There's a reason so many travelers head to the glorious countryside outside Edinburgh, and it's not just the golf at Gleneagles. Writer Jay Rayner learns why when he takes a class with Nick Nairn at the celebrity chef's fabulous cooking school.
Nick Nairn knows how to play to a crowd. He has proved it time and again during more than a decade on British television, and he's determined to prove it again today at his eponymous cooking school an hour north of Edinburgh, even though there are just 10 students in the classroom. Nairn quickly takes us through the first dish we'll be learning today, a chocolate pot. (He'd never call it a pot de crème; that's too fancy.) Dark chocolate goes into a blender followed by a warmed mixture of milk and cream. He holds up a brown egg. "The eggs come from the hens that live out there," he says, waving in the direction of his chicken run. Nairn cracks it into the blender with a flourish; all the mixture needs now is a few hours in the fridge to set.
For a decade Nairn was one of Scotland's few Michelin-starred chefs. Then two years ago, he left the restaurant business entirely to dedicate himself to the Nick Nairn Cook School, spending almost $2 million on renovating and expanding the facilities on his family's property on the shores of the Lake of Menteith. It's as if Jean-Georges Vongerichten or Nobu Matsuhisa had decided to drop everything and retire to the countryside to give lessons. Today the school offers a range of options, from daylong classes in single subjects like how to cook fish or prepare tapas to a five-day master class series that covers skills like making stocks and sauces or understanding the chemistry of baking.
The school feels like a retreat, with whitewashed walls and honey-colored timbers in a modern Scandinavian style. The classroom includes 10 state-of-the art cooking stations that can handle 20 students. Across the hall is an elegant dining room with a wood-burning oven overlooking the school's organic herb garden and greenhouse.
Outside the school, the rolling pastures of the Scottish Lowlands give way to the more rugged landscape of the bracken- and heather-clad Highlands, and even on the gloomiest of days the countryside is dramatic. Clouds hang low above the hilltops and the air smells sweetly of the dark damp earth. It's easy to take a week's vacation in the area, to hike alongside the lochs and through the valleys or head over to Gleneagles for some of the best golf in the world. And, better still, to dine at the Gleneagles Hotel, where chef Andrew Fairlie has just become the first Scottish chef in five years to earn two Michelin stars.
But what has brought us here today is Nairn, even though he doesn't lead many of the courses at the school himself. "Nick's name is very important to it," says one of my classmates, who's here for his fourth time. "I've got many of his cookbooks. The recipes are laid out simply and are full of wee tips and shortcuts." The classes are full of tips as well, like how to deseed a chile (use a teaspoon) and how to tell when a skillet is hot enough to cook with. ("Nay sizzle, sad pan," Nairn says in his soft Scottish burr. "Not enough heat.") When Nairn is not in charge, classes are led by John Webber, a comforting block of a man with a tidy frosting of white hair, who trained at the legendary Savoy and Dorchester hotels in London and who has held Michelin stars in his own right. He's accompanied by the darker, leaner Alan Mathieson, who has also had a long career at top restaurants.
"You have to simplify and explain," Nairn tells me after class. "A lot of chefs complicate things." Nairn admits he did that too for a while, when he started cooking for awards rather than for his customers. A self-trained chef, he first discovered the joys of food while in the Merchant Navy: "I was in Singapore trying satay for the first time, and it was like eating in Technicolor." Back in Scotland he was too poor to eat in restaurants, so Nairn started cooking for himself. He realized he had found his calling.
In the mid-'80s he opened his first restaurant, Braeval, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was soon a success—in 1991 he won a Michelin star—and a number of the dishes he devised then are still in his repertoire. One, a roasted duck salad with crispy parsnips and lentils, he created by mistake. "I was frying some duck when some lentils accidentally fell in," he says. "Then I put in the parsnips for texture."
Next he gave television a try. He made three series for the BBC about Scottish produce and became a regular on the game show Ready Steady Cook. Many of Nairn's 15 books, among them New Scottish Cookery and Nick Nairn's Top 100 Salmon Recipes, became best-sellers, and he opened a second restaurant, Nairns, in Glasgow. But the hours and the pressure of celebrity took its toll, and he returned to the Lake of Menteith to spend more time with his family. "I am comfortable with television," he says, "but I also hate it. It's self-important."
Nairn, now 47, lives in the house where he grew up, with his wife, Holly (who oversees all the gardening), and their two children, Daisy, three, and Callum, two. When Nairn isn't at the school, he's climbing the hills or windsurfing across the lake."The landscape is very important to me," he says. "I take huge sustenance from the lakes and the hills." He says his mother was a great cook and now that he's a father himself, he finds himself returning to the dishes his mom used to make. "Scottish beef stew is something I eat a lot right now," he says.
The next morning Nairn offers to demonstrate for me an Asian langoustine salad he first served at Braeval. "The only thread I can pull through my food is that Scotland has an abundance of high-quality products, the best prawns, beef and venison in the world," he says. "But I don't feel bound to cook in a Scottish style." The langoustines, which were caught only the day before in the far northwest of Scotland, are still alive when they arrive. Nairn promptly dispatches half a dozen in boiling water before peeling them and, ever the teacher, he explains how to gauge freshness. "There are enzymes that quickly turn the flesh yellow if it's been dead too long," he says.
Then he puts together the salad, tossing mango and cashews with mizuna, lamb's lettuce and radicchio—most grown in the school's greenhouse. "From about April, the garden makes us almost self-sufficient in salads and herbs," he says. Finally, he sears the langoustines in a smear of hot oil. After that it's simply a matter of bringing all these flavors together, with a dressing of sweet chile sauce and rice vinegar. The result is sweet and salty, hot and sour. It may not be the taste of Scotland, but it's certainly the taste of Nick Nairn.
Jay Rayner, the restaurant critic for Britain's Observer, is the author of the novel Eating Crow.