We chat to head chef owner Stuart Ralston from Aizle at The Kimpton Charlotte Square and Noto restaurants in Edinburgh, about staying healthy, working with Gordon Ramsay in New York and what it means to him to come home.

Stuart Ralston has travelled the globe working in some of the world’s best restaurants and kitchens but he admits that he has always had a small chip on his shoulder about being successful in Scotland, which is the reason he returned to Edinburgh to open his restaurant, Aizle, in April 2014 

He said: “Scotland was the only place I’d never been successful. I felt like I did a lot in New York, had worked in London and then Barbados, but here no one really knew who I was and I was Scottish. I just wanted to rectify that by coming back to Edinburgh.”

Stuart grew up in Glenrothes and attended Glenwood high school, although he explains: “my dad was a chef so we moved a lot.”

But he readily admits school was not for him,  “I just hated being there. I wasn’t particularly academic, pretty much average in every subject, and I left as soon as I could.”

Chef Stuart Ralston

Chef Stuart Ralston at the pass at Noto.

In the blood?

Everybody is a chef in Stuart’s family,  his older brother, Scott is the group executive chef for the compass group, which includes The Chophouse Restaurants, The White Horse, and Monteith’s and his younger brother, Calum is a senior sous chef at The Chophouse in Bruntsfield.

His mum has recently retired but when he was growing up, she worked full time in pubs and restaurants and at the staff canteen of Fife council.

He tells us that, meals at home were pretty traditional stuff; mince and tatties, “but everything was home-cooked for sure, my mum is a really good cook. Humble but not very expensive stuff,” Stuart said.

The other driving force in his life was his father, who has since passed away but he was the executive chef of Mamma Mia’s pizzeria and bar in Kirkcaldy but then later went on to be the executive chef of Queensferry hotels.

Stuart explained how he came to work with his father: “one day after school when I was 13, my dad said to me, you are going to come to work with me. He was very keen on getting me and my older brother both working because money was tight in our house.

“The more money we could bring in for ourselves, the less he would have to spend on us.

“My dad was not one of those guys you could argue with so it didn’t really seem like a choice. It didn’t seem like I had the option to go and do anything else, even though I definitely could have.

“It wasn’t like it was a prison sentence or anything it just felt like that is what we are going to do, we were going to follow in our father’s footsteps and we both kind of got on with it.

My dad was, for the most part, a good father in a lot of ways, but he also had his own demons. He drank too much, I would say he was an alcoholic, so there were definitely some moments in our childhood that were not so good.”

Stuart explains that cooking was his way out, saying: “at a certain point I probably took cooking way more seriously than he ever did.”

Stuart Ralston Aizle

His parents divorced when he was 16, Stuart said: “we sort of all fell out and that’s when I got a job at the kitchen of The Roman Camp Hotel in Callander.”

“My mum was left with my youngest brother at the time, who was only ten, so she had to finish off raising him, so it was difficult for sure.”

His rocky relationship with his father has made its mark, Stuart said: “God yeah, I definitely have a chip on my shoulder about us both being chefs, and I try to be better than him, in every way.”

Stuart now lives in Edinburgh with his wife Krystal and his two boys, Sonny (5) and Jesse who is nine-months-old.

He explains his approach to fatherhood: “I definitely try to be, not the opposite of my dad but I don’t do a lot of the things that he did.

“Our house now is very calm and relaxed and we are both focused on our kids and their upbringing being normal, as opposed to mine which was difficult.  I’m definitely conscious of not making the same mistakes or repeating that history for sure.”

Moving to the restaurant at The Roman Camp was a life-changing experience for Stuart because at the time it was a  3 AA Rosette restaurant.

The head chef Iain McNaught was a huge influence on him, he said, “he taught me loads, I stayed there for 4 years and felt I got my own independence.”

In Iain, he had found a new father figure, and Stuart admits, “I still talk to him quite a lot now. He was definitely one of those people that I looked up to, I thought this guy has really got it figured out.

“So for me, that was pretty inspiring. He definitely pushed me and was hard on me at the start because I didn’t have the skillset for a three AA rosette restaurant. I had to step up to the level they were cooking at, he pushed me to move on and to try and better myself.”

The American dream

After stints at Inverlochy Castle, in Fort William and Greywalls in Gullane, with head chef David Williams, Stuart decided to move stateside.

He said: “it was the nineties, and American culture was quite big over here at that time, everything about New York was really appealing to me. I’d never been there, but I was big into rap music, and MTV as a kid, and New York seemed like the epicentre.

“I’d always liked American sports and I had played a bit of roller hockey when I was younger and even Iain McNaught at Roman Camp is a big Chicago Blackhawks fan-  ice hockey.

“I heard Gordon Ramsay was opening up in New York, and it just sort of clicked that I could get a job out there with him, and to do that would be awesome. So that’s what I did.”

Did he get a Gordon Ramsay roasting? Stuart said, “that is the number one question I always get asked. I have heard plenty of screamy words from Gordon Ramsay, but I was lucky.

“We obviously, got two Michelin stars pretty quickly, and it was hard graft in the beginning but moving there at 22 years of age was a huge change for me.”

Working for arguably the UK’s best chef, he said: “It was definitely a hard place to work,  there was definitely a lot of shouting and screaming and people getting sacked here, there, right and left, but I enjoyed it, I would not have changed it for anything.”

On his first day in the States, on his ride in from the airport, he said, “they were filming an action scene from a Spiderman movie, which is amazing! You’d never see anything like that back home, living in New York is so surreal, you recognise buildings from episodes of Friends. I just loved it.”

Stuart initially stayed in a cheap hostel because that was all he could afford. However, he ended up sharing a tiny apartment on 69th street with, Bob Noto who ran a company that made model replicas of NYC landmarks.

Stuart explains: “he would rent rooms out to people, so I stayed with him in an annex above his kitchen, I slept on the roof of that little kitchen.”

Stuart added: “At Bob’s, you would meet a lot of different people, which for me was a new thing to experience. Coming from Glenrothes in Fife, where there is not a lot of diversity, that was a real eye-opener.

“I kind of just liked being at his place, because everything was always changing and I was always learning about new things. I stayed with him for almost a year.”

He was in his eighties at that point and as a mark of respect, Stuart named Noto, his Thistle street eatery after him.

Laugh out loud

After he left Bob’s place, he moved into a room in a flat, with some chef friends from Gordon Ramsay’s in Queens, adding that, “Queens is definitely the place I would say is home in New York.”

He met his future wife Krystal at a bar there. “We all got chatting and the rest is history. We went on a few dates after that and we just stayed together ever since.”

At the time, she was working in an architectural company and studying drama at acting school. After leaving Gordon Ramsay’s, Stuart became the executive chef of The Core Club, and Krystal came and worked in the restaurant with him.

Stuart said: “Krystal is fantastic, she is pretty worldly we have travelled a lot together, but she’s actually a stand-up comedian. So she makes a lot of jokes at my expense, she’s very sarcastic, but a good mother. ”

And does he laugh at his wife’s jokes? “Oh my god, that’s the crux of our relationship sometimes. I have no idea about how the stand-up comedy world all works, she has worked in the restaurant business so we share that quite easily, but with stand-up comedy stuff I have to be careful what I say.”

They both tired of New York life, Stuart explains: “it wears on you after a while, it is such a busy place,”  and the couple then moved back to the UK to The Slaughters Manor House, near Cheltenham.

After a year there he had started to make quite a name for himself, winning 3 AA rosettes and they were due to be inspected for a Michelin star. However disaster struck as the company they worked for went bust, “so that put the kibosh on the whole thing” said Stuart.

So why leave paradise?

As luck would have it, he got a phone call about a job as chef de cuisine at Sandy Lane Hotel, Barbados, which is a favourite haunt of the rich and famous, Stuart said, “was just weirdly serendipitous. Great timing for me.”

Stuart explains “living in Barbados is cool for a while, but it is small, and a little isolated at times.” Throughout his career, he has cooked for celebrities but he says he no longer gets starstruck.

“Maybe when I was younger, it was kind of cool. I would want to know who was in, who was eating but I guess you still have a job to do so the novelty wears off pretty quick.”

Stuart has cooked for a whole host of celebrities including Rene Zellweger, Mark Wallberg, Simon Cowell, Rihanna,  Billy Joel, Bryan Adams.

He said,  “you’d be surprised at some people’s requests. I definitely think the richer you are the more you seem to need or want specific things from certain places.  This is something I didn’t actually enjoy, and in my end days, of  Sandy Lane, something turned me off about that lifestyle quite a lot. ”

He said, “The plan was that I could earn enough, and save enough to come back, to Scotland and open my own place, Aizle which is a [Scots word] for a burning coal; a glowing hot ember; a spark. After Sandy Lane,  I just couldn’t see myself working for anyone else any longer. I just needed to work for myself.”

Caledonian Calling

He returned to Edinburgh to open up his own restaurant with wife Krystal helping. He admits it is his pride and joy and the culmination of his career to date.

“It will always have the most special place in my heart. It is everything, every bit of money I had saved, all the blood, sweat, tears, and all the hard work that went into getting it off the ground.

“Everyone told me not to do it, because it wasn’t a good idea, because it was not in the town centre, or big enough, but it made me more determined” he said.

He said “most of the time I want to do things out of spite, to be honest. I think in the beginning Michelin stars were everything for me and when it didn’t happen for a couple of years  I started to care less about it.

“Nowadays I don’t care about it at all.  It really is about myself, how I feel about what I’m doing is the main concern to me. If I’m proud of what I’m doing, then I’m happy.

“Aizle nowadays has a great reputation, I feel like we never needed a Michelin star to get that, we have a great following. Whatever we do, we get a great response from our customers, and that in itself is the success I have achieved.

“No one has ever helped me to get to where I am today, no one loaned me money, and there are no rich parents anywhere.  Everything I have achieved, I saved for and made it happen, so that is the most important thing for me.”

Daily grind

Throughout his career Stuart has worked horrendous hours, between 60 -90 hours a week he said, “at Gordon Ramsay’s if you weren’t in before 7 am in the morning you were definitely in the shit and we wouldn’t leave sometimes before 1 am in the morning, then after work we’d go out drinking until 4 o’clock in the morning, so not a lot of time for sleeping.”

He explains that those excessive hours did catch up with him, “I developed vestibular neuritis, basically a sort of infection of your inner eardrum which was caused by chronic fatigue. It distorts the signals to your brain, so I was off-balance and dizzy all the time, I literally couldn’t function. ”

He said, “It took me just over a year to get a diagnosis, at the time I was working in the restaurant and Sonny had just been born so I was helping with night feeds. I just wasn’t sleeping at all. I think the stress and the pressures in the restaurant on top of all that were just too much.

“I wasn’t taking care of myself, I had put on weight I was drinking too much. I was doing all the wrong things to try and combat that because I thought those things would help me relax.

“Then one day; I thought this is just not working, I have got to change. I stopped drinking and started running, to get healthier to allow my body to recover and the medication helped me to get rid of the infection.

“That’s kind of what I’ve been doing the last couple of years now, it has worked everything is back to normal, I can work as much as I want again.

“It has just been an interesting period of time for me. I watched my dad work like that his whole life, and his drinking, so I kind of know how the story ends, he had a stroke, he died and a lot of that was down to his lifestyle for sure.”

As a positive outcome, he introduced a reduced hours working week for his staff, “I wanted to stop any of my guys from having to go through the things that I’ve gone through.

“If you are working those hours it is just impossible to be a centered person. It was a wake-up moment to change these hours for everybody. We closed an extra day a week and everybody instantly felt better.

“Now it is a little bit more of a struggle responding to Covid but we still have a balance of hours and it is still a big focus for the company.

“Another reason for maintaining my health is that I love having fun with the kids, we have got such a fun household. Just being a dad, gives you a different responsibility, a different perspective on life and about what things are more important.

“I want to be around for my kids, I want to be healthy and happy and to set a good example for them, see them get opportunities potentially which I didn’t have, and give them advice and support.

“It is obviously hard to balance all those things at the same time, as being in the kitchen in the chef world, but I think I am setting a good example for both of them to look up to. Someone that has worked hard and has done all the things they wanted to do and is now in a good position.

Stuart Ralston has always got plenty of pots on the boil, with Aizle at the Kimpton, Noto and his original, St Leonard Street premise to look after.

Just now the focus for him is back in the kitchen, “doing the whole home delivery thing again.” (The restaurants are temporarily closed due to covid restrictions.) Optimistically, he said “it is not too bad, we are pretty busy at the minute” and Stuart is definitely someone a pandemic will not stop.

Aizle, currently offers a 4-course menu costs £70 for two, while Noto has a selection of dishes available to go, with a £35 minimum order.

Under the grill Q&A

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

Natural and organic with lots of European techniques but with a bit of Japanese and Asian flavour profiles. Pre Covid we normally have a list of ingredients on a chalkboard in black and white. I think it is more exciting to have a bit of mystery to the meal, so the focus is on the food, on the things we are buying and that way it is a little more honest and bit more genuine.

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

My first job was washing pots and pans in a pizzeria in Kirkcaldy. My dad was the head chef and I would work the weekends. I liked the excitement and buzz around kitchen.

I worked with some amazing Scottish chefs in the early days like Ian McNaught and David Williams. After a trial at the Connaught in London, I moved to New York to help with the opening of Gordon Ramsay at The London, which was an amazing experience. I wanted to continue to develop, so I decided to undertake stagiaires with legendary chefs David Bouley, Marcus Samuelsson, Terrance Brennan, Daniel Humm, Paul Liebrandt and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I then went onto work for a New York’s private members club, The Core Club before moving to Barbados to take up the Chef De Cuisine position at Sandy Lane.

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

I really like Garam Masala. I use it on roasted sweet potatoes to go with my roast chicken with lots of caramelised onion and some fresh parsley, it works a treat. I ate a lot of it in Barbados. 

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

I would say I’m a bit of both! Years ago, I would tend to let my temper get the better of me, I always felt a lot of pressure especially when I opened Aizle. Over the years I have mellowed and now both kitchens I run are quiet and focused. This approach gets you much further than yelling, trust me.

What little things annoy you in the kitchen?

Bad staff meals, dirty chefs, lazy chefs, and I hate general untidiness. Another pet hate is when butter is too cold for bread. 

What is popular in your kitchen right now?

Right now, we have a beautiful sweet potato crisp in the shape of a leaf. This looks really sharp and it is a great first course on the tasting menu at Aizle.  At Noto, the new prawn toast dish we have, it is incredibly delicious, we have received great feedback from guests. 

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?

I generally only drink decaffeinated coffee. I love the taste of coffee, but I don’t like the jittery highs. Decaffeinated keeps me calmer! I buy Origin Coffee from Newcastle, it’s my favourite right now.

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

I am not embarrassed by any food pleasures; I have zero guilt when it comes to food. I eat pretty healthy and clean nowadays. When I want to indulge, I love Five Guys double cheeseburger with grilled onion, mustard, ketchup, and mayo.

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

That is a hard one, I love Joshua Skenes from Saison in San Francisco and David Kinch from Manresa.

My favourite supplier is Johnny Rutherford from Burnside Farm who is our game dealer. I have known Johnny and his wife Susan for years; they constantly bring quality and top service.

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

I would love to dine with the late Anthony Bourdain. The knowledge and perspective he had on life would be very interesting to pick at. I would cook something pretty casual, like pizza on a wood-fired oven and some red wine.

I don’t like…or I’d rather not eat……

I will never eat turnips; they are the devils work!

Chef Stuart Ralston of Aizle

Aizle

 

 

Aizle The Kimpton Charlotte Square

Aizle is now based in the Garden Room at The Kimpton Charlotte Square, 

38 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh

EH2 4HQ

(0131 527 4747)

Noto

47A Thistle Street, Edinburgh

EH2 1DY

(0131 241 8518)

 

2• READ MORE: Under the Grill: Chef Stuart Waterston from Windlestraw in Walkerburn, Scottish Borders

Under the Grill: Chef Stuart Waterston from Windlestraw in Walkerburn, Scottish Borders

About The Author

Catriona Thomson

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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