Dishes built from Scratch

David, with beard, and Ben, are friends from school who now cook together. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
David, with beard, and Ben, are friends from school who now cook together. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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TAKE two school friends, blend in some washing up liquid and a lot of hard graft. Chuck in several thousand miles of travelling, some very unusual sources of protein – the six-legged, creepy-looking kind – and leave to simmer for a couple of years.

Once it’s ready, prepare to sit at a long table with several strangers tucking into a meal that’s taken a decade in the preparation and a journey across the globe to get to your plate.

It sounds like a complicated route to the newest eating experience to hit Edinburgh.

And it’s certainly a very long way from the days James Gillespie’s school pals Ben Reade and David Crabtree-Logan spent up to their elbows in soap suds, washing the dirty plates at Susie’s Diner in West Nicolson Street.

Flip forward several years to today, and the pair’s The Scratch Series initiative is now under way, serving up dishes which reflect David’s long spell travelling and sampling the best of America’s West Coast cuisine, Ben’s role at the radical Nordic Food Lab – where insects were often on the menu – and mixed with the pick of Scottish ingredients taken from ‘scratch’ and served in a way many Edinburgh diners might never have tasted before.

It all takes place in a top room above Iglu in Jamaica Street – a full circle return for the two 30-year-olds who at one point worked side by side there as youngsters before heading their separate ways. “We arrived home on the same day at pretty much the same time four weeks ago,” laughs Ben, who until recently was head of culinary research and development at the ground-breaking Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, where microbiologists work alongside chefs creating dishes from mould to creepy crawlies.

“We reckoned that we needed to cook together,” he adds. “It seemed right to use this opportunity to explore what we have both learned over the years and on our travels, to teach each other and maybe bring some new ideas for Edinburgh diners.”

Ben’s recent background might instantly suggest dishes of deep fried locust and soggy moss. Instead, the Leith-born chef insists, the focus for The Scratch Series – a weekends-only restaurant which will serve a set seven-course menu (£45) for just 24 diners – is far more back to basics.

What appears on the plate, he adds, will be top notch Scottish ingredients, albeit some slightly more unusual than others, cooked by the pals using age old techniques – with no modern sous-vide water bath oven to be seen – then served not by waiters, but by the chefs themselves.

“Both David and I are cooking and waiting,” he nods.

“We’ll be serving a lot of things that people aren’t used to eating, cuts of meat not often found in restaurants, like hare meat or deer tongue.

“We’ll be using fermentation a lot and smoking things. Say we want to use bacon, we’ll speak to the pig farmer, we’ll buy the pig. We make the bacon, starting with a pork belly and smoking it.

“It’s part of why we are calling it The Scratch Series. We are making things right from scratch.

“And because of our backgrounds, we have ideas from around the world.”

While they featured highly in his work at the Nordic Food Lab, which specialises in developing new forms of cuisine from ingredients which some might find less palatable than others, bugs and creepy crawlies, are not part of the plan. Mould, however, might be.

“Fermentation is one of my big passions,” laughs Ben, who has also worked at Café St Honore in the New Town and Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurant, Aubergine. “It’s extraordinary, the frontier to be explored.”

He points out the blazing fire in his living room, warming some mother sour dough which has a life of its own and will eventually become bread for the restaurant.

“I’ve used Scottish grapes for this batch. There are all these microorganisms producing amazing flavours, it’s getting super active. Eventually it’ll make me sour dough bread.”

While he brings the science bit to the kitchen – he talks enthusiastically of lactic acid fermentation for his pickles and can’t wait to get started on cured hare loin and bresaola, a cured beef – David, who has previously worked at Michelin-starred The Kitchin and Plumed Horse, brings a laid back US West Coast approach to the kitchen.

That, he promises, doesn’t mean burgers and chips.

“Oregon, and Portland in particular, is probably the best place for street food, there’s fantastic produce: salmon, halibut, Dungeness crabs,” he explains.

“And there’s a different style of cooking with influences from all over the world.”

With such a mish-mash of ingredients, it could all sound like a recipe for culinary chaos.

But David insists their joint vision is for a unique style of restaurant which reflects where they’ve been and where they are right now – home.

“We are both at the stage in our lives where we have travelled and gained a lot from different cultures, different food,” he says.

“This is our homecoming,” David says. “We want to get something going here that reflects that sense of place and being home.”

Key to The Scratch Series is the 
communication between the chefs in the kitchen and the customers. “People are realising there’s a different way to enjoy food rather than just going to a white table cloth place and choosing from a menu,” he adds.

“We want to knock down the barrier between the diners and the kitchen and be a part of the dining experience, not just behind the scenes doing the cooking.

“It’s about being involved in the process from the beginning to the end.”

The Scratch Series is launched this weekend and will run on select dates in the room above Iglu in Jamaica Street.

Dinner is served at 7pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Seating is described as “family-style” while “talking to strangers is encouraged”.

For details go to www.thescratchseries.com.

sdick@edinburghnews.com