All that changed when he was thrust into the limelight last Saturday after being awarded the Very Special Achievement gong at the Scottish Style Awards, a glittering annual ceremony established to acknowledge creative endeavour. McCulloch, usually happiest behind closed doors in the company of his interior designer wife and close-knit group of friends and business associates, found himself strutting the catwalk – albeit in a bespoke Zegna black velvet suit – to accept his special honour, awarded for outstanding and enduring contribution to style. The artist Tracy Emin, chef Mark Hix, and editor of GQ Style are among the judges.
Mary McGowne, founder of the Scottish Style Awards, says: “Few have challenged the way hotels operate like Ken McCulloch. In a notoriously competitive environment he has remained at the top of his game. Time and again he has been at the helm of hospitality style revolutions, with benchmarks of excellence that create the zeitgeist, rather than capture it.”
So how does he feel about being “outed” as a major player in the Scottish scene?
“I’m very honoured – in fact, I was so astonished at learning I was getting the award that it felt like being slapped in the face with a wet kipper,” he grins, stretching out his giraffe-like legs and taking a sip of his extra-strong espresso in the luxurious calm of the sitting-room of a Dakota Deluxe Glasgow signature suite. “I don’t relish being out there, but it’s very nice to be recognised in your home city. I’m so pleased I’ve come back to Glasgow.”
It was McCulloch who in 1986 put Glasgow’s name on the map as a global destination when he opened the city’s first boutique hotel, One Devonshire Gardens, with his award-winning interior designer wife Amanda Rosa - and Andrew Fairlie as head chef.
Fairlie gained Glasgow’s first Michelin star at the hotel in 1996 (actually, to be precise, he returned the star to Glasgow for the first time since 1974, when it was given to the Malmaison restaurant at Glasgow Central). Thereafter McCulloch launched the funky, mid-priced Malmaison hotel group in 1994, selling it in 1998 and going on to launch the five-star Columbus hotel in Monaco in partnership with Scots F1 racing driver David Coulthard and the American property developer Peter Morris. This was sold in 2007 following rumours of financial mismanagement, which McCulloch maintains were untrue.
His newest venture, Dakota hotels at EuroCentral, South Queensferry and Glasgow, whose signature high-end look is again by Amanda Rosa, has been hugely successful. Though the first outlet in Nottingham, opened in 2004 with investment from Coulthard, became a casualty of the Columbus fallout, Dakota Leeds has opened and Manchester is in the pipeline.
McCulloch returned to Scotland in 2015 after ten years in Monaco, though he retains links with the South of France where his brother Don lives with his family.
His influence on the modern hospitality scene, still strong after more than 50 years in the business, is evident furth of Glasgow too. Andrew Fairlie is now chef-patron of Scotland’s only two Michelin-starred restaurant at the Gleneagles hotel, and the two remain firm friends; Roy Brett, chef-patron of the much admired Ondine seafood restaurant in Edinburgh, was launch chef at Dakota Forth Bridge; Paul Tamburrini, former executive chef at ODG, went on to head the kitchen at Martin Wishart’s The Honours in Edinburgh and now owns his own Brasserie de Luxe in Edinburgh.
McCulloch has also inspired a generation of high-achieving hoteliers. They include Andrew Stembridge, who worked with him at ODG and won Hotelier of the Year in 2010 as managing director of Chewton Glen in Hampshire, and his now executive director of Iconic Luxury Hotels; and Debra Dhugga, managing director of five-star Duke’s Hotels in London and Dubai, who worked with McCulloch when she was at Malmaison. Both have paid tribute to McCulloch’s attention to detail and aestheticism as intrinsic to their success.
“I grew up in a very theatrical family and I’d wake up every morning not knowing who was in the house,” he recalls. “I didn’t creep about: I was the youngest and my parents and their many house guests would ask me to do caricatures and accents and I’d oblige and find I was quite good at it.
“Every day was different and it was just amazing, very convivial, and there was always lots of laughter. That background must have stood me in good stead for what was to come.”
He grew up in Blanefield and attended boarding school near Motherwell, which he hated and left with no qualifications at age 16. He started work with British Transport Hotels as a trainee chef “butchering meat and gutting fish” at hotels in Gleneagles, the North British in Edinburgh and the famous Malmaison restaurant at Glasgow’s Central Hotel (some 30 years later, he bought the Malmaison name for £100 after a “eureka” moment when he realised it was up for sale).
“My parents had a huge influence on me. They always encouraged me no matter what I wanted to do, be it play in a band or become an artist. They were never judgmental. Their unerring faith in me gave me self-confidence.
“The hotel world is a very theatrical environment. You never know who might come through the door. Working with people you like is vital. It’s a very serious business but we laugh a lot and that’s very important.”
He says his success has been based on “hunches”, and reveals that his mother had a lifelong relationship with a Scottish psychic called Winifred, and that he too has had encounters with two psychics who have had a “huge influence” on him.
“My mother had a really spiritual side to her, and I’ve had some very interesting experiences of that through her. In the early days I did seek guidance from Winifred in writing, though I never met her. She came to me directly through my mum, but later I was introduced to Betty, a psychic from Hamilton. I’m not particularly religious but I believe there is something there. That connection has happened to me several times. It’s not scary; it’s wonderful.”
Although he hesitates to go into detail, he does relate the story of when Winifred told him he would not get the job of manager of a night club he desperately wanted at age 23 because something would happen to him, but that he would eventually get a better job. Shortly after that, he woke up one morning with Bell’s Palsy, a paralysis of the face. When he recovered he was invited to become general manager of the Royal Albert hotel in Kirkcaldy.
“I didn’t get the job I wanted but I got a better one,” he says. “I wouldn’t have got my first general managership at age 23 if I hadn’t contracted Bell’s Palsy. Winnie was my guardian angel.”
Standing at an imposing six-foot-four and sporting the gentle tan of the super-wealthy, McCulloch turns 70 later this year and clearly has no intention of slowing down. He has another major project on the go, but is reluctant to say any more - other than that it is in hospitality, will be based in Scotland and that he “wants this to happen very, very much”.
“I’ve got the location and I’ve got the property; now I just need the deal,” he says. And with that, the eminence grise in the designer navy blue suit gives an enigmatic smile and disappears from view.
KEN MCCULLOCH'S LIFE AND LOVES
Stanley Tucci’s Big Night.
Osso Bucco with a glass of good Barbera.
La Colombe d’Or in St Paul de Vence, near Nice.
Being given the UK Hotelier of the Year award by The Caterer in 1993. I was the first Scot to win it. It’s quite something because you’re judged by your peers. That doesn’t happen twice. It was my proudest moment.
Losing out on the job of my dreams at age 23 because I was suddenly struck down with Bell’s Palsy. A psychic had told me I wouldn’t get the job, as something was going to happen to me.
Best advice received
“Success is the sum of many small things correctly done”, from Fernand Point, chef of the Michelin starred Le Pyramide near Lyon.
Ideal dinner party guests
Adam Tihany, the hospitality architect. Bonnie Raitt. The late Steven Conroy. Roger Quin, the surgeon who saved my life. Jackie Stewart. Andrew Fairlie.