Supply chain and recruitment pressures force restaurants to innovate
After 18 years in London kitchens, chef James Ferguson and partner Alethea Palmer moved to a remote corner of Fife to open the Kinneuchar Inn, which sources meat, fish and vegetables from the local estate. But just a few months later Covid hit and the restaurant was forced to close. The FT's Tim Hayward and Daniel Garrahan travel to rural Scotland to see how this farm-to-fork restaurant navigated the pandemic
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis and Richard Topping. Edited and directed by Richard Topping. Produced by Daniel Garrahan and Tim Hayward
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So where are we, Dan? Where are we heading?
North of the border. We're on the road again. We are going to the Ke-new-ka Inn? Kinneuchar Inn. How do you say it?
People who know and are from here. it's pronounced Kinneuchar.
Kinneuchar. Kinneuchar. Kinneuchar.
It's an interesting place because they use almost all of the produce from the estate in which the restaurant is located.
So some of the supply line problems won't have hit them. That's good. That makes sense.
It's a real farm to fork operation. They're aiming for self-sufficiency, and I don't think they're far away from it.
TIM HAYWARD: Well, I'm looking forward to it. I hope the weather holds.
James, Hi. Hi. How are you doing. Nice to see you. Good to see you.
It's good to meet you. Nice to meet you. So what do we got here, James?
So this is Bowhouse. We're on the Balcaskie Estate. And then just down the way here is where we have all our veg growers, Tom and Connie. And then just literally down the road, we've got some Monans and Pittenweem, which is...
That close. Yeah. Where we get all our fish and shellfish. And then in here is the butchery.
OK. So you'll check it out? So I'll leave the butchery to you guys. Maybe I'll see you at the veg. I'm vegetarian of course.
Wow. This is big. So what have we got here?
This was just a bit of four chords meat that I've been chopping up. So getting some stewing cuts out of it, getting some little steak cuts out of it. So this is quite an underused steak. Called the petite tender. But it's essentially sort of second most tender muscle next to a filet. No one knows about it. So it comes out right from the middle of the shoulder. Normally that sort of just comes off as a big piece and it will just get chopped up and put in trim or whatever. But if you just find this little muscle and take it out. So I'm trying to get as many steak cuts as I can out of each cow. So using all these different cuts which are traditionally just thrown in with like stewing or just into mince and actually just trimming them up to give people more of a choice.
I don't like to work in a kitchen where you're just buying in like prime cuts, you know. And not just with cows. Like with sheep as well it's kind of odd to just buy like just a solidly rack of lamb and stuff. It's more interesting for me and much more interesting for the restaurant.
And you're doing sheep and pigs here as well?
Yep. So sheep. The estate have different breeds, which means they can actually produce lamb all year round because they sort of lamb at slightly different times. And I'm also doing quite a lot of mutton as well. So really getting the kind of cull ewes that come from the estate and-...
Tell me what a cull ewe is.
Cull ewe is just a sheep that's not producing any lambs anymore. So it's done it's kind of working life.
I think you've also got as butcher and as a chef, you do have a responsibility I try to educate people towards that. And we should be in cull ewe not just because I think it's ethical, but because it's delicious.
It's really delicious.
So here we are on the estate. This is where you get all the veg.
This is where we get all the veg, which is grown by Connie.
How long have you been here, Connie?
We've been renting land from the estate for three, this is our third growing season.
It's a decent size operation you've got. Wouldn't you say?
It's Two acres, three poly-tunnels. It's a no dig system.
So you're getting 90-ish percent of the vegetables you use in the kitchen from here?
Yeah. I mean we use one other supplier which is over the way. And all the veg that you would say was the blockbuster veg that can be the star of the dish all comes from here.
What difference does that make when you're getting stuff so quickly? Sort of farm to fork.
It's more important that we can get really high quality veg. If we get something that's very high quality we don't want to mess around with it too much. So we won't be adding lots of butter and puree. We like to serve it as it is so you can taste how good it is and hopefully cook it with respect.
So we're hearing a lot about the supply chain squeeze at the moment. Does having access to products like this on your doorstep make you resilient to that?
It makes us a lot more resilient in terms that we don't really have to use like large scale suppliers or as much fruit and veg as some places might use from Europe.
Are you one of the lucky ones in that respect? Not everybody has access like this.
Yeah. I think if you're going to have a rural restaurant you should be using sort of rural produce as well that's grown out here. Because it seems something crazy about having a restaurant in Fife and then going in sort of from London to Edinburgh via Milan in that sense to get veg.
We work on a thing where, like, they send me an email on like a Monday and then they get the same with Lewis who does the fish and I know what there is meat wise as well. So I'll see what's in season and then that will govern what the menu is. Rather than me say this is a menu, I need this, I'll always be like, what do you have that's good? Right. Let's have that, and then let's decide what we're going to do with it. And for me, that's just a more fun, exciting way to cook.
Does that hinder your chances of ever getting a Michelin star?
I mean... I don't know. Look, I imagine there's chefs that do work like that. A long time ago I decided that I hadn't a big interest in awards and stars. What I had an interest in was people sitting down and enjoying food, and that gave me pleasure.
This is all local produce, right?
It's an amazing selection of stuff. Oh, that is just a beauty. These are razor clams, right?
We call these spoose.
Yeah. You're a lucky man.
Yeah. Yeah, I am. Because we've got like the veg literally like just down the road, and then we've got the meat same place. And then the fish here. And it's that freshness that quality that hopefully makes its way onto the plate.
Were you involved in the design of this place?
So there was already a couple who were the architects. Sort of coming on board and doing the interiors. And then really when we came on board it was sort of nine months before the end of the project. And so I then would meet with the architects because there was a sort of whole idea of here, but also I just needed to come in and get a bit more practical.
For example, the bar didn't have that hole coming through. I had to fight--
Good Lord. Really?
...really hard to get that because they said no, it doesn't really work with whole visual. And I said, but this is so necessary.
Service flow is everything. And it's two extra members of staff to cover the...
Yeah, so just little things like that. But this was really built from the inside out.
You've ended up with an easy utilitarianism aesthetic.
Yeah there is sort of sparsity, but also...
Yes, austere but comfortable.
I wanted people to feel that they're being welcomed into our home as it were, sort of with the food and the service and sort of feeling comfortable from the minute you arrive.
What are you doing here, James?
Yeah, sorry. So these are the pork pies that we've got at the moment in the restaurant. So I'm just adding the jelly, which is traditional in a pork pie.
I can't help but notice that you're injecting this pie. Is that the traditional technique?
No I used to use a jug I've found a little bit less messy to use the sort of meat injector. And also, quite apt at the moment, like it's getting vaccinated.
Is it going to be double jabbed? Or triple jabbed.
It's getting like 20 times jabbed, this one. Be completely immune from anything by the time it's done.
Tell me about your story, James. How long were you working in London? 18 years working in London kitchens?
So I grew up in a restaurant which was in Halifax, in Yorkshire. And then I moved to London and this woman Angela Hartnett was opening at the Connaught and they needed chefs to be there. So I took the job there.
After 18 years in London, what led you to this corner of Scotland?
Well basically I was asked to look at this place. I bumped into someone in Shoreditch. She was looking for a chef to take over here, and she offered for me to come up... they'd pay for us to come up and have a look. I said yes and we came up. Then when we saw the produce and everything else that was around there, we thought, well.
Were you ever a bit concerned it was sort of in a remote part of the country?
Yeah! I mean I was concerned up to the point when... before we opened and when we opened. Anyone who opens a business, especially somewhere they don't know. Like an area they don't know if they tell you that they're not concerned, then I think they should have been.
This place from the outside, is it's like a corner pub in a very, very, very small... I suppose village is the word for it.
How were you greeted when you arrived? What happened with the locals?
I think it was difficult, because obviously this was a very old, traditional pub. Which previously everything had been traditional fare, as they refer to it. So it was quite tricky to sort of open and people suddenly had been coming here for 20, 30 years to suddenly come in and just think, what is going on here?
We opened at the end of September 2019 and then managed to get six months. And we were working incredibly hard and we were really, really busy, and then like everyone else we just fell off a cliff. We then decided to do a sort of voluntary service for the village. So that we made food at cost. I think people really appreciated that in the village, and we suddenly made quite a lot of friends.
So what happened then? You brought some guys up from London to work in the kitchen.
One of the guys that moved up with his family and everything. And then after sort of three months of the pandemic he decided to move back down. And then the other chef that was with me that had been with me from the start, he didn't want to be around anymore. He wanted to be down in Yorkshire where he was originally from.
Staffing hasn't really sorted itself out. It's hard rurally but I think it's been hard in big cities like London as well because I think some people have had this time off with furlough and they've reassessed what they want to do with their lives. It's been more of a struggle to get staff.
So it's one of the legacies of the pandemic for the restaurant business, do you think, going to be that staff are going to have to be paid a little bit more?
Well I think it's already starting back in the day. Like when you started off you got paid very little and you worked a lot of hours. And it's like, well, you just accepted it then. But I think these days people just don't want to do that. And I can see why. Yeah.
So you're opening up now back up to full speed.
Are you finding staff?
Staffing is a problem. You know we are struggling to find another chef to come on board, particularly where we are. Someone's got to make sort of a life choice to come and be here if they want to work in a kitchen. It does feel positive, but I think it's about attracting people to come and work for us. And therefore, we have to manage expectations and also look at how we run the business and look at pricing and all of those things. And pricing needs to perhaps go up and things need to reflect people's wages, people's way of life. It's trying to find that balance. Great food. If you don't have great service, it's the two have to go hand in hand because otherwise it doesn't work.
Tim, when James and Alethea came up here in 2019 after sort of 18 years working down in London, it was already a bit of a punt. But then a few months later along came Covid and completely turn their plans upside down.
It was definitely a risk, but strangely mitigated. I mean they were invited up here. They were recruited up here by the Anstruther family who own the estate up here, and there was a plan, I think, to try and create a little bubble of food appreciation and foodie-ness.
It hasn't been plain sailing, though.
Oh, God no.
They had to win hearts and minds. The locals didn't necessarily take to them straight away.
Extraordinarily difficult. But what's happened is it's a double-edged story. I think that they were helped to set up. They got started. Covid hit. Covid immediately hit them very, very hard. But also enabled them to forge relationships with the people around them. Coming out of it, they've been partially insulated but they've also used that time to become more flexible in what they've thought about, to think more creatively. And to establish themselves. The food we're eating here at the moment is the kind of stuff you'd be expected from a place that's been here 20 years. It's confident. It's well thought out, and it mirrors the area around.
Well, speaking of, the squid on your plate is the same squid that we saw freshly caught yesterday. So they're really making the most of this amazing produce that's right on their doorstep. They're protected from all these issues around squeeze of supply chains that we're seeing. And they've got some fantastic produce which people might travel from far and wide to come and see.
It's a fascinating all round story. Different from other Covid stories we've seen, but that's been the most remarkable part about going out and visiting businesses during and after. It's not even just a regional thing. It's not just that Scotland has different Covid rules to the UK. It's far more than that. It's a postcode. Literally another village two kilometres off that way will have a totally different story.
There really isn't a difficulty getting people to come here and eat great food. What we're going to have to worry about now is are there enough people to cook it, to serve it? And will people pay enough money to actually cover the increasing costs of even the lovely producers here. The price of that is going to go up.
Yes, still so much uncertainty ahead. But as far as I'm concerned from where I'm sitting, I think this is worth every penny.
Yeah, I think you're right.