Exclusive interview with EVENTS feature writer Katie Macleod

 “I love chopping parsley!” laughs Gary Maclean, Scotland’s National Chef, when I ask what his favourite part of the cooking process is.

While seafood is one of his preferred ingredients – “it’s an enjoyable, rewarding thing to cook because it’s instantaneous, it’s really quick and timing is crucial” – in reality the Glasgow chef loves it all, from preparation to butchery skills to pastry.

Scotland’s National Chef and MasterChef: The Professionals winner Gary Maclean has cooked for celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Bon Jovi, and Billy Connolly, and in locations ranging from 10 Downing Street to Hollywood.

This week, though, he’ll be showcasing his award-winning skills in Stornoway.

On Friday (2nd August) he’s opening the Lewis Carnival Food and Drink Festival, where he’ll be doing cooking demonstrations using Native Hebridean Salmon, after having prepared a six-course tasting menu for 36 paying guests at the Harris and Lewis Smokehouse the night before (Thursday August 1st).

The Outer Hebrides food scene is finally having its moment in the spotlight, with the region’s award-winning gins, seafood, and black pudding appearing on menus across the country. Thursday night’s dinner will celebrate exactly that: the ‘Taste of the Outer Hebrides’ event features produce from the islands’ sea lochs, crofts, seas, coasts, hills, and gardens. Venison, monkfish, and lobster are just a few of the highlights on a menu that puts island ingredients front and centre.

“We’re trying to get as many food groups as the island produces on the menu as possible, it’s a representation of where all the food is coming from,” explains Gary. “It’s bringing people together with food. The food on the island is amazing, and food is a great leveller for people, because everyone needs it, it brings communities together.”

The Lewis Carnival Food and Drink Festival is being sponsored by the Scottish Salmon Company, for whom Gary is a Chef Ambassador, telling the story of the salmon and sharing the process of quality salmon farming with the public. “Seafood’s a great thing to demonstrate,” he says of the festival slot. “A lot of people in general don’t really cook with much fish, and it’s a really lovely product to just show people how quick and easy it is to cook something of real high quality.”

Cooking with high quality local produce is something Gary has been doing his entire career, since he applied aged 15 for a dishwasher position at a country house hotel in the Trossachs and ended up as the chef. “It was in an amazing location, and everything we got in was really local,” he remembers. “We had a lot of wild game that was shot, there was a lot of fish that was handed in… I was boning out stags and plucking pheasants and grouse and all that at 15.”

Gary worked there for a year, and decided to leave school. “I was rubbish at school, dare I say it, but I was really good at Home Economics,” he tells me. “It was something that I really enjoyed, that I did at home. When I started cooking, it wasn’t trendy. It wasn’t the career it is now for people – there were no celebrity chefs on TV, people didn’t actually eat out very often, and I didn’t know people could cook for a living, believe it or not.”

The country house hotel experience was an “amazing foundation” for a career that has gone from strength to strength. Gary was Head Chef of a restaurant at the early age of 20, and head-hunted by Glasgow Museums to run their kitchens a few years later. He then went on to open more than 80 restaurants from scratch, not to mention win countless awards, both nationally and globally.

He’s also the Senior Chef Lecturer at The City of Glasgow College, and often works with the events and international education teams. It was partly thanks to his students’ encouragement that Gary entered MasterChef in the first place, being crowned the 2016 winner after what was almost a year-long process. “I didn’t go in to win. I just went in a day at a time, did my best, and made sure that what came across on TV was me,” he says. “The whole experience was just amazing, I just loved every minute of it.”

The following year another surprise came along, when he was appointed Scotland’s first National Chef in 2017. The voluntary role involves promoting Scotland's produce and the associated health benefits that come with using environmentally sustainable, affordable, and locally sourced food. Within the remit, Gary has focused his efforts on education, especially for children. “Getting kids to learn to cook was one of my main things. For the most part I’m in primary schools, and sometimes in nurseries, helping teachers get their cooking programmes up and running.”

For the teenager who loved Home Economics in the Eighties, it’s a career that has in some ways come full circle. “My whole job now is bonkers, it really is. That’s the thing about the food industry, it’s ever-evolving, and you just never know what’s around the corner. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be getting stopped in the street for selfies.”

Gary’s first book Kitchen Essentials: The Joy of Home Cooking, was published last year, and he has a BBC cooking show coming out at the end of 2019, not to mention work trips to Bali and the USA in the calendar.

But next on the agenda is Lewis, a place he always enjoys visiting.  “I’m going to get out and about and meet as many people as I can. I’m really looking forward to getting back on the island. It’s an amazing place, it’s got something really special about it.”

© Katie Macleod and EVENTS newspaper 2019