Chef Tony Borthwick has uprooted his Michelin-starred restaurant The Plumed Horse from Galloway and is re-opening it in Leith. In the process he’s confirmed Leith’s status as one of the hottest culinary spots in Britain. Barry Shelby meets the man who’s c
Chef Tony Borthwick has uprooted his Michelin-starred restaurant The Plumed Horse from Galloway and is re-opening it in Leith. In the process he’s confirmed Leith’s status as one of the hottest culinary spots in Britain. Barry Shelby meets the man who’s cooking up a storm.
Like writers roused from their slumbers by ideas for the next chapter in a novel, Tony Borthwick has been kept awake until 5am by thoughts of a dish he wants to prepare. The Michelin star-holding chef, however, can’t literally cook it because he is still in the process of moving his Plumed Horse restaurant from the bucolic setting of Galloway to the rather more gritty port of Leith.
When the restaurant does open (the end of November is the target), it may mark a watershed for the Scots capital. Combined with the esteemed Restaurant Martin Wishart (one Michelin star) and newcomer Tom Kitchin’s Kitchin restaurant, Borthwick’s arrival creates a rather cast-iron triangle of quality cooking. An area with two Michelin award-winning chefs within virtual oil-spattering distance has few precedents in the UK. Foodies can point to Ludlow, for example, in Shropshire or the London district of Chelsea. Even if the Michelin man doesn’t bestow a star initially next January to Borthwick (he suspects not, as the move was poorly timed given the guide’s deadlines), Leith will be a bona fide gourmand’s destination.
That’s before one considers the supporting acts, too: such as the List’s Restaurant of the year, the sumptuous Vintner’s Rooms, and the host of solid fish and seafood restaurants from the Waterfront to Fishers.
Curiously enough, Borthwick says it was Wishart who suggested he come north. ‘In the early part of the year, Martin put the idea in my head,’ the Yorkshireman recalls. ‘He said there was plenty of business for everyone.’ Instead of worrying about the scrum for business and losing trade, Borthwick says Wishart emphasised how they could ‘enhance’ the area.
‘I was particularly looking at Leith, as opposed to Edinburgh,’ he says. ‘People with smaller minds will say that all we are going to do is compete. But Martin Wishart and I have two totally different styles of restaurant.’
Indeed, Borthwick’s reputation rests on innovation and international influences on mostly local and seasonal ingredients, while Wishart brings classically trained Gallic touches to modern French meals. Sample dishes? Roast loin of pork with braised belly stuffed with prunes (Borthwick), in contrast to roast halibut, glazed pig’s trotter and braised endive (Wishart). The Plumed Horse, as before, will accommodate only about 28 diners at any one time. Wishart’s restaurant can now take up to 55 covers (averaging 45 every night).
Wishart confirms that he encouraged Borthwick to come to Edinburgh. ‘I’m delighted he’s going to be our neighbour,’ he says. ‘Tony was involved in the Scottish Food Scholarship along with other Michelin starred chefs. We started talking about business and I said there was plenty of room in Edinburgh, especially for a smaller restaurant with a chef/owner.’ As for competition, Wishart is unafraid. ‘If you’re on the ball and run your business correctly, you shouldn’t need to fear competition. For customers, more choice is great. If we share customers, all the better. I don’t see it as competition in a negative sense.
‘Leith has a village feel around the Shore area,’ he says. “There are already well-established good restaurants. Between Tony, Tom Kitchin and myself, it all just highlights Leith itself.’
Borthwick implies he was getting itchy in Crossmichael near Castle Douglas for a while. Keeping staff was difficult, and off-season mid-week nights could be spent watching Coronation Street rather than cooking. Having secured the star, he was named chef of the year by the Scottish Chef’s Association in 2005. Time had come to scratch that itch. While he relishes a challenge, he returns repeatedly to finances, as well. If he had stayed in the countryside, he fears he would have ended up a ‘poor old man. I need to be practical. Hopefully I’ll make enough to pay off this wee flat.’
His commitment to Leith appears quite strong. There is the ‘wee flat’ into which he and his partner have had to shoehorn belongings (having vacated a six-room farmhouse). The premise for the new restaurant in Henderson Street has a 20-year contract. ‘I’m here for the long haul,’ he says. ‘I want something that will become an institution.’
He says coming to the city wasn’t a difficult transition. He plans to give up his car and has found the birdlife around Rennie’s Isle surprisingly diverse (he recently spotted a rare puffin-like seabird). While raised in rural surroundings, he has done stints in London and Glasgow previously. ‘Cities are just loads of villages pushed together,’ he says.
The self-taught chef cut his professional catering teeth at the Savoy Hotel, having left Yorkshire after recovering from a broken neck. ‘That was a life-changing event,’ he says. ‘I always loved to cook.’ He calls his time at the Savoy his ‘national service’: ‘nothing prepares you for the abuse,’ he says. The experience taught him less about cooking than about discipline and teamwork. ‘You learn how to organise and why you need hierarchies.’
Despite the Michelin pedigree, Borthwick doesn’t allow his restaurant to be stuffy. In Galloway, the Plumed Horse overcame ‘preconceptions’ about what a Michelin starred restaurant is like. He wants his front of house staff to be ‘correct’ but not intrusive: a balance of pleasantness and professionalism. ‘Employ nice people and it can happen naturally.’
Martin Wishart predicts success. ‘Smaller, individual restaurants deserve to be supported and I think he is going to find that Edinburgh will give him support,’ he says. Borthwick is pleased that advance interest has been ‘nothing short of phenomenal.’ He says, ‘It feels as if there has been more interest in booking a table in what’s a building site than when it was an operating Michelin starred restaurant.’
As we wrap up the interview, he says that after a slow start, the joiner’s work on the Plumed Horse’s interiors has noticeably accelerated. Good news. ‘I’m bored,’ he admits. And that dish that keeps him up a night? A boneless whole lemon sole stuffed with a lobster mousseline. He acknowledges that obsessing about a particular dish may sound ‘sad’ and that he needs to get back on the tools soon. ‘It’s for my own health.’
For updates on the Plumed Horse, log onto www. www.plumedhorse.co.uk or to book call 0131 554 5556