Set in the beautiful Scottish Borders, Windlestraw is a small hotel with big ambitions, it offers guests exclusive five-star luxury courtesy of the hands-on owners. They ensure that the front of house experience is matched in the kitchen by chef, Stuart Waterson.
Key to that is an inventive ever-changing set menu, that sees Stuart create a fine dining experience for guests and non-residents alike, that features the best seasonal produce the region has to offer.
At Windlestraw they are passionate about provenance and sustainability and have ground to plate ethos which supports both the environment as well as the local community.
As a local lad, Stuart, known as Stu, was brought up in Innerleithen, and his childhood involved plenty of outdoor pursuits; football, rugby, fishing, hunting, and ferreting, and he'd often be found about the river Tweed, swimming in the summer, or salmon fishing in the winter, "so the full-on country living experience" he explains.
"It was a family joke that mum could burn anything" however his father was a good cook and a hunter, so there was always a "freezer full of salmon or venison, and the opportunity to do local trades with other game enthusiasts."
Stu said: "Dad was a passionate cook, and there was always a lot of food around, as everyone is a big eater in our family and we like to have big gatherings.
From a very young age, I was aware of the full food process involved with wild animals, so if we shot a rabbit we would skin and butcher it. That knowledge has stayed with me and as I get older I still find it very thrilling."
As a teen in high school, he was keen on science and biology, but became a little wild and was expelled in his sixth year. So that, he says "curtailed any grand plans of going to Uni."
As a young man, he was desperate to leave the Borders and make the move to the capital, where he initially worked in Pizza Hut before doing a whole series of jobs from bacon slicer to bouncer.
Then aged 25, he worked in the kitchens at the Hard Rock cafe Edinburgh where the, "Party hard, work hard, play hard" mentality appealed and it was here where he met and fell in love with his now-wife. He admits: " I'm very lucky that it happened."
Stu said. "It could be horribly stressful with 1000 covers and only five or six chefs in the kitchen, but from this point onwards, this was all I wanted to do. The head chef there firmly believed that you were only paid to do things once and that was how I approached my work."
After a series of moves to different small pubs, where perhaps his inexperience showed, he tried to introduce big changes.
Stu explains, " I'd get into trouble for rocking the boat, I wanted more than average standards and I wasn't willing to compromise, it made me doubt myself. Is what I am doing right?"
It got to the stage where he was so unhappy, and he wanted to make a forward step, so he took " a proper cheffing job" at Dakota South Queensferry. Stu said "I threw myself into it," and he recalled his interview with Executive Chef Marc Robertson, who explained 'this is not a job, it's a lifestyle.'
The job at Dakota, was a "fantastic thing, incredibly professional. It made me learn more, think more, and become more as a cook. It was the biggest kitchen I had ever worked in, with maybe eight chefs as well as kitchen porters."
When we asked him about working alongside Dakota's Head Chef, Matthew Budge, Stu said "he was the hardest working guy I've ever met, a machine.
"His parents live on a farm out at Eyemouth but after work and weekends, he would go back and help them on the farm, when all I could think about would be lying on the floor."
At Dakota, Stu said: "they were into ingredients big time, we would have ten different types of potatoes and there would be an individual Blanche time for each variety to make the perfect chip. I used wild mushrooms for the first time, and the best Scottish lobster and shellfish "
Then the next step on his career path came with a move to Aizle, which "really blew me away" said Stu, "the ideas that Stuart Ralston, would develop there were amazing and he woke me up to all of it, opened my eyes, put me on a completely different path, to search for real balance on the plate. He is a close friend and I still stay in touch with him."
However, he couldn't resist a return to the Borders to work at Osso in Peebles after Neve his daughter was born. "I have a lot of respect for Ally McGrath and his team there, his standards are high and he would get through a prep list like a machine, and he saw working hard as a badge of honour ."
Throughout his career, Stu has been influenced by chefs he has worked alongside, and he said "all those guys showed me different aspects of hard work."
When Stu made the move to Windlestraw he finally felt he was "ready to really do my own thing." He has now been there for five years but still wants to improve.
"I might not be a craftsman with 20 years experience perfecting my craft, but where I know there are gaps in my knowledge, and I pursue these gaps."
A driven perfectionist, he said, "I never make a mistake more than once, if I have ( in my mind) a poor service I want to do it again to succeed."
He enjoys the pressure of fine dining cookery, and he said, "there is no hiding, no covering anything, with the style and level that I attempt to cook at. I'm on my own in the kitchen and if I'm feeling down, then it's just me and four walls really."
"I want to do the best that I can possibly do, and I'm not happy unless I do. It is a good pressure which has pushed me to refine, as, at Windlestraw, the dishes are really under a microscope. "
Stu finds working with passionate owners, John & Sylvia Matthews "is the best thing for the business, a fantastic thing. They expect the best, and I can see all the effort they have put into Windlestraw."
The owners have spent a lifetime in hospitality and the world of high finance, and in John's own words "been around the world." But five years ago a return to the UK and Scotland in particular for family reasons, saw the couple looking forward to relaxing into semi-retirement.
However, those plans were soon dashed they were tempted by the charms and the business potential of a beautiful Borders property, an Edwardian home called Windlestraw.
A property has real a wow factor, and the couple has lavished every care and attention to redevelop this grade two listed building ever since.
This magnificent Edwardian manor was originally the family home of John King Ballantyne, mill owner and son of Henry Ballantyne, founder of Walkerburn.
The house was built in 1906 as a wedding present for his fiance, Hilda Moritz and was designed by architect J B Dunn of Dunn & Findlay.
The house has now been sympathetically renovated with modern facilities while maintaining its historical features. The gardens have been replanted, and the greenhouse and kitchen garden reinstated, the entire place can sleep a maximum of 12 people in six rooms but currently due to COVID this has been further reduced to four rooms.
But what makes this place really stand out is the top-notch service from the hands-on couple, owner John adds, "100 per cent the personal touch."
The couple extremely passionate about the area and are keen to do whatever they can to promote the Scottish Borders, and champion it because it is a "hidden gem with huge potential, " adding " What has it not got? "
The couple are thrilled by the number of guests, who choose to return to stay with them again, and are challenging everyone to visit the Borders and find out just how good it is.
Windlestraw has been fortunate with accolades but Stu explains "it is nice to get external recognition in terms of awards, but I know what I am doing is a high standard, which is good enough for me day to day, knowing that I've fulfilled my potential."
When he made the move to Windlestraw, admits spending a bit more time with his children was the main driving force, "to be a father first and a chef second" Stu said.
His two children Neve (6) and James (4) are his world, and he explains how lucky he is that:" they eat almost anything, and we don't do kids' food in our house, they love whole roasted fish and there is always a fight for the fish eyes."
Lockdown coincided with Stu taking on an allotment, he said " I'd never grown anything before lockdown. "
However he has clearly been bitten by the gardening bug and has thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, growing produce, which include tomatoes, spinach, courgettes, kale, edible flowers, mangetout, broccoli, carrots and turnips. Some of his bumper harvests have made it onto the guests' plates.
Next year he is keen to expand the kitchen garden at the hotel, "you can't beat the taste of homegrown produce," he said.
Lockdown also saw Stu put his skills to good use becoming involved in Food Hugs, a community initiative, which makes around 60 meals for those people who were shielding or vulnerable in some other way.
He set up the Tweed Valley Cooks, a community Facebook page that aims to share knowledge, resources and recipes, and they hope to create a fundraising recipe book.
Stu thrived on the community spirit during lockdown, and says "normally I'm pretty lazy and will happily sit on a sofa, but I'm good in a crisis, if something needs to be done, then lets go and do it."
"We are a small village of 700 people but people really stepped up and that was mirrored across The Borders and Scotland and it's really important."
“I would say modern Scottish with some traditional touches, I like to source ideas from old Scottish and game cookbooks and implement them in my menus. In Scotland, we have some of the best produce in the world and some of the best game is here in the Scottish borders. There is no better feeling, as a chef than working with the freshest of seasonal produce that comes from local suppliers.”
“I have been in and out of the industry since I was seventeen doing everything from flipping burgers and making pizzas in big chains to kitchen portering in small pubs but I would say my first chef job was at Dakota South Queensferry when I was 28.
"The guys in there were amazing, real hard-working professionals and cooking done right in my opinion! They taught me loads about the job and about myself.
"My time there changed my life. From Dakota, I was lucky enough to move on to Aizle with Stuart Ralston. Being part of the opening team at Aizle was a fantastic but daunting experience! Stuart and the job there really set me on the path I am on now.
"My time at Aizle opened my eyes to a different level of cooking and I'll never forget when I started Stuart's idea of rustic was my idea of stratospheric!”
“Allspice and myrtle, maybe a bit of an odd choice but I love it. I use the myrtle leaves in sauces and brines, especially for pork, and the ground allspice in my meat rubs for my braises and brines and as part of seasoning for crisps on my game dishes.
However, my favourite use is to combine allspice with smoked oil to help season my venison tartare, the depth of flavour is fantastic.”
“I am usually in the kitchen on my own so a bit of both as I can be very hard on myself to produce my best. I like to treat others the way I like to be treated, friendly, and respectful however I have been known to be very direct when necessary.”
“When people say they can't find something without taking the proper time to look.”
“Game! Local game is always popular at Windlestraw and never far from the menu, from rabbit to venison, and everything in between our game dishes pair so well with the produce from the kitchen garden and my allotment.
"At the moment we have coronation rabbit to start and Roe loin with kitchen garden blackcurrants, parsnip, Scottish girolles, and allotment greens on as a main.”
“Tea, I gave up coffee a year ago so nothing beats a cup of Scottish blend at work, especially when I get to it before the tea is stone cold haha.
"At home, I like loose leaf tea and have a few different ones. My favorite is a blend called Blue lady from Pekoe tea in Edinburgh. It has grapefruit and marigold flowers in it so great in the morning after the kids have gone to school.”
“Nothing I am too embarrassed to admit but I do love a good burger and have a slight obsession with chilli sauces which combine perfectly. Oh and cheese keep me away from your cheese!”
“I don't really have a favorite chef but I do have a list of restaurants I would love to visit such as Inver, The Cellar, The Kitchin and many more in Scotland so who knows maybe I'll have a favorite chef after I've been to a few of these restaurants.”
“As for my local food hero it would have to be Dougie and the team at Tweed valley venison the locality and quality of produce is second to none, the roe deer that they supply us with is the best I've ever had in my life. Butchered in the morning, delivered in the afternoon and on the plate by the evening, just as it should be.”
“My dinner party would be cooking on an open fire somewhere near the coast with my friends and family cooking some lovely fresh-caught fish and shellfish, allotment veggies and baked potatoes. Sadly this is more of a fantasy than a reality for me and a lot of people in the hospitality industry because of the hours that go into creating top-class dining experiences but I'm not complaining it's a joy to create dishes that excite our customers at Windlestraw.”