[I had the privilege of speaking with Andrew Fairlie - whose eponymous restaurant at Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire is the only one in Scotland ot have two Michelin stars - at his home on November 5, 2018. A short version of this interview was published exclusively in The Times on November 6, 2018. Photos courtesy @glossphoto @thetimesscot. Portrait on wall by Fairlie’s long-time collaborator and friend @archie_forrest.]
His kitchen is thronged with the electrical paraphernalia of healthy eating: a vegetable juicer, a Nutribullet and food processor greet me at I walk into Andrew Fairlie’s gorgeous family home in Auchterarder. Maintaining optimum nutrition as staying as fit as possible are vital for Scotland’s most celebrated chef, who is still coming to terms with the reality that his brain tumour has now entered the terminal phase. Chemotherapy was discontinued and he was discharged from the Beatson Cancer Centre, Glasgow, in June.
Turmeric tea, green smoothies and fresh Thai curries are now part of his daily diet thanks to his fiancée [now wife] Kate White, who has taken a sabbatical from her Naturopathic Nutrition studies at Napier University. Maintaining muscle strength is also increasingly important as Fairlie’s sense of balance wanes: his left arm has lost it power and he wears a leg splint to help keep his left foot steady. A wheelchair is at hand.
Also cramming the open-plan space are bouquets of beautiful flowers, sent over the last few days by friends across the world in delighted response to the happy news that the couple are to marry within days. Just days ago it was alive to the sound of champagne corks popping, as Kate’s friends held a surprise engagement party for her here just days ago.
This peaceful domestic kitchen, whose exquisite views of the Ochil Hills are even more beguiling on this misty November morning, is where Fairlie - who not that long ago interrupted a course of chemotherapy to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for the hospitality charity HIT Scotland - now spends much of his time. He said goodbye to his beloved professional kitchen at his eponymous restaurant at the Gleneagles Hotel, which has maintained two Michelin stars for an astonishing 14 consecutive years, just two days before we meet [on Saturday, November 3rd].
“Giving up my restaurant kitchen was the hardest part of all,” he says, visibly fighting fatigue, breathlessness and a weepiness he says is caused by the steroids he’s been on since July. “I gathered the staff and told them I was stepping down. The fact that I’ll never be back, never have that buzz and atmosphere of the kitchen again, was very emotional.
“But it’s dangerous for me to be there. I’d just be a liability if I kept hanging around.”
Following intense discussions with Gleneagles Hotel owners Ennismore the Perth-born chef, who turns 55 later this month, officially hands over his restaurant to his three long-time colleagues and friends - business partner Gregor Mathieson, head chef Stevie McLaughlin, and restaurant manager Dale Dewsbury, pictured L-R above - on February 1, 2019. They have each signed five-year rolling contracts. The world-famous eaterie - the only one in Scotland to hold two Michelin stars - will continue to operate as Restaurant Andrew Fairlie.
“Knowing that the restaurant will continue is a massive relief,” he says. “I’d had so many sleepless nights worrying about what would happen. My worst case scenario was that Gleneagles would take back the space and give it to some other chef. I am very grateful that it is not the case and that my legacy will continue.”
The arrangement was made after Fairlie sought a meeting with Sharan Pasricha, owner of the Gleneagles Hotel, four weeks ago to tell him the news that he would have to stand down.
Since his initial diagnosis in 2005 chef has endured the partial removal of the tumour on the right-hand-side of his brain and has since undergone medication for the seizures he’s suffered since 2010, plus three courses of chemotherapy and one of radiotherapy. He tells me he was discharged from the Beatson Cancer Centre, Glasgow, in June as there is no more treatment or surgery available, and referred to his Tayside GP. He prescribed a course of steroids to reduce the swelling around the tumour.
“The steroids were immediately effective at first in helping my balance but you can’t stay on them for too long because of the side-effects - including having a moon face - so we’re currently reducing the dose,” explains Fairlie who, against all odds, has retained not only his highly developed sense of taste, but also his impish sense of humour.
“I always knew it was going to be terminal, but walking away from the Beatson suddenly made it very real,” he continues. “They just showed me the scan and told me there was no point in staying on chemo. That’s when Kate and I asked, ‘Surely that can’t be it?’ We looked into alternative therapies and travelled to Germany to see a doctor about Parovirus, which is injected directly into the tumour and involves removing part of the skull, but I decided I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be travelling around the world chasing the end of the rainbow. Once we’d parked that I became resigned to the fact that yes, it was terminal. At that point I knew I had a timetable to stick to to get everything sorted out.”
Sharan Pasricha, who travelled from London specially to meet with Fairlie, asked him what he wanted to do.
“I told him the history between the four of us, that we go all the way back to One Devonshire Gardens days, and that I had massive respect for what they have achieved. I asked if it would be possible to keep the restaurant going for 18 months to two years. Sharan went completely the other way, and said, ‘My goodness, we want this to continue for five, ten, fifteen years and more. Restaurant Andrew Fairlie is now integral to Gleneagles.’ He insisted it retain my name. It was a massive weight off my shoulders to know the 30 staff will be ok, and that my life’s work will not turn to dust.”
With characteristic self-deprecation, the quietly-spoken chef – who never shouts or swears in his famous kitchen, has long been a supporter of female chefs, and is a great collaborator - confides that he didn’t want his chosen team to feel any obligation to commit to the huge responsibility of continuing if they didn’t want to. “But they didn’t hesitate. They said they wanted to continue what we started 18 years ago, and they take over officially on February 1 next year.”
Conor O’Leary, general manager of Gleneagles, later told me: “We’re incredibly proud to be retaining Restaurant Andrew Fairlie as our collaboration has been extremely successful and enjoyable. In some ways what Andrew has created is bigger than him and it will not be limited to him. Under Dale, Gregor and Stevie, we look forward to continuing to evolve long into the future.”
Though he’s no longer in the kitchen, Fairlie is still very much in touch with Stevie and the team, and they continue to collaborate and plan for the future. Menu development centres around the Victorian walled kitchen garden in Perthshire which Fairlie acquired four years ago - a move which he once told me was the most exciting thing to happen to him since the start of his 40-year career. “It’s given me a new direction and a whole new lease of life, and completely galvanized the menus,” he said then. It’s run by Jo Campbell and her team, and daily produce has had a striking effect on the menus which now headline plant-based dishes and, in line with global trends, will continue to develop a range of natural infusions, fermentations, drying processes and picklings.
He says now: “I want the restaurant always to be as relevant, modern and creative as it has been for 18 years. Dale is the best restaurant manager in the country and Stevie, with his exquisite palate and technique, has been head chef since we got the second Michelin star in 2006 and has been running the kitchen for the last two years.” (Continues …)
We drive to the restaurant for photographs, and I talk with Dale, Gregor and Stevie. It’s clear they are fiercely protective of their beloved friend and colleague, and there’s infinite tenderness as Dale declares on their behalf: “This is a huge commitment for us but we are excited about carrying forward the energy and dynamism of restaurant and not letting Andrew down, while trying not to think about the circumstances.”
Gregor adds: “The restaurant has never been a temple of gastronomy, and it never will be. We take a holistic approach to the whole dining experience and nothing will be set in aspic.” He reveals that their beloved walled garden is undergoing expansion. “We’ve invested a lot in the garden to give us more growing capability. We’ve never been more connected to culinary trends across the world.”
Stevie is busy working with Andrew and Jo on ways of extending the seasons so that abundant vegetation in summer is preserved for the leaner months. “For me it is very exciting to keep evolving and to be teaming up with professional fermenters from around the world, sharing ideas and working together,” he says. Natural plant-based infusions, fermentations, pickling and drying techniques are just part of it. “We know that’s our energy, our dynamism. We want to be the best. The challenge for us is to be a better two-Michelin starred restaurant every year.
“We’re incredibly proud to be retaining the name Andrew Fairlie.”
Back at the house, I ask if he has any idea of what to expect in the short to long term. “It’s very difficult for the doctors as it’s impossible to predict how it’s going to manifest itself, and they are taking their cue from me,” he answers. “I don’t know how long it will be. It’s getting harder to cope with my mobility and fatigue and I feel within myself that I’m getting weaker and weaker. But I feel very peaceful.”
He is happy to have finally proposed to Kate (pictured right), who has been his partner for ten years and whom he describes as "my rock, my true love". He popped the question two weeks ago and they tell me they are to marry in two days’ time in a private family ceremony to be attended by both sets of parents, plus Fairlie’s two grown-up daughters Ilona and Leah, and Kate’s two daughters Kitty, 16, and Rosie, 13. He says: “Getting married to Kate is the final part of the jigsaw. People ask why it’s taken so long but the timing just feels right.” As they exchange loving glances, Kate says: "Our love has become stronger than we've ever known and we have a closeness that is unfathomable. It's now about making every day gorgeous and making lovely plans."
And on November 22 he plans to take Dale, Gregor and Stevie to the three-Michelin-starred Les Pres d’Eugenie in south-west France to spend time with head chef Michel Guerard – where Fairlie worked at age 20 as the prize for winning the very first Roux Scholarship in 1984.
“That’s where it all began,” says Fairlie now. “I’m giving this to the boys not only because I love them, but to give them the opportunity of improving and taking the restaurant into the future.
“They are already developing the menus for next year. If they get three Michelin stars at some point I’d be delighted for them.
“This is not the end.”
· Chef Andrew Fairlie grew up in a council house in Letham, Perth, with his parents and four siblings. His 40-year cooking career began upon leaving Perth Academy with no qualifications at age 15 when he trained with head chef Keith Podmore at the Station Hotel in Perth and followed him to London. He went on to win the first-ever Roux Scholarship in 1984 at age 20.
· In 1994 he took his first head chef role at Ken McCulloch’s One Devonshire Gardens (now part of Hotel du Vin) in Glasgow and got his first Michelin star there in 1996 – the city’s first for many years, and now long lost.
· He left in 2001 to open Restaruant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. It achieved a Michelin star in 2002, and a second in 2006. It has been Scotland’s only two-Michelin starred restaurant ever since. In 2012 it topped the Sunday Times Food List of the top 100 UK restaurants, and last year it became one of only seven other long-standing two- or three-Michelin starred restaurants in the UK, and the first-ever in Scotland, to be inducted into the exclusive group of 170 Grands Tables du Monde.