It’s almost exactly a year since Nick and Julia Nairn’s restaurant, Nick’s on Henderson Street in Bridge of Allan, was gutted by a fire.
They’ll be taking staff out for a meal to mark the date of August 28, which was hugely traumatic for the close-knit team.
The blaze was caused by a faulty piece of kitchen equipment and, although it was a Saturday night at 8pm and the restaurant was packed, they managed to evacuate in minutes, so nobody was hurt.
“The guys did everything right,” says celebrity chef Nick, 63, who was the youngest Scottish chef to win a Michelin star, back in 1991, with Braeval near Aberfoyle. “The team had lightning reactions, they probably saved lives,” adds Julia, 53.
According to the couple, many of the diners tried to pay for their meals after escaping the smoke-filled dining room.
“That’s Bridge of Allan for you”, says Nick, who grew up in the community-minded area.
The couple were at his other restaurant, Nick’s at Port of Menteith, which is about 18 miles away, at the time of the fire, though they headed straight to the site as the disaster unfolded.
“From that first panicked phone call from the general manager, when we got there all the staff were hugging on the street and nobody could believe it, everyone was shell shocked,” says Julia. “Because they left keys and phones, many of the staff stayed with us for three or four days, everyone reliving the things they remember from the night”.
Currently, Nick’s on Henderson Street is being reconstructed, and is due to open towards the end of 2022, or the beginning of 2023. Originally, they thought the restaurant would reopen by Christmas 2021, but things don’t move that fast in the current climate.
“Because of the uncertainties over supplies and shortages in commodities and labour, nobody wants to commit to a date,” says Nick.
When they eventually open the doors, it’ll have a slightly different look.
“We’re going to get a fabby new kitchen,” says Nick.
“Pat Renson Interiors in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge helped us hugely. We’re going to do something different, there’s no point going back. We want to have something light, airy and bright - contemporary Scottish”, adds Julia. “We know what works now”.
They’ve also appointed a new executive chef, Stephen Crawford, formerly of Monachyle Mhor and Six by Nico. He is currently trialling dishes for the impending re-launch. “Locals are in for a treat,” says Julia.
The Nick Nairn Cook School, which was flooded in 2021, is also due to reopen at Port of Menteith later this year.
It’s not been the best couple of years for the resilient couple. However, Nick’s navigated tricky times before, with the six-year-old Aberdeen Cook School closing down in 2018, and its accompanying pizza restaurant shutting in 2021.
“It would be easy to lay your head down and say it doesn't matter what we do, we're just gonna get stuffed at every turn. But we've always tried to look at the positive side of whatever it’s been - fire, flood or lockdown. We’re into the fourth crisis now, and it could potentially be bigger than anything - the cost of living for customers but also the price of running a business,” says Nick. “For instance, a month ago, lemon sole was £15 a kilo, while two weeks ago, it was £30 pounds a kilo. How are you meant to absorb that? Our energy bill here was £8000 a year, and it’s gone up to £24000”.
Despite this, Nick’s at Port of Menteith, where the focus is outdoor dining, has been doing incredibly well - “we sometimes don’t believe it, because we’re in the middle of nowhere”, says Nick - and Julia has set up a popular homeware shop on site.
They’ve also invested in a butchery unit in Bridge of Allan, to process their own meat and hopefully produce sauces.
Their new kitchen garden at Port of Menteith has also been a labour of love. It features raised beds and a huge polytunnel.
“That seemed frighteningly cavernous when I started and now there's barely a free square foot,” Nick says.
This chef has become something of the Monty Don of Stirling, taking his two-year-old Labrador, Blue, along to the outdoor space, which rather poignantly has a view out to where his dad is buried on the Nairn family’s small estate.
“He was a really avid gardener, and I can hear him in my head when I’m feeding the tomatoes, telling me to make sure that I give them plenty”, says Nick.
While he grows produce, Julia is in charge of flowers, and has grown some from cuttings taken from Nick’s mum’s garden. They top the tables at the restaurant. The couple, who’ve been married for three years, spend every free moment in their outdoor idyll.
Yesterday, Nick was tending and harvesting the leaves, some of which may be served in the restaurant’s “25 yard salad”, which includes a vinaigrette made from their own honey. He has planted root vegetables, spinach, cabbages and broccoli for winter, and their broad beans are thriving.
“Cucumbers have been a big success too”, he says. “I've got my own compost mulch. I can get farmyard manure quite cheaply. And I mix it up with ordinary peat free compost. I add vermiculite and sand and fish and bone. It's rocket fuel for plants”.
How did he learn all this stuff? “On the internet,” he says.
The green shoots could be a metaphor for the Nairn’s recovering businesses. However, before they open again, there’s a special meal to plan.