Scotsman food and drink talks to chef owner Roberta Hall McCarron about The Little Chartroom for our Under the grill feature and quick-fire Q & A.

Roberta Hall-McCarron and her and husband, Shaun are brainstorming their exciting plans for reopening their restaurant later this year.

Their place is a small neighbourhood bistro and by Roberta’s own admission, is “intimate, tiny and definitely cosy.”

The owners are determined however not to rush and take the time to find an aesthetic solution to socially distanced dining, so their current at-home delivery service will stay for the foreseeable future.

Roberta says : “I see it as a challenge to adjust. Things are changing and some customers are returning, but we completely understand that some people don’t want to come out yet, they want to stay safe at home. We are going to take our time.

“Our customers know we are small, but we want them not to be worried. We want people to feel safe and secure. We will open Thursday to Sunday to keep costs down. We don’t want a clinical space, we still want to be inviting place to come.”

An Edinburgh lass born and bred, her family were connected to Hall’s butcher business which was founded by her great grandfather with both her great uncle, her grandfather and her father, all involved in the business so naturally, good food has always been at the heart of the family.

Growing up Roberta said; “Yeah food, was always of interest, both my parents love food, although mum is not an avid cook but she loves to come out to eat and get meals cooked for her. I would say we are more of an artistic creative styled family.”

Roberta is proud that her mum’s artwork hangs in the restaurant, they are made out of some from old sea charts and used to hang on the walls of their flat at home. However, they fitted the interior decor style perfectly.

The Little Chartroom’s interior

I am sailing, I am sailing

Growing up and spending time on the water was a huge part of family life, as they sailed on the west coast of Scotland during holidays.

Roberta explains growing up sailing was ” good fun, it didn’t seem to be such a big thing, as my parents were sailing long before we were born.” I have so many memories, of such a beautiful part of the world. Apart that is from the horizontal rain.

“I recently drove to Mull” for the first time, I’ve been there so many times sailing, but it was so strange to drive. I love it there.”

Roberta fondly remembers; “after a day’s sailing we be in a pub filled with locals, eating prawns, and the best shellfish ever, I think my love of barbeques comes from cooking that way on the boat as well.”

“Dad likes to keep things spotless, so if my sister or I ever said we were bored we’d get put into the dinghy and told to clean the hull of the boat. My dad is quite strict so we were only allowed to hold ropes and help with tack or gybe while he would be at the helm,”  Roberta said.

 

A career in catering?

It was two weeks of work experience at The Tower restaurant in Edinburgh, whilst at school that set her off on her culinary career, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Roberta said; “I just loved it, I came back to school just buzzing. I got a part-time job there working weekends. I wasn’t sure what the next step would be, I knew it would be cooking college but which one? so I ended up working full time for a year there.”

At college in Glasgow, she worked part-time in No 16 restaurant, which like the Little Chartroom, is an intimate tiny place. Roberts said; ” it was quite challenging in such small, family-run place.”

The chef there was Steven Murray who went to work in Northumberland and Roberta went to help him at an Albert Roux dinner at Slaley Hall in Northumberland near Hexham and ended up getting a job for a year there with chef Tony Binks”

However, Roberta said; “I missed home, I was isolated in the countryside so I moved back to Edinburgh to The Balmoral to work with Jeff Bland.”

I am sailing, home again, ‘cross the sea

After a year she couldn’t resist a dream job in the kitchens in Dubai to Burj Al Arab,  “It was different, really good, but a very different culture. It is a spectacular hotel, and it is surreal to be working in such an iconic building.

“Money was no object, you didn’t have to worry about how much money you were spending. There were 17 chefs, ten different nationalities, I’m not going to lie communication was an issue but I learned so much, I loved it and it was fascinating.”

She came back on a brief visit to Scotland and realised that  “I missed home again, I had enough of the desert, I was homesick.”

She fell on her feet and ended up working at The Kitchin for three and a half years.  Roberta said, “It was an eye-opener like going back to day one all over again. So much to learn, bloody hard work, and a lot of pressure.

“I loved it. Tom Kitchin is amazing, and a great person to work for. He has so much passion and drive, that it is intoxicating because he gets so excited. I learned to love and respect food and I didn’t look back.”

I learned to “use the best produce, and have utter respect for animals, use everything. I’d not done game before, I’d never even plucked a bird before. Tom is massively into game and would have six different types of game on the menu, which was stressful but insanely good.”

“On the Glorious Twelfth, Tom would race off to get the first birds from a shoot and return to the restaurant to showcase Scottish produce, which is the best in the world, but sadly we don’t have the climate to make wine.”

Roberta worked with Tom Kitchin around the time he was awarded his first star and then moved with Dominic Jack to launch Castle Terrace, where she met her husband, Shaun.

Husband and wife team, Shaun and Roberta.

Love at first sight?

“It took a while” Roberta said, but explains they were friends for a year and a half.”

“He was moving to London, he needed to move to make the next step in his career which was at Simon Rogan’s original Roganic pop-up restaurant, although it was about two years before he came back to Castle Terrace so we did the long-distance thing. Then he returned and became the restaurant manager, and at that stage, I knew I wanted to leave, as it was time to move and see what was next.”

Roberta said; ” I was heartbroken to hear the news of Castle Terrace’s closure last week, it was an emotional day, a few tears for sure as it was like a second home for a long time.

“Dominic is a mentor and friend, I spent six years at Castle Terrace, so many hours….so a tough week. I think there will be more casualties, restaurants need to adapt as best they can. We are lucky we are very adaptable.”

One giant leap

The couple decided to take a job running the Abbots Elm (pub/restaurant with rooms) in Cambridgeshire. Roberta said; “We wanted to find your own feet, to do everything, learn how to do it all, it was an opportunity to try something, without risking everything, so it ticked all the boxes.” Although this couple certainly had both front of house, and the kitchen covered.

The villagers of Abbots Ripton welcomed the couple warmly, Roberta said “they were so lovely and some have even come up to eat with us here. There is no better compliment. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but it was a great learning curve.”

Roberta admits there are times when the couple “drive each other mad, but we lean on each other. We both love food and he is my go-to person for when I try something new. I trust his opinion completely.”

Homeward bound

In 2018 the couple decided it was time to return to Scotland and set about looking for the right site in Edinburgh, Roberta worked at the Twelve triangles bakery to begin with, saying: “I didn’t want to commit to another kitchen job, it was an opportunity to do something I hadn’t done before and a good opportunity to learn about sourdough.

“I love it but it is really physically demanding. I went back and helped them at the start of lockdown, they were really quick to adapt with an online shop, in a matter of days.” Luckily, “making bread is just like riding a bike, you don’t forget” she said.

They opened The Little Chartroom in June 2018, just two weeks after their wedding and speaking to me from her restaurant Roberta explains, ” I love it, I’m sitting in it now, I’m so comfortable, so happy don’t ever say I don’t want to go into work. The two of us together, are the restaurant it wouldn’t be the same without either of us.”

“This is our child right now, we are so proud of what we envisioned, it is great to see so many people love it as much as we do.”

Roberta McCarron Hall chef

Cooking up a storm

Although only a relatively new restaurant Roberta has won several awards with Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards and Breakthrough Chef of the Year in the Food & Travel Reader Awards and she even made time to compete in the Great British Menu.

Roberta explains that you are invited onto the show, “It was in our first year, we’d only been open for a month I knew how much it would take out of me. So I said no but they very kindly came back the following year.”

She explains the pressures,  saying “it put me out of my comfort zone, working on TV, cooking against others makes me feel sick inside but I am so glad I did it. I’m proud of how far I got alongside some amazing chefs. Roberta hints ” you might see some of the dishes from the series when we reopen.”

Roberta adds; “Lockdown has shown us we have amazing loyal guests who come back every week, and new customers we wouldn’t have if this hadn’t happened.

“They are getting to eat our restaurant-quality food at home, but the pay off is there is a bit to be done, nothing too dramatic and we even supply a Spotify playlist. Everyone is in an extreme situation so we just have to take the positives and continue to do what we love”

The Little Chartroom currently offers a changing set menu to order online every Thursday at 9am for the following week. Deliveries will take place on Wednesday and Friday during the day.

This 3 course meal for 2 people with a bottle of wine costs £65 and serves two. It comes with cooking instructions as some elements of the meal do need to be finished at home before serving. An extra fourth cheese course can be added for £7 (Lanark blue, oatcakes, gooseberry & golden raisin chutney)

They also offer a hot food barbeque service on Saturday between 3 to 6pm you need to pre-order with socially distanced collection at an arranged time.

Check their website for current details.

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 forever changing. I began cooking Scottish or British with French influences but I always try to cook using ingredients which are local to me, trying out different things gets me excited.”

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

“My first job was at The Tower Restaurant in Edinburgh when I was 16. It was a real eye-opener into how a busy, professional kitchen ran and I was absolutely hooked from then on. Before I opened The Little Chartroom, I ran a pub in rural Cambridgeshire, which was a great test for me to cook my own food. Previous to that, I spent 9 years with Tom Kitchin and Dominic Jack at both The Kitchin and Castle Terrace.”

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

“At the moment, it is smoked paprika. I have been marinating a lot of meat recently and using smoked paprika in the marinades before barbecuing the meat.”

Roberta McCarron Hall chef

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

“The kitchen needs to be pretty calm as it’s open for customers to see what is going on, but I would like to think it would still be calm even if it wasn’t open. Of course, I want things to be right and there are times when I get annoyed if things aren’t done the way I want them to be but I don’t find getting fired up and angry helps anyone.”

What little things annoy you?

“Chef’s that don’t taste their food. Seasoning is so important and it is a real bugbear when chefs hand me food that hasn’t been tasted or seasoned. It can make or break a dish.”

What is popular in your kitchen right now? 

“Barbequing and cooking over smoke and flames, Oh my goodness you can take any ingredient by charring it takes it to a different level, I love BBQ food. We started doing a hot food about four weeks ago, our Lobster roll and sweet potato doughnut and bourbon caramel sold out pretty quickly.”

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?

“As soon as I get into work we put on a batch of filter coffee which usually gets the day started. If I am at home I might have an earl grey tea.”

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

“I love a cheesy beano with nice sourdough, Heinz beans and loads of melted cheddar on top.”

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

“Angela Hartnett, I like the simplicity of her food and that there’s nowhere to hide, it’s all about flavour. She’s been in the industry for a long time and is definitely a great role model for female chefs to look up to.

Also, Ben the forager is great, he is so passionate about what he does and really cares about giving you the best produce whilst always looking after the environment.”

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

“At this time, it would be all my closest friends as that is a fantasy rather than reality and I couldn’t bring myself to do a zoom dinner party during lockdown. I would roast a whole lamb shoulder with lots of veg, gravy and red wine, followed by a summer pudding.”

I don’t like…or I’d rather not eat……

“Fennel, I really don’t like fennel!”

Roberta McCarron Hall chef

 

The Little Chartroom

30 Albert Pl, Edinburgh 

EH7 5HN

(0131 556 6600)

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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