Obituary: Paul Kitching, Michelin-starred chef-proprietor of 21212 in Edinburgh

Paul Kitching, chef. Born: 23 March, 1961 in Gateshead. Died: 14 December, 2022 in Edinburgh, aged 61

At school, in Low Fell, Paul Kitching was once “strapped” three times for telling jokes in class. “Just for trying to make people happy." The Michelin-starred chef-proprietor of luxurious five-star Edinburgh restaurant-hotel 21212, who has died suddenly, grew up to make a lot of people very happy.

Whether they were eating his inventive, delicious, sometimes bonkers food – which made devotees, such as broadcaster and writer Jay Rayner, laugh with pleasure – or those who had the privilege of counting Paul as a life-enhancing, kind-hearted, gag-cracking friend.

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Above all, though, he made his devoted partner of 31 years, Katie O’Brien, happy. Together they ran 21212, their fine dining restaurant-hotel, in Royal Terrace, with grace, elegance and style. Everything in the historic Georgian townhouse was chosen by Paul, from the beautiful cutlery to the enormous blown-up print of the upper half of Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy. One of the celebrated chef’s greatest passions was for the visual arts, from Uccello to Rothko, as well as photography. His legendary selfie-portraits and many vivid images of the chaos of Leith Walk tram works were always shot from the most unexpected angles.

Paul Kitching knew instinctively what a dish would taste like – and how it should lookPaul Kitching knew instinctively what a dish would taste like – and how it should look
Paul Kitching knew instinctively what a dish would taste like – and how it should look

With his phenomenal memory, Paul also had Mastermind-worthy specialist subject knowledge of the American Civil War, which he discovered one lonely Christmas watching Ken Burns’s documentaries over five nights. “I’d always thought I was thick because I didn’t read books but I discovered everything I could about the history. Life-changing! It made me think more deeply and ask questions.” With Katie he took six trips to Gettysburg, amassing a huge collection of battlefield memorabilia and a library of books. “It’s a magnificent obsession,” he said.

Food was not an obsession during childhood, although he began experimenting early. He would be on toast detail after school. “It always went back into the grill for a double-cook so the jam bubbled up like a roly-poly thing. Then I started getting funky with lemon curd or strawberry jam, with lots of butter and cheese on top. I experimented to get that sub-savoury, sweet thing going on.”

Getting funky with food became his trademark. He gained a Michelin star in 1997 for cuisine that often had that sub-savoury, sweet thing going for it. In the kitchens of his restaurant Juniper, in Altrincham, Cheshire, he created eccentric, mouth-watering, fine dining menus that might include, say, curried scallops with meringue perhaps followed by Branston Pickle ice-cream, while winning shelvesful of awards.

Educated at Glenwood Juniors and Harlow Green School, Paul was the second of three children of Angela and Billy Kitching, a hospital porter and labourer, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 37 when Paul was six years old. He recalled having to tell their fearsome headmaster – “the guy who the week before had strapped me” – that they needed free school dinners.

Despite his dream of studying at art college, he left school at 16 and worked in a bakery, labouring on building sites, finally pot washing at a Latin American restaurant in Newcastle. The matriarchal Sicilian cook, Nancy, did not take to the donkey-jacketed, shaven-headed, pony-tailed lad. “She thought I was rough. I thought I was Donald Sutherland in The Dirty Dozen. Sort of big. Sort of goofy. But that woman sure could cook! It was a revelation that food could be so tasty.” He also did a weekly day-release catering course at Newcastle Polytechnic, which he found “embarrassing”. A dedicated fan of movies and music, he survived his miserable job by traveling to Wigan Casino every weekend where he would dance all night, keeping the faith with other Northern Soul mates. “It made me feel as if I really was somebody. Every time I hear that music I think, this is why we are alive. Fabulous!”

Aged 23, he became a commis chef at the Viking Hotel, in York. “They sent me the fare for the interview. So kind. It changed my life.” He loved the hard graft, discovering what it meant to be a chef. Work in a number of fine dining, Michelin-starred restaurants followed. “Cheffing was the new rock’n’roll. I wanted to be the next Marco Pierre White.” He also lusted after a Michelin star. He had found a copy of the red Michelin Guide on Viking Head Chef Stuart Wayne’s bookshelves. “He used to let me study his cookery book collection but this one had no recipes, no pictures. When Stuart explained it, I knew I had to get a star; I hungered for one.”

In 1991, Paul was Head Chef at Nunsmere Hall, in Cheshire, when he met Katie aka “The Boss.” Four years later they took over Juniper, transforming it into one of the most admired restaurants in the country, winning that coveted Michelin star, which Paul held for 11 years. When Juniper closed, they moved to Edinburgh in 2008, opening 21212. Within six months he had reclaimed his Michelin star and won dozens of other awards, including Best New Restaurant in the UK and the Prince Philip Medal for services to the catering industry.

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At 21212 – so called because his menu offered a choice of two starters, one soup course, two mains, cheese and two desserts – he reinterpreted his Kitching jinks from Juniper with new ideas, new recipes, new thoughts, and was hailed as a “genius cook”. He still served fun on a plate, however, with a cooking style embracing the rigorous standards and practices of haute cuisine. Quality, correctness and doing a proper job in the kitchen were paramount. Blazing with energy, he created food packed with a unique complexity of flavours but always proudly influenced by the most classic form of French cookery.

All of it went untasted by Paul, however. His sense of smell was acute. He knew instinctively what a dish would taste like – and how it should look. “I don’t need to taste it,” he insisted. “It’s all about accuracy and finesse, and the sheer quality of the cooking.”

A “genius cook” indeed.


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