(* This exclusive story was first published in The Herald, June 29, 2018.)
Graeme Cheevers, head chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant Martin Wishart Loch Lomond at Cameron House Hotel, which was destroyed by fire last December, has revealed for the first time his devastation on seeing his future “reduced to ashes”, and how the tragedy sent him into depression.
As he prepared to take up his new post as executive chef at the luxury Isle of Eriska hotel near Oban, Argyll, the 30-year-old said how losing his Loch Lomondside restaurant – where he had retained the Michelin star for seven consecutive years – affected his mental and physical wellbeing amid fears he was facing the end of his stellar career.
“I found out about the fire at around 7am on the Monday morning [of December 18] when a supplier, who had been delivering some produce, texted me a photograph of the hotel in flames,” he said. “I had taken my staff out for a Christmas night out in Glasgow on the Sunday evening, as the restaurant was closed on Mondays, and when I got the text I simply could not believe what I was seeing. I thought, ‘This can’t be right’. I was in shock. It was worse than seeing your own house devastated by fire because I spent most of my life in there and had put my heart and soul into it.
“It was like the 15 years I’d spent building up my career were suddenly reduced to ashes, just like that.”
"I didn't know what I was going into, as we had no idea of what state it would be in and if we would ever get it back,” he said. “The water from the fire hoses, together with the smoke, had ruined everything. I had to clear it all out. It was a hard job and it was not nice.”
The aftermath was even worse.
“To go from working up to 16-hour days to zero had a bad effect on my health,” he added. “I couldn’t sleep or eat. I was very upset and depressed. At my lowest point I thought I was done."
During the six months since the fire, he has been helping Wishart at his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in Leith and with his various consultancy projects, as well as doing guest chef pop-ups and travelling on research trips in an attempt to “keep the creative juices flowing”. But it wasn’t enough. Only 11 Scottish restaurants have one Michelin star, and opportunities at that level did not appear forthcoming.
“Martin has been very supportive, and he is keen to hold on to me, but he understands that I can’t go on like this forever,” he says. “I have been busy but I wasn’t being head chef and you don’t realise how much you miss cooking at that level, day in day out, until you’re no longer doing it.
“The eight years I worked with Martin [Wishart] were the best of my life, but we don’t know when the hotel can re-open and I just can’t keep waiting for something that might not happen. It’s not good for me to be off the scene for too long. So, sadly, it’s time to go.”
Now, as the forensic investigation into the fatal fire continues, he is finally moving on.
The Isle of Eriska is situated on a private island just off Oban, and a luxury Relais et Chateaux hotel managed by ICMI. It lost its coveted Michelin star last year when head chef Paul Leonard moved on. As its new executive chef, Paisley-born Cheevers - who has worked in New York at Thomas Keller’s triple Michelin starred Per Se and at Daniel Humm’s triple-starred Eleven Madison Park - aims to regain the Michelin star, and will double his kitchen brigade with young Scots chefs to help achieve that.
“I’m not afraid to say I want that Michelin star back and will go all out to get it,” he said.
Martin Wishart, pictured below, said: “While I am sad to be losing Graeme I could not be happier for him. Someone with his talent he needs to be cooking and creating, and now he will have the opportunity to carry on the fantastic work he was doing with me.”