Catriona Thomson talks to Phil White, chef and owner of LeftField restaurant as part of our new series of interviews in the kitchen with Scottish based chefs.

“Small but perfectly formed” is the phrase that instantly springs to mind when you walk into this neighbourhood bistro next to the Meadows.

Owned by chef Phil White and his partner Rachel Chisholm, it seats only a modest 24 diners.

The pair, who have both previously worked in the industry – Phil at Fishers in Leith and Rachel with her own outdoor catering business – jointly took over the place in March 2017, relaunching as LeftField in August that year.

Rachel is now studying for a masters degree in gastronomy at Queen Margaret University as well as managing the front of house team.

Family Affair

Opening a restaurant is a dream for many people, but working with your nearest and dearest can be challenging.

When asked about it Phil laughs, saying: “It can be tricky with arguments, but you just need to work out the issue and move on. I couldn’t do what I do without Rachel and her enormous help, understanding and patience.”

The couple’s two daughters Poppy and Lola are also involved, with Phil stating that they are their “strongest critics”, but also “extremely proud of the place”.

The experienced chef adds, with more than a little pride, that Poppy has previously worked in hospitality in Aberdeen (Moonfish Cafe) meaning she has good advice on both wine and cocktails.

 

 

“In our case, small is beautiful, and more personal,” Phil explains.

“As the only chef in the kitchen, to keep things fairly manageable, I control the bookings, to make sure customers have great experience and things are good for me.

“One of the good things about working for myself, is I’m the master of my kitchen, so nothing is in the wrong place but there is a huge sense of responsibility, our staff are almost like family.”

He adds that the downsides are long hours, financial pressures, and not getting out as much as they should.

However, you can tell Phil really enjoys cooking.

“The adrenaline buzz makes me happy. I love hearing from people direct, especially when they pop their head in and say they’ve enjoyed the meal, that is brilliant. When that happens, hopefully, they will come back again.”

Fennel, cucumber and Kumquat salad

So what’s the big idea?

Explaining the bistro’s ethos, Phil states that it is “really simple”, and that involves keeping things as “local as possible” and as seasonal as they can, all with “bags of flavour”.

He tries to use Scottish produce wherever possible, describing our shellfish as “fabulous”.

He lets slip that he also has a secret weapon – a friend who grows organic vegetables at Bemersyde near St Boswell where the couple live.

The green-fingered Margaret grows four types of kale, glass cucumbers, tomatillos as well as pumpkins and courgettes amongst a whole host of others; an abundance of “unusual global produce, grown just down the road.”

He says: “Scotland is actually great at producing vegetables, it’s not just turnips and cabbage, they even make tea in Perthshire.”

Where did your love of cooking come from?

“I sort of stumbled into it out of necessity, my mum was a working single mum, so I am a latch door key kid, you soon get sick of’ Findus crispy pancakes, so I started cooking myself”

He has inherited his work ethic from his mother, who worked full time alongside study for a degree, to make things better for him and his sister.
But was also heavily influenced by an Egyptian aunt saying: “From a very early age, I was exposed to that cuisine.”
Travelling in Spain, Greece and Turkey also means he has fully adopted a Mediterranean sense of hospitality.

Main Course

Phil is showcasing a dish of Scottish octopus with Labneh, fennel and charred cucumber salad, with preserved kumquats.

Preparation is the name of the game, as previously the raw octopus is frozen overnight, to break up the cell structure to ensure the seafood is not tough.

In the morning it is defrosted in the fridge slowly, before being cooked for around an hour in white wine and bouillon infused with garlic, fennel and rosemary. It is then portioned and patted dry. The tentacles are then coated in gram flour (a chickpea flour which is naturally gluten-free) and flavoured with caraway seeds.

Phil’s tip to test the temperature of the oil in the pan is to use a slice of potato.

“That way you always end up with a fried chip.”

The octopus portion is then cooked for a final time, immersed into a pan of sizzling hot olive oil until the sea creature is golden brown.

While it’s bubbling away, our chef gets busy with the mandolin carefully slicing shavings of fennel, and deftly slicing the blow torched charred mini cucumbers into thin shreds lengthways.

Before then mixing it in a bowl with fresh mint leaves and bright yellow preserved kumquat discs, before grating lemon zest on the top.

The kumquats have been preserved by slicing them whole to ensure that the sweet cured liquor gets to the centre of each fruit. The special elixir is made with sugar and is flavoured with pink peppercorns, coriander seeds and salt which provides a sweet-sharp hint to the fruit.

A Labneh or strained yoghurt is left in a cloth overnight, to remove the watery whey, this leaves a creamy intense flavoured cheese which forms a base note to the plate.

With a deft cheffy smear this Labneh is the first element to be placed on the colourful blue plate, which reminds you instantly of the Mediterranean.

Then the fennel cucumber salad mix is piled on top before the cooked to perfection, tentacles are positioned gently.

A generous swirl of olive oil and cider vinegar and of course a bit of seasoning dresses the plate.

The final touches being just the placing of a few leaves of flat parsley, dill and mint leaves and lemon zest, which are scattered artistically with more toasted coriander seeds.

Scottish Octopus with Labneh,  fennel and charred cucumber salad with preserved Kumquat

Dessert

Next offering is a decadent pudding of Dark chocolate mousse with hazelnut tuile, complete with toasted seeds.

To save time again Phil has pre-made a luxurious rich dark mousse, fabricated from melted chocolate (90 per cent cocoa) and butter, before slowly folding in fluffy egg whites and whipped egg yolks and sugar and vanilla.

This is then chilled, before scooping out in a perfect quenelle, by gently warming a metal spoon first to ensure a smooth finish.

The plate is decorated by an artistic circular drizzle of rich cherry and raspberry coulis, think black forest gateaux flavours.

The curled hazelnut tuile is fixed to the dish by a dab of mousse, these thin biscuits are made from egg white, butter and icing sugar, flour and crushed hazelnuts, the tricky part is smearing the mixture thinly enough to cook correctly.

Next liberally dusting the plate with a seed mix of coriander, pumpkin, sunflower seeds and gently placing just a raspberry or two and balancing a small mint leave on top.

The last touch of decoration, chocolate shavings and cocoa nibs to provide great texture.

Dark Chocolate mousse with Hazelnut tuile, complete with toasted seeds.

 

The verdict is creamy intense Labneh is the perfect accompaniment to the curled appendages of the octopus and flavoursome fresh zesty salad, a perfect partnership and the chocolate mousse is just heaven on a plate.

Phil grins proudly: “I was always going to have to choose a seafood dish as one of my dishes to cook for you.”

Keep an out as this dish will be making an appearance on the Leftfield menu soon.

Phil’s Recipe book

Under the grill: Quick Q & A with Phil

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

“I love to use lots of fish and shellfish these need a light touch, simply cooked. I also love middle eastern food and this comes through in my cooking as well. Nothing too spicy hot though.”

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

“My first job was at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.

“Trainees were rotated around the sections; Larder, Sauce, Butcher, Fish, Vegetables, Pastry. Learning everything from butchering chickens, to dealing with live eels, to patisserie. It was a great start in the industry.

“My last job couldn’t be more different I worked at Mainstreet trading company in St Boswells, Scottish Borders which had a cafe and a deli which I used to prepare food for. The bookshop would host dinners and whenever a chef had a cookbook coming out, I got to do a cookery demo with them.”

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

“Favourite spice is without doubt coriander seeds. They are incredibly versatile citrusy and nutty.

“My favourite thing to do with them is to crush them just a little in a pestle and mortar and mix with almond, honey and then toast in the oven, then serve with chocolate mousse.”

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

I’m definitely sweet, I don’t get the whole rant and rave chef. If the people you work with are not relaxed and happy it transfers to the customer.

“Lots of things annoy me it’s how you deal with it that is key, recognize the annoyance then you can take action to change the situation, communication is very important you can ask my partner Rachel.”

What is the flavour of the moment in your kitchen right now? 

We sell lots of beef short rib, are quite labour intensive these get a dry rub for 24 hrs then slow cooked for 6 hours so the flavour and smell of the kitchen is amazing.

Also as its Christmas menu time lemon shortbread and mulled cider.

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 can’t do anything until I’ve had my espresso, then I’m up out with the dogs then off to work straight next door to Costello coffee for my oat milk piccolo.

“My favourite tea is lychee oolong.

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

I can quite easily eat a whole pack of hobnobs to myself. Biscuits are definitely my downfall.

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

It would have to be Marco Pierre White, he was rock n roll, when White heat came out everyone was blown away, nowadays  it is Tom Brown he’s got a cooking style which really appeals to me, light and simple but maximum flavour.

Both legends Eddie Tse, Eddie’s seafood supermarket, Tim James at Skipness smokehouse and Creelers. Choosing between them would be like picking a favourite friend.

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

Music is always playing in the kitchen so it would have to be music legends; Jimmy Paige from Led Zeppelin, Patti Smith, Bowie or Lee Scratch Perry, they can bring their instruments and it might get loud.

“I’d serve nibbles with Middle eastern pumpkin seed hummus and open some organic wine and then sit back and listen to all the legendary stories which didn’t make the biographies.”

I don’t like…or I’d rather not eat……

“Liquorice is just wrong”

LeftField

12 Barclay Terrace, Bruntsfield,

Edinburgh EH10 4HP

(0131 229 1394)

 

 

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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