Featured image: Roberta Hall-McCarron © Amelia Claudia | Above images: interiors and food at The Little Chartroom © Amelia Claudia
Guided by an unwavering commitment to sourcing the finest seasonal ingredients, chef Roberta Hall-McCarron has crafted a culinary narrative that celebrates the essence of Scottish produce while seamlessly incorporating international influences. At both of her acclaimed restaurants in Edinburgh, The Little Chartroom and Eleanore, her love for cooking shines through, spotlighting a philosophy that mirrors her journey – a dynamic fusion of tradition and innovation.
Steeped in experience earned from renowned kitchens across Europe, Roberta’s ascent to prominence was a natural progression fueled by her fervour for crafting bold, flavourful dishes that pay homage to the inherent taste of the premium produce she sources. Her prowess in the kitchen has seen her gain the favour of critics and foodies alike, leading her to win a host of awards, including Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards in 2019, YBF Best Chef 2018, Eating & Drinking Award from The List Magazine, UK’s Top 100 at Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards 2020, British Vogue Best Restaurant in Edinburgh, and Breakthrough Chef of the Year at the Food and Travel Awards. Roberta and her restaurants have also been included in various guides and lists, such as Good Food Guide 2020, the Michelin Guide 2019 and 2020, and 100 Most Influential Women CODE. Most recently, she was shortlisted for GQ Best Chef.
FOUR sits down with Roberta Hall-McCarron to find out more about her passions, inspirations and culinary philosophy…
Why did you choose to pursue a career as a Chef? How did you get your start, and what were the steps that led to your current position?
I did a week’s work experience at Tower Restaurant in Edinburgh when I was 16 and still at school. I absolutely loved the buzz of the kitchen and was hooked, they gave me a weekend job, and I never looked back. When I finished school, I went to a catering college in Glasgow which was a good way for me to continue this journey but still feel like I was getting a little bit of student life. From here on, every job was a considered move to improve my skill set; I did conferencing at The Balmoral Hotel, then went on to work at The Burj Al Arab in Dubai before coming back to Edinburgh and working for Tom Kitchin. I worked at The Kitchin and Castle Terrace (its sister venue) for a total of 10 years, progressing up to Head Chef.
All these positions gave me a different skill set. The next move was a little different; my partner and I moved to rural Cambridgeshire to run a pub with rooms. The food was a lot more simple than what I was used to, but the main reason for the move was to gain a greater understanding of running a business; there was so much I had to learn. This then set me up to open up The Little Chartroom in 2018. The Kitchin and Castle Terrace taught me about respecting good produce and how to utilise every part of an animal, and the move to Cambridgeshire set me up for being a business owner, but overall I would say there is a little part of everywhere in me and how I run my kitchens and my businesses.
What do you enjoy most about being a Chef? What professional and personal experiences drive you forward in your career and push your cuisine style?
Initially, it was the buzz of the kitchen, but now it is the buzz of the dining room. I love watching guests enjoy our food and having a great time. I also love the creative side of the job, which I maybe didn’t appreciate when I was younger, but once I started to write my own menus, I really started to love the creative aspect.
The main take from my personal experiences is my newfound love for my own time and spending time with my family; I have a one-year-old. Wanting to get more of a work-life balance has become very important to me and, in turn, has become very important to the way we run our businesses. I believe and hope this is the case, and because we are all well rested and enjoying our work, in turn, the food tastes better.
What, or who, would you say has inspired your cooking the most? What Chef do you think best represents the culinary arts and why?
I would say Tom Kitchin and Dominic Jack, my mentors at The Kitchin and Castle Terrace. Certainly, in the early parts of my career, they taught me lots of techniques and made me appreciate good produce. But now, I am incredibly inspired by the team around me. I am very lucky to have a group of chefs who all have very different backgrounds and bring so much to the table. Our menus are very collaborative and have a real mix of modern and classic techniques, but we always come back to good sourcing. We spend a lot of time working on dishes and ensuring they have the necessary balance to be enjoyed to their full potential.
I think all chefs represent the culinary arts in their own way, but right now, a great example for me in the UK is Simon Rogan; he has changed British cuisine for the better by staying true to what he does and influencing a whole group of chefs behind him to source more responsibly and keep the plates nice and natural. To do all this and gain three Michelin stars along the way is truly inspiring.
What do you find most challenging about being a chef? How do you deal with the challenges faced both in your kitchen and in the industry as a whole?
Obviously, the hours are hard, and it’s a hot environment to work in. It’s not a particularly glamorous job, although I do believe this is changing largely due to the exposure our industry gets on television – the general public seems to love food. Staffing in kitchens is hard, and this is mainly due to the bad rep our industry has had for a long time, but there are lots of businesses out there doing things properly, looking after their teams, treating them with respect and not working them to the bone. As more businesses adopt this attitude, we will hopefully get back to a place where this is a desirable career.
Above images: Dishes at The Little Chartroom © Amelia Claudia
What awards have you or your kitchen received, and how does this impact your process?
We have won a number of newcomer awards etc., and have been on the shortlist for a few more. We have also been listed in best restaurant lists which is lovely to be mentioned amongst our peers. But we didn’t get in this business to win awards, although, of course, they help drive business and team morale. We cook for our guests first and foremost, and if this helps us get recognition along the way, then we will never complain, but we don’t get up in the morning with the mindset of gaining awards.
What do you think makes a dish successful, and what role does creativity play in the process?
Balance and layers are everything: acid, salt, sweetness, and texture. Each dish on our menu must have all of these. We try to be creative and excite our diners, but not for the sake of it. We try to take a less is more approach in our food; it’s very easy for chefs to get carried away and keep adding to a dish, and it’s not a good thing. Each ingredient should taste of itself, and if that flavour can be intensified, then that is great, but if there are too many ingredients on a plate, the whole thing becomes muddy.
Describe your culinary style and how it has developed over time. What were the most memorable experiences on this journey?
My culinary style is local, seasonal and considered. My first ever food memory is of eating pints of langoustines on the West Coast of Scotland with some mayonnaise – it was great, and I still enjoy that now. A good example of how I have taken this simplicity and put my own spin on it would be a dish we served a couple of weeks ago, which was simply butterflied langoustines that got cooked on the barbecue and then finished with a guanciale and seaweed butter – it wasn’t fancy, just delicious and messy!
What would you say is the main course on the menu at the restaurant? How does this course reflect the identity of the restaurant?
Our menus change all the time, so we don’t have a signature dish as such. I would say we are particularly strong during the game season and have become known for this. When the first shoot takes place on the 12th of August, we have a lot of tables booked who pre-order grouse as they know we will always have it. We serve this quite classically by roasting it whole on the crown and then carving it off. The garnish changes from year to year, but it usually involves girolle mushrooms and a sauce made using the carcass of the first bird.
What do you think makes a restaurant or menu successful? How does the menu reflect the needs or wants of the guests you cater to?
Accessibility is very important, both in terms of price and offering. But this isn’t the be-all and end-all. There are restaurants out there with quite an individual style that may not appeal to the broader market, and they are also very expensive – these restaurants are still very viable and at the top of their game with waiting lists. I think the key for them is consistency, ensuring that every guest gets the exact same experience as it is intended to be and there are no dull notes.
We design our menu to be an à la carte offering of three courses with three options for each course; we still get people saying there’s nothing on it they like, but this is completely subjective. I imagine if we did a fixed menu with no choice, we would have an even larger amount of people saying this. We find this offering works well for us as it’s not a huge offering and all the produce in the fridges is always fresh.
What are your most indispensable ingredients?
Blackthorn salt is a big one. But we also use quite a lot of soy and seaweed for seasoning. Our food is very British, but we find these can help add an extra layer to the dishes.
What about your least favourite ingredients, what are these and why?
I really dislike the taste of fennel and artichokes, I will cook with them, but I would prefer to avoid them in something I am eating.
Above images: Dishes at Eleanore © Murry Orr
What are a few of your current favourite dishes on the menu, and why?
We have a raw scallop dish on at the moment with basil, pine nuts and tomato ponzu. This is a lovely fresh, crisp starter. Another dish I like is a whole stuffed quail with wild garlic and St George mushrooms – a great example of skill, technique, and lovely produce.
What do you think is special or makes the restaurant stand out from similar restaurants?
We have a lovely open kitchen in the middle of the dining room; our guests really enjoy watching the chefs produce their food. It’s a calm kitchen with only four chefs working in it, so it’s quite quiet but works like clockwork (most of the time!). I am biased, but I genuinely think we have one of the most friendly and quietly efficient front-of-house teams; they’re laid back and manage to create a lovely rapport with customers in a short space of time.
What changes have you witnessed in the local and global food scene in recent years? How have you as a chef adapted to these changes, and how have they influenced the restaurant?
There is a huge focus on provenance and sustainability. We, as chefs, have a duty to help care for the environment and set an example. I have personally noticed more classical techniques and more traditional dishes making a comeback and coming back in vogue – I love this and am happy to embrace it. We make paté en croutes, crème caramels and Paris-Brest but put our own twist on these classics. For instance, the crème caramel we served was infused with pine and served with a pine sugar doughnut to mop up the caramel. Our Paris-Brest is a savoury one served with a Wigmore cheese custard, pickled walnut and truffle.
What kind of restaurants do you eat at and why?
I like all sorts of restaurants; I have a one-year-old daughter, so I am always mindful of eating out with her and need to make sure the restaurant is appropriate. We have some lovely laid-back independents in Edinburgh that use wonderful produce and keep it simple and affordable, so that’s always a good option. I do, however, love a blowout meal with a lavish tasting menu from time to time – everyone deserves a treat, and I find these meals can be very inspiring.
To find out more about Roberta and her restaurants, visit the links below…
Above images: Dishes at Eleanore © Murry Orr