Cooking up a career
Stuart Thomson has worked in some of the UK’s top five-star hotels and establishments throughout his career. The 35-year old, now head chef and operations director at Kincraig Castle Hotel near Invergordon, is sharing his knowledge on how to get up the ladder and what the industry needs to do to get more people working in hospitality.
How did you get into the catering business?
Cooking and baking is in my blood. Growing up, my grandmother was a very good cook but also baked every week – fresh scones, biscuits and cakes. At 16 I left school and enrolled in a Hospitality Training course at Jewel & Esk Valley College in Dalkeith.
Did you get any advice early on in your career that helped you?
Yes, my tutors at College were very good at inspiring me and steering me in the right direction. They advised to get as much experience in high-end hotels and restaurants as possible. Aim high – and I did. My first placement from college was at The Caledonian in Edinburgh.
What skills have you learnt?
I’m a classically French trained chef but have worked in all aspects of the kitchen – butchery, pastry and larder section.
What aspects of the job do you enjoy?
When I started at The Caledonian everything was made from scratch. It came in as its raw state and we turned it into something beautiful for the guests. I really enjoyed the transition. I also love being part of a team and the camaraderie. Despite long hours, there is a real sense of ‘family’ when working in a hotel kitchen.
What have you learnt about your career that you could pass on to someone just starting theirs?
Because of the advice my tutors gave me, I’ve always aimed at four and five-star establishments. I’ve never been afraid of taking pay drops and even stepped down a level just to work somewhere that I thought would look good on my CV. I think that has paid dividends and gave me a very broad understanding of the industry.
Where have you worked?
After The Caledonian I went to The Balmoral in Edinburgh where I took a pay cut but gained valuable experience whilst working my way up to a first commis job in their No1 fine dining restaurant.
I then went to Cameron House, to get my first taste of working in a Michelin restaurant. That was a real eye opener, rewarding and big pressure to perform but I loved it.
Then I got asked to work under a previous boss who was heading to The Lowry in Manchester as a demi-chef de Partie. It was the first five-star hotel for the city and it had a flagship restaurant under the guise of Marco Pierre White.
From there I went to a family-owned establishment in Hale on the south side of Manchester near Chester. I started as junior sous and became sous chef. It was somewhere where I could put my own stamp on things.
From there I went to work at Harvey Nichols in Manchester as a chef de partie and worked up to executive chef. It was very high profile at the time and a different environment to what I had been used to in hotels.
Then, for family reasons, I decided it was time to head back to Scotland and landed my first head chef’s job at the newly opened Malmaison in Aberdeen with a team of 24. I learnt such a lot there and it was my first experience of running a hotel kitchen.
My partner wanted to be further north so I am now at Kincraig Castle Hotel working for a family-run establishment. It’s in a stunning part of the world and I get to work with such amazing produce every day. In my role as operations director, I’m working closely with the owners to drive the growth of the business around a strong food and beverage product at Kincraig Castle. We were awarded one AA Red Rosette last year and we are now working towards a second. We were also winners of Best Hotel Restaurant, North Region at the national Scottish Food Awards last year and were finalists again this year.
Favourite thing to make in the kitchen?
I really enjoy making bread and pastries. That’s probably got a lot to do with my grandmother!
When I left Harvey Nichols I was really proud of the team I had trained up in the kitchen. They were highly skilled and it was great to see how good they had become at their jobs with me as their boss.
Advice for someone just starting out?
Three things really. You don’t need to be academically strong to become a chef but you need to be committed to the work ethic and hours. Secondly, knock on the doors of the places you would like to eat. Get a trial or work experience. Do that in a few places to see the difference between different kitchens. Thirdly, follow food trends and cultures, it can be invaluable.
What is important for someone thinking of a career in catering?
Attitude is everything. Work hard. Don’t cut corners – even if it might take longer to do something. You can teach someone to cook but you can’t teach them to want to cook.
What should happen about the skills shortage in the hospitality industry?
A job in a kitchen in the UK isn’t valued as much as it is in other countries. I think the Government need to look at the likes of Australia where chefs don’t work more than 45 hours a week. In the UK, you can be working a 60 or 70 hour week and that puts people off entering the profession. If the hours were capped, it would transform the industry overnight.