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Under the Grill: Lorna McNee head chef at Cail Bruich, Glasgow

Published: December 7, 2020
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Although she may small in stature, chef Lorna McNee is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Brimming with steely determination and a natural competitive spirit, which means she is always aiming for great heights and striving to be the best.

Currently, there is a buzz around the West Coast food scene with chefs setting out their stalls gunning for a Michelin star for Glasgow.

At Cail Bruich, Lorna McNee is aiming for rather than actively chasing stars, having taken up a head chef role for the first time.

Her formidable culinary talents have been forged out of years of hard work at Gleneagles, where she started out as an apprentice before working her way up to senior sous chef, working alongside both Andrew Fairlie and Stevie Mclaughlin at the two-star Restaurant Andrew Fairlie.

How a lass from a little village outside Forres, has become one of the best chefs of her generation is quite a remarkable story.

Lorna explains how it all came about, saying: "my mum is not a good cook and dad probably doesn't have the best diet - pie and beans are what you are looking at. No one in my family is a good cook if I'm honest, I'm probably the only one."

Lorna's dad is a lorry driver while her mum works in an accounts department, and although she has two older sisters, neither of them have gone down a culinary career path.

"I don't really remember anything much of food growing up, apart from every Sunday we would have to have a roast, that was the rule in the house and everyone had to sit at the table, but there was nothing fancy about it," she said.

One of Lorna's dishes from Cail Bruich

Game plate

Lorna wasn't really academic, she said: "school for me was all about socialising with my friends." Although she wanted to study photography in Aberdeen, she wasn't accepted on the course.

She explained: "I liked the thought of art and the thought of photography, and it was disappointing not to get in. I thought, what am I meant to do now.

"It was the only thing I was interested in, but I wasn't really driven and I didn't really know what to do with myself after that."

Career choice

Luckily another career presented itself; Lorna was already working in the kitchen of a local restaurant, "as a pot wash or kp, so I kind of got roped into it that way," she said.

The family-run place where she worked served authentic Italian or Mediterranean cuisine. The head chef was from Sicily so there were lots of grilled seafood and meat, but also lots of pasta dishes on the menu.

Lorna explains the chef there encouraged her in another direction: "he kept saying to me 'I can see you like it - you should go and cook.'  I thought ok fine, I might as well - I've got nothing else to do, and it meant I got a promotion, making cold starters and he also let me cook  the staff dinners at the end of the night."

She studied cookery at Moray College where she discovered her real passion and talent. She said: "I liked college because it was really hands-on and I was given lots of encouragement, which I really hadn't had at school.

"It meant a huge amount to me to be told by her lecturers that my knife skills were really good, and that a bechamel sauce I made was really good and well seasoned", Lorna explained.

While at college she still worked at the restaurant and the chef there kept giving her more responsibility.

Lorna said: "He was very encouraging, he really pushed me to do it, otherwise I probably wouldn't have pushed myself to do it, he made sure I was learning something all the time."

Fig dessert created by Lorna McNee

Fig dessert

Lorna started to believe that this was something she could do.

The lecturers continued to push her forward, she explained: "When someone tells you are quite good at something, you become more enthusiastic about it and want to do better all the time.

"I really enjoyed college, the lecturers were very good. I'm still in touch with them, whenever I'm back home I nip into the college to see them."

That encouragement has left its mark and she said: "Now, I love teaching younger chefs, and it is rewarding showing the younger people how passionate I am about what I do.

"I hope, that rubs off on them. You can see the enjoyment in their eyes, and when they get excited I get excited, it is really good to pass on all the knowledge that I've learned throughout my career."

As part of the course, work experience was encouraged. Lorna's first stint was at Boath House, a one-star Michelin restaurant, in Nairn four miles from where she lived.

She said: "that was the first experience I had of any fine dining restaurant and the head chef Charlie Lockey, was really good guy."

Bright lights, big city

Her lecturers then encouraged her to go to London to see what was there and she spent two weeks at Gordon Ramsay's one-star Michelin restaurant, at Claridge's.

She said: "I loved it, I thought it was great. It was very busy, with hundred-odd covers, there were lots of chefs running around everywhere and it was high pressure."

Lorna is still in awe of Gordon both as a chef and everything he had achieved throughout his career, and admits to being a little starstruck when she met him.

She said: "I'm standing next to him and I'm about five foot and he must be six foot odd, he is massive a big guy, he popped in for a few hours, introduced himself,  it was cool.

"I had thrown myself in at the deep end, learned lots of new skills that I still use to this day, but I realised that there was so much more I had to learn. I heard people talk about things I had no idea what they were."

She tells us about one embarrassing experience there where she was asked for a microplane (or grater): "I didn't know what it was, I remember going over to this guy and saying something about a 'plane'  he looked at me a bit strangely,  but he gave it to me.

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"I look back at the incident now and think 'how did you not know what a microplane was?'

These moments have taught her lesson to be patient with younger chefs, she said: "I always think back to my own experience, if someone doesn't understand or isn't sure what a piece of equipment is, don't think they are stupid, it is they have just not learned about that yet."

The experience also made her realise that she didn't want to make the move to London, saying: "It was not for me. I'm a kind of  Scotland at heart person."

Because of this, her college lecturer suggested a visit to Gleneagles to eat, which proved to be a life-changing experience.

Lorna explained: "We had eaten at Gordon Ramsay's but Andrew Fairlie's just blew that out of the water.

"I had never tasted anything like it, and it was the first time I had eaten and thought OMG this is how good food can taste. I was like, 'I'm going down there to do a stage or work experience.'"

She quickly arranged a three days stint, where she said: "I helped in the kitchen, picked herbs, saw lobsters getting prepped, scallops getting opened.

"Things that I had never seen before, that were completely new to me.  I did a few bits to help, but I mainly just watched, but some chefs said there are some guys leaving and you should ask for a job."

Not one to be shy, she tapped chef Andrew Fairlie, on the shoulder when he was eating his dinner and asked him if there were are any jobs going.

Lobster dish

Lorna's lobster dish

Lorna tells us of his response, saying: "He said 'Are you sure you want to do this? You are very inexperienced.

"You've not seen anything like this, and you are throwing yourself in the deep end, this is a hard environment to come and work in and there have been a lot bigger, and stronger people than you have come in and not managed.'

"I replied, I really want to do this."

Andrew said, 'go away and think about it for a week and then come back down and speak to us again.' Lorna said, "I didn't think about it, I knew I want to go."

She returned the following week smartly dressed and sat down with chef Andrew and his deputy, chef Stevie and they agreed to her becoming an apprentice, to learn the craft from the bottom. She said: "so that is what I did, I started there on 13th October 2008."

Kitchen confidential

Lorna explained working in a two star kitchen at Gleneagles is like, saying: "It is almost as if we are soldiers, everyone's whites are immaculately ironed, shoes are polished and there is a certain way in which everyone works.

"It is a quiet, and a meticulous kitchen, but during service, there is lots of noise but it is calm, everyone calls cooking times every 30 seconds.

"When guests do kitchen tours, it is often described as being like 'a ballet', because everyone moves uniquely in about each other to get the food to the pass, it is very unique place to work."

They have two Michelin stars statues, which sit on the pass and look over them every night as they work, "they are washed every night with hot soapy bubbles to make sure they are all nice and shiny," Lorna said.

Lorna worked there for 12 years, and said that it was a nice feeling to retain the stars every year, especially after chef Andrew passed away.

The first year following his death was hard, but Lorna tells us Andrew's message to them all was clear.

He said: 'I want to look down in five years time and see that the restaurant is continuing to progress and it is as good as it has ever been if not better,' something Andrew Fairlie strongly believed chef Stevie and the team could do.

Cail Bruich

The man, the myth the legend - Andrew Fairlie

Lorna tries to describe Andrew Fairlie, saying: "He was absolutely amazing, you can't explain just how supportive he was, how generous he was.

"The best boss you will ever have. I don't think I will ever experience anyone in my lifetime that treats staff the way he did and encourages people the way that he did."

She feels she owes Andrew a huge debt, and said: "I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him.

"He put a lot of time and effort into me, he gave me fantastic opportunities to demonstrate and cook elsewhere and to go places with him and see things in other kitchens, he always pushed me to be better.

"He never raised his voice in the kitchen, but if he did then you knew something was seriously wrong because that is not how he ran his kitchen. He was just a very quiet, sophisticated, caring guy. Indescribable. No one will ever be what he was, especially not to me."

Andrew's kitchen is now run by the formidably talented head chef Stevie McLaughlin.

Lorna described him, saying: "He is great, with a bone dry sense of humour - strict and disciplined but he leads by example.

"He also has a poker straight face, which takes a bit of getting used to, you need to understand him, but once you do and you get to know him he is very friendly and funny and there is a bit more fun to be had."

Stevie worked with Andrew for such a long time, everything is still very much as he would have wanted it to be and he would be delighted they have continued to improve and go from strength to strength.

Lorna firmly believes that Andrew watches over them all and checks up on what they are doing - encouraging them:  ' how can I help you keep on achieving.'

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Even though she has moved on to new pastures, Lorna said she still relies on his wisdom.

She said: "If there is something I'm struggling with or I'm unsure about, I think to myself what would chef Andrew have said or what advice would he have given me?"

Another key mentor for Lorna has been Stevie McLaughlin, she explained how his support encouraged her to move on, saying: "He knew it was my time to go, although I loved working there, I need to move for my own progression and to allow other people in the kitchen to move up. He agreed that now it was time to do my own thing, and he held my hand through it."

Chef Stevie and Dale Dewsbury, the manager at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie both said that I can cook with my eyes closed but it is everything else that comes with it now, that is going to be the difficult part, Lorna explained.

She said: "I have a really good team behind me, which I thought would be a struggle to get.

"The main challenge is managing and getting people to understand your ethos, and how you work, dealing with each person as an individual has been a real eye-opener.

"I remember chef Stevie once said, 'once you are head chef you will just want to be a sous chef again because you just want to cook'."

Lorna has won numerous awards including the Game Chef of the year in 2016, Scottish Chef of the year in 2017, Regional Scottish finalist on The Great British Menu in 2018 (just missing out on a spot in the final) and back the following year to win it in 2019.

She explains her competitive compulsion, saying: "I didn't win the first time, so I had to go back and do it again."

She enjoyed the whole television experience, which pushed herself out of her comfort zone, she said, in the end, it was "quite good fun" and if Saturday Kitchen calls, she'd love to give that a go.

Lorna said: "I am very competitive. I  have no idea where it comes from. If I am going to do something then I make sure I do it well, I can't settle for being just good enough, for anything.

"I always have a goal in mind, having worked in somewhere as good as Andrew Fairlie's I always strive for excellence in everything."

Having a will to win and being a perfectionist is a double-edged sword at times but fortunately for Lorna, her partner Dawn is always there for support and to dish out some straight-talking when the doubts creep in.

Lorna explained, saying: "She is a very good person to have on my side. I'm always thinking about work, I even dream about cooking, I can't help it.

"I'm so lucky I have a partner who is very supportive and accepts the hours that I work and understands my whole life revolves around it.

"Food absorbs your life; if you are not cooking at work, then you want to be eating something or you are thinking about a new dish that you might want to make."

The couple plan to marry next year - the big day has been postponed three times, due to Covid restrictions, and Lorna hopes that it's third time lucky.

For Christmas this year she'd really like to spend time with her family, but Covid has made this trickier than usual so she will be with Dawn and their two dogs.

Lorna said: "We plan just to chill out really. I'm a country girl at heart, and I like the countryside around Auchterarder where we live because it is quieter."

Living there means she has to travel to Glasgow, but that distance by her own admission is good for her.

She said: "It is nice to be away from work, if I was closer I would nip in and out more often than I need to.

"I am also able to use the drive time to plan my day or relax down from the Adrenalin rush of service."

Head chef Lorna McNee in action in her kitchen

Head chef Lorna McNee in action in her kitchen

Aiming high

Lorna said that, at Cail Bruich, she's not chasing stars, but instead aiming for them, saying: "As a person who always wants to achieve the best, that would be the highlight of my career to date.

"I'd like nothing better than to follow in chef Andrews's footsteps and achieve a star in Glasgow, just to thank him for everything he taught me. Really all I want to do is cook - good food - really well -  using great ingredients."

At Cail Bruich she was offered an opportunity to make her own mark on the menu, she said: "I'm still trying to find my style I think, experimenting with dishes and plating up to get all of those elements right so that everything combines and harmonises together perfectly.

"As a chef, you are always putting dishes together to be eaten with an intended balance of flavours and achieve that same experience every single time."

 Cail Bruich is currently offering an 'at Home' collection but Lorna said: "As soon as we reopen, we go back to doing proper restaurant stuff,  it won't be there anymore. My main focus is the restaurant and where I want to take it with regards to food.

"The takeaway thing is nice to show people that we are still there, and keep chefs busy but we will be coming back and we are developing new dishes which are really good.

"My goal is to make the restaurant better than it is now, and to just keep just pushing on.

"My new year resolution is to make sure we are always cooking to the highest standard whether or not we have a star and make sure everyone understands that we are here to do the best."

With Lorna's willpower, determination, and talent, plus a guardian angel watching over her, a stellar career is certain.

Christmas dinner from CB at home

Christmas dinner Cail Bruich at home style.

Under the grill Q&A

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

My cooking style is just, good food and cooked well. I take our fantastic Scottish produce and do it justice by cooking it well.

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I've always been taught to find the best ingredients and don't do too much with them, just harmonise them on a plate and that is what I try to achieve but I also want to try and find my own style.

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

I worked as a kitchen porter in a family-run Italian restaurant call Little Sicily. 

Before Cail Bruich I worked at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles where I started as an apprentice working my way up to senior sous chef.

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

Cumin- I use this in lots of dishes, it’s great as a sort of seasoning and adds great depth and interest.

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

I mainly work in harmony. If you train your staff properly and help them understand what they need to be doing and when, then there should be no need for pans to fly.

That being said.... 

What little things annoy you in the kitchen?

The main thing that annoys me is being disorganised, but there are a few silly little things.

I like everything sitting at right angles, all boards straight and right at the edge of the bench, everything sitting at the same height on a section.

This is maybe a bit of an OCD thing but it was drilled into me by my previous head chef Stephen McLaughlin and now I can’t work any other way or it gets under my skin. It’s a good thing, it makes your whole service and day flow easier.

What is popular in your kitchen right now?

The most popular dish on our menu currently is our pasta dish.

It’s made with wild mushrooms from Scotland, a truffle and Madeira sauce and hand-rolled pasta.

We have some little seasonings in there which really bring it to life and everyone loves it. A lot of the sauces we currently make are big hits too.

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?

This is a good question, I’m a tea drinker and I’m very particular about how I like it. Let’s start from the top, it must be in a China cup or a very thin-rimmed cup, I hate the feeling of bulky mugs when drinking from them, they also don’t keep the heat for as long and I like my tea hot.

I’m so particular about them that my sous chef bought me a special cup for work and one of the waiting staff has a “recipe” for my tea. This sounds very diva! But it’s not, I just like it how I like it and I’m very particular, the guys have a lot of fun with me about it, so I know I sound very out there.

Anyway, back to tea making, tea bag in, nothing fancy, I like a Tetley tea, hot water in, three pumps exactly from our hot water still at work, for the right amount of water to bag ratio.

Brew it for three minutes, a gentle squeeze of the bag, I like that slight bitterness you get from squeezing it, then into the cup and it’s exactly 35ml of semi-skimmed milk from one of the bar measurements. It has to be drunk hot. Nothing worse than cold tea. It’s quite a strong cup of tea I’d say, I don’t like milky tea.

Don’t even me started on people who add milk before the water, these people are demons!

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

 My friends always tell me it’s a pot noodle sandwich because when we were younger and had a little too much to drink this was my go-to.

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

My favourite chef currently is Clare Smyth. I think her food is fantastic and I love the way she talks about suppliers and food. It’s very inspiring. 

My food hero will always be Chef Andrew (Fairlie) he gave me so much and I wouldn’t be where I am without him, plain and simple.

He taught me about food, inspired me, helped me learn how to be a professional and not just someone who cooks food, also learning the best way to talk to people and deal with situations.

He helped me get to where I am and I’m sad he is no longer here to see how the story goes after leaving Restaurant Andrew Fairlie. 

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

I don’t think I have any. My fantasy dinner party currently, after the whole Covid-19 situation, is to be able to have all my friends in one room and be able to cook for them.

My friends are everything to me and I have a great group of them and with my job I barely ever see them. They are very supportive and I wish I could be in a room with them and have a massive feast of absolutely everything. Because we all love our food so much!

I miss my friends so that’s my fantasy dinner party. They would all request I cooked them pollo pulcinella which is a dish from an Italian I worked in when I was 17. It’s their favourite and it’s no longer open, they always request I make it.

I don’t like…or I’d rather not eat……

I don’t like fennel. It’s one thing that I really dislike, anything strong in aniseed is not for me. 

 

 

Cail Bruich

725 Great Western Rd,
Glasgow
G12 8QX

(0141 334 6265)

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Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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