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In the kitchen: Neil Forbes from Cafe St Honoré, Edinburgh

The latest in our series, Catriona Thomson talks to Neil Forbes about sustainable restaurants and about finding romance on a steam train in the next in our series of chef interviews.

Published: February 28, 2020
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Chef director of Cafe St Honorė, Neil Forbes is descended from a long line of hospitality workers, with a family tree that dates back to the 1600s.

Originally from Pitlochry, his father was a chef at Fishers Hotel who began working - aged just fifteen.

Although they moved down south when he was five, Neil reminisces about his childhood.

"I wasn't at school yet so on dad's day off, we'd go off walking in the hills. I loved that."

The family then moved to Aldershot, then Loughborough and Hampshire following his father's work, as a lecturer in army catering.

There he taught squaddies how to jazz up rations or to cater for regimental occasions. He also won gold medals for his chocolate and pastry work at Olympia.

"Sundays would often be spent watching him make Madeira cakes, and there was always royal icing on the go, or a cake waiting for marzipan."

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Perhaps then, it was inevitable that he would follow in his father's footsteps to become a chef.

"It was always what I wanted to do, I'm lucky in a way, as not a lot of people get to do that."

What was it about cooking that appealed?

"It was wonderful things; like the feeling of being in a small kitchen, chefs whites, poached whole salmon leftovers with cucumber for scales that my dad would bring home, and good food like beef stew and dumplings or mum's mince and tatties," explains Neil.

Then he tells us about his granny's legendary Scotch barley broth, "good grief it was so good", back then Neil explains, there was a "sense of theatre involved in eating, it was a formal affair".

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He adds: "There was always a tablecloth, with thick matting underneath, to protect the table. The bowl would leave a deep imprint from the heat in the tablecloth."


The berries

His father's family hailed from Coupar Angus, and he has fond memories of guddling about in burns or going to the berry picking with his Aunty Alison.

His uncle Arthur was a butcher, so there was always venison or liver in the fridge or game lying around the place.

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He fondly recalls earning his first £10 note at the berries, stating: "I thought wow. I've just made a tenner, this is fantastic, and you could eat as much as you like."

My first job in kitchens was at Casa dei Cesari in Surrey, a privately owned Italian restaurant with rooms.

"I replied to an advert in the Aldershot News for a commis chef. It was really embarrassing as dad insisted on coming with me for the interview, but the family took me under their wings and we would even go foraging for cep mushrooms."

Senses working overtime

"I lived for a bit with my dad's father in Coupar Angus, when I worked at Ballathie House hotel. He was deaf and blind and as the nearest youngest relative I was obliged to go," explains Neil.

However, it was here the talented chef learned about what it takes to overcome hardships, explaining that even with his disabilities his grandfather cooked for himself.

"People would leave him some trout on the doorstep, and he'd be able to fillet trout with his fingers, phenomenal."

Although he tells us that breakfast was cold porridge soaked in a bowl left on the table, with no mention of sugar.

After Ballathie House hotel, he worked for a spell with David Wilson at the Michelin starred Peat Inn, also spending time at London with Karl Roederer at Manly's and Philip Britton at The Capital and John Webber at Kinnaird House, before packing up his suitcase to go and see the world.

Neil's travels coincided with the explosion in Australian fusion style which he witnessed first hand.

"I saw fish I'd never seen before, I didn't even know what to do with a stick of lemongrass.

"I went to the Whitsunday Islands, down to my last $20 dollars so I went for an agency job, I was only 22 years old in three weeks I was an executive chef! but I didn't enjoy it."

He then went to Noosa, a place north of Brisbane to an upmarket bistro where a "kind head chef" gave him a job, something he has only fond memories of.

Explaining that it's a great profession for travel and learning different things, something he believes we should encourage more.

He said: "You can go anywhere with this line of work if you put the work in. Travelling provided me with the 'kick up the arse, I needed to focus and taught me to treat my profession, with respect."

Chef director Neil Forbes. Picture: Catriona Thomson

The romance of steam

"When I came back to this country, my mate told me he had a job on the famous luxury steam train The Royal Scotsman and that he needed a sous chef, I thought I'd do it for a season until I got a proper job, I ended up doing it for three years."

Neil explains that there was nothing like it.

"We were using the freshest mackerel or langoustines from Mallaig, picking up a saddle of venison from Spean bridge, no expense spared.

"We would pipe off the passengers at a station then rush to get supplies onboard, from producers at the platform."

Neil explains that breakfast was the "hardest shift", as guests could have anything they wanted and they only had two gas burners and a little oven.

He laughs when he thinks about the first time they made lemon tarts - explaining that the custard set at an angle because they were travelling uphill.

"You have to learn to adapt the menu when you're working on a train. We had all sorts of whisks and hooks on the old rickety train to stop pots of hot boiling water from sloshing about."

Learning to adapt his cooking to fit a particular situation wasn't the only boon he gained while working on the famous train, he also met the current Mrs Chef, Sarah, during his first season where she was a stewardess, explaining with a smile that they "hit it off straight away".

Sarah is still his "soul mate" after 22 years of marriage, Neil explains that she's the boss of the family - a unit that compromises of the two of them and their two teenage sons, Oscar 18 and Louis 14, who, according to Neil have no interest in taking over the family business.

During the winter season for the RS, to learn more he spent time working at Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons with Raymond Blanc and for Michel Roux at Waterside Inn.

After an extended spell working with Nick Nairn, initially at Braeval in Aberfoyle before moving with him to Glasgow, Neil moved back to Edinburgh to work at Atrium and Blue then opened Cafe St Honorė on April's fools day in 2008.

The Parisien interior of Cafe St Honorė, Edinburgh

Cafe culture

Named after the patron saint of pastry chefs, the interior of Neil's Edinburgh restaurant is quintessentially French; conjuring up images of the belle epoque period.

Discussing their ethos, the talented chef states that they are "produce led" and buy their food direct from small scale producers, believing that '"the simplest things are the best".

He said: "Scottish produce is at the forefront of what we are and do' adding 'all ingredients have to have a story to get through the door."

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"We buy nose to tail, so whole sides of venison, half a pig, legs of beef, whole chickens, as it is more economical.

"Why import from the other side of the world when we have something equally as good here.

"Our artisan producers are now friends, these breeders and suppliers are incredible at what they do' says Neil, before adding that 'I was always aware of sustainability (as member of the slow food alliance) and I am a founding member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association now in its 11th year"

Cafe St Honorė was awarded the highest accolade of 3-star champion status in August 2012, with Neil explaining that they "play to their strengths", looking after the people, as well as the food.

Potatoes, leeks and Peterhead smoked haddock. Picture: Catriona Thomson

"I don't cook every day, I trust the guys here. Head chef Joe has been here for nearly seven years, and I just see me in him, it's his turn. He knows me better than I know myself, although it is my baby.

"Perhaps having been a chef, I always wanted to do it differently, I always felt restaurants could be run better so I'm extremely proud that our staff retention is good.

"Scotland is where I'm from, and recipe wise I'm back to that porridge or soup my granny used to make.

"I have the best job in the world' at Cafe St Honorė. There is no other profession like it, where you get to use all your senses when you are at work, sight, sound, taste, touch.

"I don't have music in the kitchen, it filters out the sound of a piece of fish sizzling in the pan or searing a scallop now that's music!"

Neil Forbes's Cullen Skink. Picture: Catriona Thomson

Cullen Skink

Put some cold-pressed rape oil into a pan and heat it up, adding a chopped onion to soften. Meanwhile, roughly dice a fillet of smoked Peterhead Haddock and set aside.

When the onions are soft and translucent add a few knobs of butter to the pan before adding a good handful of cubed raw Heritage potatoes. Stir well, before smothering in cream. Add a bay leaf and long sprig of thyme to flavour and bring to boil slowly, then allow to cook until potatoes are no longer hard for about seven minutes.


Cream flavoured by bay leaf and thyme. Picture: Catriona Thomson

Meanwhile, slice a leek lengthways and then onto smaller half-round slices and add to the pot, they will no longer squeak they are cooked, so cook for another two to four minutes. Add a good twist of pepper and Isle of Skye sea salt to season to taste.

Over a low heat leave the soup to slowly finish cooking before adding the fish towards the end. Cook again for a further few minutes, this ensures it will keep its shape but add flavour. Stir and add more milk or cream or water to thin as required, and again check the seasoning.

When finished cooking the potatoes should be soft yet hold their cubed shape.

Neil plates up into bowl sprinkling a topping made from equal parts of good quality grated cheddar cheese, breadcrumbs and chives or parsley blitzed in the food processor.

This is then popped under a hot grill and crisped until golden brown.

"A dish, guaranteed to put a smile on my face," says Neil.

Main course

Venison loin served with a kale brose

Venison loin served with a kale brose

Pour water over pinhead oats and leave to soak overnight.

Poach a banana shallot and a large carrot sliced lengthways in water with some thyme and set aside. In a shallow pan sautee a finely chopped onion until translucent then add a handful or two of the soaked oats.

Season and mix well as it tends to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add some extra water to thin and thicken oats slowly. To finish the brose, add blanched chopped kale and a knob of butter then treat as a risotto near the end of cooking.

Heat another pan with rapeseed oil, Neil then adds some beef fat which they collect in house. He then sears and bastes the loin of venison from Burnside farm in the Scottish Borders on all sides.  Season well with salt and pepper.

Once the meat is coloured to perfection it is put in the oven to roast before it is rested. While this happens the carrot and shallot which were set aside previously are placed cut side down with some more butter in the pan with the venison juices.

The plate is ready to be dressed, a dollop of kale brose with shallot and carrot artistically balanced on top. The venison loin is sliced carefully and the meat placed in an arc at one side, which is then surrounded by a tasty gravy. Both dishes are now ready for us to test.

The Verdict

The Cullen Skink, I'm obsessed with its sweet smoky notes and the differing textures, potatoes cooked to perfection, cubes of smoked Haddock and ladles of creamy goodness lingered tantalisingly on my palate.

Venison with kale brose and vegetables, succulent slices of venison, submerged in a reduction which was both rich and velvety smooth were divine. The accompanying vegetables, sweet caramelised carrot and shallots, flavoured with garlic and thyme were perfect.

While the Kale Brose adding a carb fuelled ballast to the dish. The hardest decision was deciding what to load onto the fork next, simply Scotland on a plate.

Under the grill: Quick Q & A with Neil

Describe your cooking style? and why are you passionate about it? Traditional, French-inspired fusion etc.

“My restaurant may have a French name but it’s firmly based in Scotland, we serve classic dishes using ingredients from local, small-scale producers. I believe it's so important to support these hard-working artisans that produce, grow, breed and harvest some of the finest produce in the world, and we show it off to all the people who come to eat with us.

"I want to pass on skills to the younger generation of chefs, to show them that sustainable, organic food with provenance is hugely important - for flavour, for our community and the wellbeing of us all.”

What was your first job in the industry? Plus where were you before?

“Wow, that was a long time ago! Almost 35 years ago in Surrey called Casa Dei Cesari, a fabulous Italian restaurant run by a wonderful family with a larger-than-life head chef called Alfred Wagner. He took me on, straight from school and took me under his wing.

"I always wanted to be a chef, like my dad, uncle and gran who were all chefs, so I suppose it was inevitable.

"I always wanted to work in the best places and I think I have achieved that. I have a long list of places that I’ve worked at including; The Peat Inn, Kinnaird, The Royal Scotsman train, Le Manoir with Raymond Blanc, The Waterside Inn with Michel Roux, Braeval in Aberfoyle with Nick Nairn, then Nairns in Glasgow before heading to Edinburgh's Atrium and Blue for 11 years.

"And there are so many more with lots of travelling in Australia and New Zealand thrown in. It's now lovely to have a place like Cafe St Honorė which is a great place to eat and spend a few hours enjoying life.”

Favourite spice? And what dish/recipe would you suggest using it in? ? 

“I adore using vibrant saffron in a paella at home on my day off, or star anise in a cucumber pickle, or fennel seeds in the bacon that we make at the restaurant - it really does make a massive difference to the flavour.

"Although cinnamon bark infused into a sweet custard which can be turned into a rich and decadent ice-cream is pretty special.”

Are you sweet or sour? So is it all peace and harmony in your kitchen or do the pots and pans fly? What little things annoy you?

“Am I a shouty chef? Not at all, I’m a cook who would never shout, sometimes to raise an eyebrow is enough. A quiet word after service is what to do and if someone makes a mistake, solve the problem and move on. We are all human.”

“One thing I can’t stand is tardiness, don’t turn up to work late. I find it so rude.”

What is popular in your kitchen right now? 

“Right now it's wild garlic, a wonderful ingredient which can be foraged quite easily in lots of areas around Edinburgh, we buy ours from 'Forager Ben’. It’s a very welcome green colour, and fabulous flavour, after a long winter.

"It grows right through spring and it is beautiful, wilted in a pan with some butter, spinach, salt and pepper, or turned into a pesto with cheese, nuts and oil. Simple. Great in a pasta dish at home and it keeps brilliantly well.”

Tea or Coffee? Is it Darjeeling darling or bitter Colombian? What's your brew and how you like to drink it? Camomile, Milky brew or builders elaborate, please?

“I adore a good, strong coffee, after a great meal I love, love, love a large espresso. But first thing in the morning the chaps front of house make us chefs a coffee each which is a bit like a flat white I guess. Artisan Roast is our coffee supplier and has been for many years.

"They make the very best coffee in town. But if I’m having a tea, it has to be a builder's cuppa, with a tiny hint of sugar and a splash of milk. I don’t do fancy tea, it's just not my idea of enjoyment or a nice taste. I know it's a very personal thing, but some are like drinking perfume and it’s just not for me. Like a cocktail, also not for me”

Everyone has one at least one guilty food pleasure, so what do you love but are too embarrassed to admit?

“You want me to tell my secrets? Ok then, I like a fish finger sandwich. But there must be lots of butter on the bread, good bread. Oh, I love butter, really love it. I can’t imagine life without it. Have you ever tasted margarine? Yeah, I did once too….”

Who is your favourite chef? Plus everyone has a food hero/ local supplier, who is yours and why? 

“There are so many chefs that I admire for many reasons. The one that springs to mind is Fergus Henderson of St. John fame, the style of food he has cooked and created over the years is incredibly tasty. Whenever I’m in London I'll eat either at St. John or his other place, Bread and Wine.

"No poncy food, just proper food, no micro-herbs or pretty little plates of food, just good produce and magnificent flavours. And wonderful wines and loving service, go!

"I do admire the younger generation of chefs opening up their own places in Edinburgh and doing well, like Scott Smith at Fhior, and Stuart Ralston at Aizle and Noto. Also, all the new generation chefs who are cooking in that Nordic way, but using produce local to them, some clever people out there.”

Fantasy dinner party guests? and what would you cook for them?

“I love this game it would be Monty Don, Marco-Pierre White, Prince Charles, Nigella Lawson, Andrea Corr and Steve Coogan.

"I would cook a steaming bowl of Cullen Skink, served with Cafe's sourdough bread, followed by roast venison with a black pudding potato cake, kale with butter, and Cafe's bacon. Then classic glazed organic lemon tart with Katy Rodger's crème fraîche. Simple and elegant.”

I don't like...or I'd rather not eat......

“I don’t like any prepacked or processed foods, like a shop-bought lasagne or a ready meal. They are so bad. Is it really so hard to make an omelette or a toasted cheese sandwich? I know people work long hours, but not knowing where my food comes from is a real fear of mine! Cooking is and should be fun, never a chore.

"We feed our children (surely?) with the best we can find and afford not because it's quick and easy. The option now to get food delivered to your front door from all the fast food places is frightening. Bring back cookery in schools and a love for our food, our food history and culture, and all the producers that make the food for our tables.”

Cafe St Honoré

34 North Thistle Lane
Edinburgh EH2 1EA

(0131 226 2211)


Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.

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