Scott Smith, head chef at Sugar boat, Helensburgh tells Catriona Thomson about his chip shop past, cooking in London Michelin starred restaurants and about coming home to Scotland.

In a quiet corner of Colquhoun Square in Helensburgh is a local neighbourhood bistro called Sugarboat – named after a famous local landmark, the shipwrecked hulk of the MV Captayannis.

Known locally as the ‘sugar boat’, it was a Greek-owned ship which sank in 1974 off the Helensburgh coastline in the Firth of Clyde.

This stylish eaterie is the latest solo project for Will Smith, an experienced London restaurateur who co-owned not one, but two, Michelin starred restaurants in London; Wild Honey in Mayfair and Arbutus in Soho, which he ran with his business partner chef-patron, Anthony Demetre.

The talented pair pioneered the ‘Bistronomy’ movement in London, but two years ago he made the decision to branch out on his own and tackle a new challenge, relocating with his wife to Helensburgh.

Also returning with him to Scotland was his head chef, Scott Smith, who had previously worked with him in London. Will firmly believes that Scott has a culinary talent to watch out for.

Since opening, they have picked up a slew of accolades, and have twice been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand award; although not a star (yet), Bibs awards highlight restaurants ‘which offer good quality, good value cooking.’

They have also been named as AA’s Scottish Restaurant of the Year 2019.

• READ MORE: Scotland’s Restaurant of the Year has been named at the twenty-second annual AA Hospitality Awards

Interior of Sugar boat, in Helensburgh. Picture: Sugar boat

Growing up

We talked to head chef Scott to find out what it feels like returning to his west coast roots, originally from Oban, he is keen to sing the town’s praises, he told us: “I loved Oban, I still love it, such a great place when the weather is good.”

Although his parents separated when he was about five, his time was split between his mum and stepdad, and the rest of week spend with his father, he explains the benefits: “It wasn’t all bad. I had two bedrooms, two of everything plus two Sega mega drives.”

Food though was a separate issue.

“My mum was a dreadful cook, chopped up red pepper with everything, she had seven or eight dishes, although she’s a bit better nowadays. Dad used to be a butcher, so he’s not a bad cook.”

His dad still works for an electrical company with his older brother. Scott admits he’d probably have joined them as an electrician if he hadn’t discovered his talent for cuisine.

Nduja cabbage. Picture: Catriona Thomson

Frying tonight

As a teen, he had a dream job working in the local chip shop, Nories. It is a local institution which is run by the third generation of the family, which Scott tells us, “will be there forever”.

He worked in the backroom loading potatoes into the rumbler, (a machine to remove the skin) but he said: “I would take my wages in potatoes. I loved the chippy but I was never allowed to make the batter.”

Then he tells us that his favourite dish was a smoked sausage supper, accompanied by just salt, adding: “I don’t like vinegar.”

The reason, he once spilt undiluted industrial strength vinegar on a tray of haddock and it instantly cured.

“I got my arse kicked for that.”

Even now at Sugar boat, his chip shop past comes in handy wrapping up parcels for diners, he tells us: ” that back then, we used real newspaper, the Oban Times obviously.”

After working weekends initially he became a full-time member of the kitchen team at a local hotel Manor House, initially a kitchen porter or pot washer.

His least favourite job was cleaning cafetieres, and he shudders at the memory: “I came to realise there is not a person alive who can eat breakfast without making a mess.”

The sous chef there was called Sean, he had worked in Jersey and at Claridge’s in London, Scott said: “He got me into cooking, and he convinced me to pursue it further, I’m still in touch with him.

“He’s not cooking anymore but he introduced me to the likes of Anton Mosimann, Jean-Christophe Novelli. He let me borrow books. He pushed me to get out of Oban, he is the reason I moved to Glasgow.”

Head chef xxx from xxx in his kitchen. Picture: TSPL

Stone bass, braised fennel, fish velouté, hazelnuts. Picture: Sugar boat

Glasgow’s miles better

After a while he moved to Cail Bruich in Glasgow, working as a commis chef. He would start work at ten in the morning. During those two hours he would have to make and prove dough for bread rolls, make canapés and amuse-bouche, before assembling petit fours then preparing ‘mise en place.’

After a short break, he would then work until 10 pm, he tells us that: “It was a mental amount of work for two chefs, now, I don’t think it could be done.”

The three AA Rosette-awarded restaurant Cail Bruich was owned by Charalambous family, Chris the son was the head chef and Scott explains he learned so much from him: “He was always reading and then teaching me.

“I learned all the fundamentals of cooking from him. In particular quality and consistency – I was young, it was easy, I was having fun, learning.

“Chris was a lovely guy, never short-tempered, he’d never push you too far. He was working harder, driving you to keep up. There was never needless stress or pressure.

“I have the same mentality now, I might be top of the chain but I really push myself harder to set an example to others, you want people to chase you and outdo you.”

Mots

In the Kitchen at Sugar boat, Picture: Catriona Thomson

London calling

In 2011 after four years in Glasgow, he met a girl from London and he felt it was time to move down south and see what else was out there, saying: “I didn’t think too much about it I just did it.”

He went to work in the Michelin starred restaurant Pollen Street which was run by star chef Jason Atherton, Scott said: “I just sent a CV, then flew down for a trial and back up to Cail Bruich for the next day’s service.”

The experience was a real eye-opener Scott said: “It was dreadful, I guess ignorance is bliss.

“I didn’t know what to expect. There were around 12 chefs and I worked with the fish chef, garnishing. Days would start at 6 am and could finish at 1 am the following morning, I’d never seen anything like it.

“It was nerve-wracking, although Jason was there every day, it wasn’t fun I didn’t enjoy it.”

After six months of this job, he explained that he wanted to go back to Scotland, stating that he was “very tired”.

He admitted to a really close friend that he was struggling, admitting: “I can’t do this, this is brutal.”

His friend put him in touch with Wild honey’s head chef who talked him around into giving it another go.

Starstruck

Chef-patron Anthony Demetre was the driving force in the Wild Honey kitchen and Will Smith (Scott’s boss now) worked in front of house.

The difference between these places Scott said was incredible, both Michelin starred restaurants within two minutes walk of each other, with a different mentality in the kitchen, a different style of food.

“Jason Atherton was famous, while Anthony flew under the radar with well established fine dining and flawless food.”

After working at Wild Honey he was promoted to her sister restaurant, Arbutus which he describes as “a big monster bistro,” it featured Will’s winelist and Anthony’s food.

When he was working here, Scott would chat to Will about Scotland and they got to know each other a little better. Although he loved working at Arbutus, he knew that he needed a change.

Interior of Sugar boat, Helensburgh. Picture: Sugar boat

Primrose Hill

So he headed to Odette’s in Primrose Hill, which is run and owned by chef patron Bryn Williams who has worked beside food greats such as Marco Pierre White at The Criterion, Michel Roux Jnr at Le Gavroche before moving to open Galvin at Windows with Chris Galvin himself.

Scott admires everything about Bryan’s classic style of cooking, which he explains as being old school French but interpreted in a clever way. He adds “He is probably the most organised man I’ve met in my life.

“A caring person who wouldn’t dream of coming into the kitchen without shaking your hand or giving you a hug and Sharleen Spiteri, his wife is lovely.”

However, Will provided him with the perfect opportunity to return to Scotland Scott said: “It was time to come home, to find my own identity and style.”

• READ MORE: In the kitchen: Kaori Simpson of Harajuku Kitchen, Edinburgh

Sweet success

The Sugar boat ethos is simple, Scott explains: “There is no pretence with what we do, we cook a bit of food, if it is lovely we stick it on the menu.

“We do not want to compromise on quality, everything is fresh, proper. We don’t cut corners, we try not to buy in ready-made food, we prefer to make our own.”

The team have changed things a lot since they first opened, they now serve breakfasts and lunches, adapting to provide local customers with what they want.

Scott said: “sometimes it feels if we run two different places, but we need to remember that this is a little town on the west coast of Scotland.”

However, it is vitally important to him that his kitchen brigade are happy and “don’t feel bullied” or “dread coming into work.”

He likes to lead by example, just like other the chefs he has worked for in the past, saying that if it gets busy he just gets “stuck in”.

However, it is during dinner a la carte service that the real magic happens.

“That’s when Will and I really apply ourselves.”

He still thinks that he has a lot to learn, he said: “I’m still in the kitchen quite a lot, I only live two minutes away which has its advantages.”

With two such passionate and talented people at the helm, we are sure this bistro will continue to taste sweet success.

• READ MORE: In the kitchen: Fred Berkmiller of restaurant L’escargot blanc, Edinburgh

Main Course

Beef bavette steak, ox shin and beef dripping boulangère served with Nduja cabbage. Picture: Catriona Thomson

Beef bavette steak, ox shin and beef dripping boulangère served with Nduja cabbage

Today Scott delighted to be showcasing some of Scotland’s finest beef, which he states “is fabulous”.

“Our wild food is glorious, from mushrooms to foraged herbs, and our game is really, really, good whilst our shellfish is second to none.”

He first salts the flank steak bavette (French butchers refer to it as bavette, which means “bib”) and then seared for around six minutes in sunflower oil, before adding three knobs of butter and two fat garlic cloves and couple of springs of thyme and rosemary to baste and flavour the meat.

The meat is then roasted slowly so as not to stress the meat. Probed to about 52-53 degrees. It then rests for at least the same time it was cooked for.

Plating up the dish. Picture Catriona Thomson.

Meanwhile, Scott selects a slice of pre-cooked boulangère. This is made from alternating layers of thin-sliced potato and ox shin all held together and flavoured by thyme and butter.

It’s baked and chilled and pressed overnight before being portioned for use in the kitchen the next day. It is now fried in beef dripping.

“Takes me back to my chip shop days,” says Scott.

Warm the pre-made carrot puree, in a small pan. In another pan heat the beef jus, with some stock and the garlic cloves. This provides a delicious gravy.

Warm the premade Nduja, which consists of 60 per cent chilli 50 per cent cured pork and compliments meat really well with a bit of a kick. In a stainless steel bowl, add shallot and tomato to the thinly sliced crisp cabbage and mix the Nduja to coats shredded leaves.

Finally, its plated beside the pass the warmed carrot goes on the plate first with boulangère placed on its side and bavette sliced and carefully arranged.

The garlic beef jus and garlic is poured over the meat and the cabbage spice mix goes on top. Then the toasted buckwheat is scattered on the carrot puree for added texture.

Dessert

Ecclefechan tart, with clotted cream created by head chef Scott Smith at Sugarboat, Helensburgh.

For the sweet pastry:

Mix all dry ingredients together, flour, icing sugar, cornflour and cold butter then add an egg and work into a pastry, once formed, stop working the pastry immediately. Wrap and chill in the fridge. Once the pastry has rested bring out the fridge and roll on a lightly floured surface as thin as you dare.

Place in a tart ring and work into the edges very gently to make sure there are no cracks or holes. Chill again in the fridge.

Pierce the pastry case with a fork and blind bake for 25 minutes at 170 degrees. Bake again until golden brown. Seal any small cracks with beaten egg yolk wash, whilst warm.

While the tart case is baking get the filling ready.

Add the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, currants, raisins, golden raisins, mixed peel, mixed spice, walnuts and breadcrumbs.

Place the butter, sugar and syrup in a pan, warm gently to dissolve the sugar. Whisk to ensure the sugar is dissolved and the butter is emulsified. Add the whisky to the caramel and stir.

Add the caramel mix to the dry mix and coat dried fruit well. Add four eggs one at a time and stir well. Once all the eggs are mixed in, fill the case with the mixture and bake for 25 minutes.

Allow to cool entirely, before trimming and portioning the tart and plating

The last touch of decoration is a quenelle of clotted cream and it’s off out over the pass, to the table for me to taste.

The Verdict

There are complex flavours combinations, in the beef course but I think this dish works well, packing layers of flavoursome tastes. Slices of tender bavette beef, uniformly pink with a depth of taste added from the stock and crisp texture from the shredded cabbage with a heat kick from Nduja.

The delicious with deep-fried ox shin boulangère could easily be a meal in itself – it has Scott revisiting his chippy days.

“Well it is Scotland after all,”  he exclaims.

The thyme and tarragon-infused sweet carrots tasted like silk. Sweet fruit mixed spice in the Ecclefechan tart and mixed peel add a certain elegance to the mix, and the pastry is light.

Will Smith the owner of Sugarboat made the mistake of taking this classic off the menu, and Scott was secretly pleased with the local rebellion which was instigated by his tasty take on a traditional recipe.

Under the grill: Quick Q & A with Scott

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

My style is mostly traditional; for example, slow-cooking, braising, or confiting. I think that it shows great skill being able to cook an entire dish, just right, in one pot.

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

“My first job was as a kitchen porter in a local hotel in Oban, where I was brought up, while I was still at school. I later went on to become a commis chef when I left school at the same hotel.

“I also worked in a chip shop at the time, which I loved. Before I moved to Sugarboat I worked at Odette’s in London under Chef Bryn Williams.”

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

Currently I really like using a Togarashi spice mix (chilli, Sancho, orange peel, black sesame, white sesame, ground ginger, nori seaweed, and poppyseed), and we use it in our coley dish, which is served with a spiced fish soup and homemade crisps that are seasoned with the Togarashi.

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?

I am mostly very calm in the kitchen, I like to pull my weight and share the workload with the rest of the team, I don’t like to see someone struggling or under any needless pressure. Sometimes the stress can get the better of me, but I tend to go more silent rather than shouting and screaming.

“We just put our heads down and pull through. I get a little annoyed at the pass when we run out of something due to being unprepared.

What is popular in your kitchen right now? 

N’duja. Always. The other chefs and I love it. It has become a bit of a running joke now that every new dish has to have nduja in it somewhere.

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?

Coffee. Double espresso is the only way to go.

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

I don’t have any guilty pleasures, although people think that my love for Greggs stretches a bit too far. And I also quite like a bit of bread with cheese on it, microwaved.

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

Fergus Henderson is my favourite chef, he transformed the way modern British chefs look at food and ingredients. I advise all young chefs that come into Sugarboat to buy a copy of Nose To Tail.

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

Keith Moon from The Who, Fergus Henderson, and Alex Ferguson. We would have a slow braised lamb shoulder with rosemary roast potatoes, and charred hispi cabbage.

I don’t like…or I’d rather not eat….

Fois gras, it’s something I’ve never acquired the taste for.

Sugarboat

30 Colquhoun Square
Helensburgh G84 8AQ 

(01436 647 522)

About The Author

Catriona Thomson

Catriona picture edits The Scotsman magazine and Scotland On Sunday, aswell as reviewing restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writing for Scotsman Food and Drink.

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