It’s amusing to see how Gary Maclean is getting used to celebrity as Britain’s newest Professional MasterChef title holder. At home with his family in north Glasgow some days after his high-profile win, it’s clear his two youngest sons are oblivious to their father’s newfound fame. Finlay, 4, is feigning a momentary illness and seeking a fatherly cuddle while Harris, 3, is stirring an imaginary pot of soup on his toy cooker and attempting to poke a wooden steak into his dad’s mouth. From an adjoining room the family dog barks in time to a CBeebies song on the telly, and the smoke alarm in the kitchen is beeping. Beads of sweat start to appear on dad’s forehead as he moves from keeping the kids amused in the living room to tending the hot stove in the kitchen, where for The Herald Magazine he’s preparing a version of the dish that helped him become Scotland’s newest culinary sensation.
I tell him I feel his stress, but the father-of-five bats away my sympathy.
“I’m used to it. I do all the cooking for the family and all my kids have different meal requirements and tastes. Maybe now you can understand why for me doing MasterChef was a breeze,” he jokes as he hands Harris to his wife Sharon and swiftly pan-fries wraps of haggis in Feuilles de Brick pastry until they’re golden brown, while checking the progress of pigeon breasts in the oven. I get to stir the pigeon Scotch broth that goes with this winning dish, admiring its tiny dice of the vegetables and gamey aroma. This five-ring gas stove with double-width electric oven is festooned with magnetic digital timers and it’s where he practised some of his MasterChef plates. The place is pristine, and everything is in its place.
The original version of our dish was Maclean’s penultimate offering on the BBC2 primetime cookery competition, which drew an audience of over 10 million over the three shows of finals week. Made to the theme of homeland, it prompted judge Marcus Wareing to declare the chef-lecturer had “nailed the flag of Scotland to the mast of the MasterChefUK kitchen”.
Though there’s no cash prize for winning and no sign of the famous trophy - he hasn’t officially received it yet - his life has changed dramatically since December 22. Followers on his Twitter account, which he had opened as a senior chef lecturer on City of Glasgow College’s HND Professional Cookery course, leapt from 2000 to over 11,000 in the two weeks to the finals. He gained 4000 followers within two hours of launching his FaceBook page - and he personally answered every one of the 1000 private messages of congratulations he received. When he posted the video of his family watching him win the final, it was viewed by 240,000 people in a week. The BBC public relations team tell me he has been a “very popular winner”.
“It’s nuts,” he says with what I suspect is a rather nervous laugh. “I met with an avalanche. People talk to me as if they’ve known me all their life. That’s the effect of television.
“But I do think I touched a nerve. I’m a bit different from the other contestants. I’m not a restaurant chef; I’m a teacher from Glasgow with five kids. And I’m older too.”
Does having so many social media followers add to the pressure to constantly feed them new information? Does he feel he’s expected to comment on political or social issues of the day?
“My passion is Scottish food and Scottish restaurants and I’m very careful about what I tweet,” he says.
He recently signed with Hartmann Media to handle his public relations, and smiles when I ask if he’s considering doing a fashion shoot: founder Tessa Hartmann CBE, a former fashion editor at large at the Sunday Herald, founded the Scottish Fashion Awards and now has offices in London and Jersey as well as Glasgow. “I’m not doing any fashion but Tessa and her team will organise my public profile for demonstrations, public appearances and so on. I’d love to do more television and getting someone to help me makes it easier to negotiate terms.” Though he’ll never leave teaching or set up his own restaurant, he’s considering series of pop-ups and guest chef events. Invitations are flooding in by the day. He is to take over from Andrew Fairlie as a judge on the prestigious CIS Excellence Awards.
To say Maclean has worked hard to get where he is today is an understatement. Part of a family of seven children (he has five brothers and one sister) whose father was a painter and decorator to trade, he left Knightswood secondary school in the city’s west end at age 15. “Home economics and drama were the only things I was good at. I loved history but was rubbish at it,” he says. “I knew from age 12 that I wanted to be a chef and didn’t think a chef needed to know about anything other than food.” He attended Anniesland College’s catering and welding courses one day a week from age 14 while at school. “When I was young it was all about getting a job. My oldest children are all academic but we worry about them finding work after graduating.”
Prior to teaching full-time at City of Glasgow College – which, he points out, is one of the UK’s top three catering colleges alongside University College Birmingham and Westminster Kingsway – 1990s he was head chef at Ferrier Richardson’s Yes restaurant in the city centre, and at October in Princes Square. Then Glasgow museums. He then joined G1, Stefan King’s expanding group of bars and restaurants throughout Glasgow. “When I started with Stefan he had four outlets and when I left seven years later he had 100,” he says. “There was no central menu, everything was different for every restaurant. I came up with concepts for all of them, from fine-dining to £3 pizzas. It was a great time.”
Thereafter he was executive chef at Buzzworks, which has restaurants and hotels across Ayrshire and was recently named one of the 100 best companies to work for [in the Sunday Times]. “I really admire Colin Blair of Buzzworks, and I love his whole approach. He understands his customer completely. I really did get a buzz from working at venues that woujld do 1000 covers on a Saturday. I got excited by the fact they were so busy and wanted to find out why. It was all about the customer.”
During all this time, he was teaching every Wednesday for 13 years in conjunction with his cheffing work. He did his teacher training at Dundee University and has been full-time at the college for six years.
Chefs need to understand the work that's involved in getting food and ingredients to them
The four-year HND Professional Cookery course at the newly-rebuilt college is full, and has a waiting list. Since Maclean joined, they have put on two extra classes for 3rd years and one extra for 4th year. Maclean teaches hot and cold kitchen, larder skills such as butchery, bakery and fishmongery, runs all the menus for the entire college, and teaches in Scholars restaurant once a week. “Any chef needs to know how to do the basics. They can’t expect to ring a supplier at 11pm and get fresh ingredients delivered at 8am. They need to understand the work that’s involved in getting it to them.” He reckons TV cookery shows and the birth of the celebrity chef have helped play a part in growing interest in working in the industry.
“Look at the number of restaurants that have opened in the last five years,” he remarks. “When I worked at Yes in the 1990s and Number 78 opened nearby, I remember people saying there was not enough room for another fine-dining restaurant in the city. Now there’s one on every corner and each vacant site becomes a place to eat. But many buy in food that’s already prepared. Steaks come in pre-cut, venison loin is pre-portioned and fish is already filleted. So the chefs aren’t picking up those basic skills. That said, the town is busier and there’s more of a buzz than when I was working in the industry.”
Does he have an opinion as to why, even with all these restaurants, Glasgow doesn’t have a Michelin star? “If Andrew Fairlie was still here Glasgow would have two stars and there wouldn’t be such a drama about this,” he says. “Liverpool and Manchester city centres don’t have one but they don’t get the same grief. People forget we have Michelin stars close to Glasgow, at Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond and Braidwoods in Dalry. And there are some fantastic young chef-patrons doing their own thing in Glasgow. I gave Jonathan McDonald of Ox and Finch his first job as a dishwasher at Yes restaurant. We have former students all over.” Calum Montgomery, who has just taken over as head chef at the Michelin-starred Kinloch Lodge, Graeme Cheevers at Martin Wishart Loch Lomond, and upmarket London chocolatier William Curley, are among Maclean’s many other graduates.
Why did he want to teach instead of running his own restaurant? “My college life has been part of everything I’ve done,” he replies. “I met my wife Sharon when we were both 17 and attending Glasgow College of Technology. I’ve always been attached to it. And anyway, all my friends are chefs.”
Sharon has been a chef as long as he has. She worked for 20 years at the Failte pub, previously Finnegan’s Wake, in St Vincent Street before giving up to look after the children. After Cameron, 20, Ewan, 16, and Laura, 14, she had a stillborn daughter, Eilidh, in 2011, before going on to have Finlay and then Harris, who was born 11 weeks premature and is recovering from chronic lung disease and heart problems.
“Eilidh was a surprise and I didn’t know I was having her until I was 20 weeks,” says Sharon. “She was delivered at 31 weeks, and we don’t know the reason she died. She’d not hidden away. She’s a huge part of our family.”
On the wall, alongside a drawing of Eilidh, there’s a photograph of Gary holding the newborn Finlay, and on his arm is a tattoo that reads: “Some people dream of angels. I held one in my arms”, in memory of Eilidh. In the garden there is a memorial where each child chose something to remind them of her. There is a cherry tree, and fixed to the fence are butterflies, dragonflies, flowers and fairy lights. All around the house, and on the steps at the front, are little angels and hearts bearing Eilidh’s name.
Given his unique professional and personal experience, I suggest he would be the perfect appointment as Scotland’s National Chef whose remit would be to champion good food and healthy eating across Scotland. The role, according to the Scottish Government’s manifesto, and as reported exclusively (by me) last April, is to be filled within the current parliament.
“I’d love to be Scotland’s national chef,” he replies without hesitation. “I’m passionate about Scottish produce and I don’t think there’s enough education about it. There’s a massive gap between what we grow and what we actually eat. We somehow have to bridge that gap. The general public don’t get how good our produce is. I ask my students, which country produces the best salmon in the world? They never get the answer right. They say Spain, France, Norway, but never, ever Scotland.”
Is this because of poor food education in schools? “I think it comes from the parents. We can blame the supermarkets, but they only sell what we want to buy. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Another bugbear is a lack of understanding in the general public about the work involved in bringing food to the table. “Discount deals where you get three courses for £12 are not good for the restaurant industry, because the online company takes a huge percentage of the money. Customers need to understand that the restaurant is lucky to make £1.
“You can eat out cheaper now than 25 years ago. Labour and ingredients aren’t any cheaper, so who’s losing out? When I was 17, the hotel restaurants had brigades of 45 chefs and now they’re lucky to have eight. Many restaurants have to outsource the food and it’s bought-in pre-prepared to cut costs.”
All of which begs the burning question of what he will do next.
“Unlike my fellow finalists Matt and Elly, at 45 I’m too old and have too many young dependents to work in London,” he says. “However, I will send my best students to work with both Marcus [Wareing] and Monica [Galetti] in their restaurants. It will have to be students who desire to go to London, as not all of them do.
“I hope my win will put Glasgow’s and Scotland’s food scene in the picture, and come to the attention not only of the national restaurant critics but of the general public. I hope they ask themselves, ‘If a teacher can do this, what must the chefs be doing?’”
I watch as he leans over his stunning plates of food to dress them with a final benediction of broth and a concentrated stare before releasing them for our photographer. I wait and I wait. But I never get to taste them, as they’re destined, quite rightly, as a treat for the children.
* A version of this interview first appeared in The Herald Magazine in January 2017. Gary Maclean was appointed Scotland's first national chef in November 2017.