. The fish is all sourced in Scotland, but we’ve got things like curry. My head chef Lachlan travels a lot, so there is a curry in here that he loves to do at home.
“There are dishes that friends have cooked for me and I thought, ‘You know what, we enjoyed that,’ so I do a little twist on it.”
He stresses that anyone can cook his dishes and encourages people to experiment and adapt once they have gained confidence.
He says: “The recipes are very simple but challenging at the same time. Also rewarding. I want people to feel the achievement, a sense of satisfaction, because it’s a journey.
“If you’ve got friends coming round on a Saturday you start thinking, ‘Crikey, what am I going to cook? Right, let’s get Tom Kitchin’s Fish and Shellfish. Hmmm, haddock souffle, could I do that? I know what, I could do, fish goujons.’”
The book offers a range of meals, from quick and inexpensive midweek fare such as kedgeree with smoked haddock or cullen skink to more extravagant dinner party fare. There is even a lobster burger.
“I’d like to think the new book has got something for everyone. It’s accessible. It’s pure, hard passion and joy of food. I just want to share my love of food with people and get it out there.”
He claims anyone who is a bit nervous of stepping outside their comfort zone could try roasting a cod’s head or cooking up some razor clams with vegetables and chorizo.
“Razor clams are so fast, so easy, and a lot more affordable than hand-dived scallops. The meat is beautifully sweet but there is a skill to cooking it.
“And that’s what the whole point is – we have so many different fish and shellfish out there that we can use and cook, and it’s really fast and it’s really healthy, it’s really tasty and it’s also Scottish.”
So how do we get the ready-meal generation back in the kitchen?
“By cooking fish,” he says.
“It’s affordable too – I’m really conscious of affordable food, healthy food, families. I look at our own family. I’m cooking five nights a week, I’m here in the restaurant and my wife is cooking for four kids but she’s doing some of these recipes – some of them are hers. And they work. You’ve got fresh fish, a bit of spice, you can make a dish really fast.
“I just feel this whole surge of people who are tired of eating ready meals, bored of all that stuff. I even see it with my chefs – chefs are notoriously working long hours, too much drinking, smoking, but they’re not. They’re super-fit, eating well. It’s because the whole mentality of the world is changing. We want to be healthy, we want to be better, look after ourselves. We want to do things.”
If running a string of busy eateries, penning cookery books and raising a family isn’t enough, the 41-year-old is also committed to supporting the local community. He spends a lot of time working with and raising funds for charities in the Leith area, including the Citadel youth centre and Spartans Community Football.
“I don’t know if I’m changing society but I’m trying my best to help and to give back. If there’s anything that really ticks my box apart from food, it’s helping people to eat better.
“I work with lots of charities across this part of Edinburgh and food is really important because you are what you eat. It’s not a cliche. I really do believe that.”
Tom Kitchin’s Fish And Shellfish by Tom Kitchin, photography by Marc Miller, is published by Absolute Press, priced £26