A busy restaurant kitchen in the beating heart of trendy Manhattan, and Scots chef Stuart Ralston was preparing a lavish birthday spread for one of Hollywood’s leading ladies.
As Bridget Jones, Renee Zellweger was prone to being ever so slightly anxious over her calorie intake, jotting down every morsel, drop of alcohol and nicotine hit that passed her lips.
But in real life, the birthday girl had no such hang-ups. And as she relaxed with Madonna, Hugh Grant, Jon Bon Jovi and Harry Connick Jnr, the A list Hollywood star was happy to let her hair down and tuck in to Stuart’s dishes.
“Yes, she did eat – honestly!,” he laughs, instantly dispelling myths that suggest figure-conscious Hollywood actresses survive on fresh air and the sheer adoration of their fans.
“Madonna was fine too. You find most celebrities when they’re in a relaxed social environment are really not at all demanding. They’re just like everyone else.”
He should know. For there he was running the restaurant at an exclusive private club for the super rich, frequented by top business executives, A list celebrities and well heeled socialites who demanded the best.
The softly spoken Scot who’d arrived in the Big Apple virtually penniless, with a hostel for a home, was still just 26, and already at the very top of his game.
Eventually he’d take the helm of one of Barbados’s top resort restaurants, where skills honed in some of New York’s leading Michelin star restaurants and alongside hot head chef Gordon Ramsay kept the likes of Rihanna, Tiger Woods and Simon Cowell fed and watered.
With all that on his CV, Stuart could have had his pick of exotic, prestigious locations to head for next.
Today, however, he is in the chaos of what used to be Chinese restaurant Karen Wong’s in St Leonard’s Street, a stone’s throw from his flat in Marchmont. The kitchen has been ripped out, the front of the building has changed colour and joiners are busy transforming the décor into something less Oriental and more New World sophistication.
There are long stemmed wine glasses waiting to be carefully unpacked from their boxes and arty, hand thrown pottery coffee cups and bowls are on their way. A custom built bar – where Stuart’s American-born wife Krystal Goff will show off her formidable skills as a mixologist – will soon be stocked, the bar stools are handcrafted steel, the décor is pastel and the theme for the 50-seat restaurant is a relaxed, cool industrial meets warm, shabby chic.
The surroundings may be a frantic “work in progress” but the countdown is officially on to grub’s up. In a few days Stuart will unveil Edinburgh’s first “neo bistro” – the latest restaurant trend which balances casual surroundings with flawless Michelin quality dishes with a price tag that doesn’t mean diners must starve until their next pay day.
So far, so different. But what makes Stuart’s first restaurant even more niche is that he’ll start each day with a cleanly scrubbed menu board, with no core of set dishes, he’ll adopt a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach and simply devise his day’s service with the pick of whatever his suppliers come up with.
Most of us adopting a similar attitude at home would probably end up throwing open the fridge, staring at it for five minutes before just reaching for a couple of eggs to make another omelette. Or, even more likely, not bothering and calling a takeaway.
For Stuart, however, it means dicing with a frantic Ready Steady Cook kind of approach – keeping him on his culinary toes and his diners never really knowing what to expect.
It might sound like a snazzy gimmick to make Aizle – which its growing band of Twitter followers are being reminded #rhymeswithhazel – stand out from a crowded restaurant scene, but Stuart insists his novel approach gives him a freedom to pick and mix unlike anyone else.
“It gives me the opportunity to play around,” he grins. “It’s a chance to change the menu from day to day.
“I’ve been working with suppliers to find out what is coming in, when and how much. Everything has a season, but that season might last just a couple of weeks at a time, so I can change things more often.
“It keeps it exciting for me, keeps it interesting for the customer, plus there’s less waste.”
It means someone dining at Aizle one evening could return the next day to find the £35 four course tasting menu bears no similarity to what they just had.
Meanwhile, not to be outdone by the kitchen, Krystal – who has worked in some of New York’s trendiest bars – will tweak her cocktail menu on a daily basis too.
“I think there’s a market for customers who are willing to put themselves in your hands,” adds Stuart, the son of two chefs, whose route to the kitchen appears to have been mapped out in his DNA. “Le Chateaubriand in Paris is regularly voted one of the best restaurants in the world, and it offers just one tasting menu every day.”
Indeed, there’s a growing trend among some of the world’s best known chefs to shift away from exclusive high end fine dining towards offering top nosh in more relaxed and less expensive surroundings.
“This is my first restaurant and I think a restaurant should be an extension of your own personality,” adds Stuart, originally from Glenrothes and who cut his teeth working at the prestigious Greywalls in East Lothian. “I’ve worked in enough two and three star Michelin restaurants in my time and while they are great, it’s not who I am.
“I can cook that style of food, use the same techniques, same thought processes and same intensity, but without everything else on top. I like it casual.
“Besides, that high end market in Edinburgh is very well tied up by guys like Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin,” he adds. “I felt Edinburgh lacks a Michelin style restaurant that’s casual, without a big price but with the quality still there.
“This kind of casual experience is opening up all over, the scene is changing, it’s becoming more accessible.”
He is definitely no stranger to trusting his instincts. Stuart was 21 and working at Greywalls as a pastry chef when he wrote on spec to Gordon Ramsay with a plea for a job at his new restaurant, Gordon Ramsay at The London, in New York.
Ramsay responded by giving him a role alongside top chef and protegee Angela Hartnett at The Connaught in London, before whisking him into the maelstrom of his $8 million New York restaurant.
“There was a fair amount of swearing,” he smiles, recalling Ramsay’s fierce reputation. “It wasn’t for the faint hearted. There were a lot of hours worked, a lot of pressure and a lot of guys failed to make it through that kitchen.
“He’s not easy to work for, he’s demanding but then not as animated in real life as on TV,” he adds. “The thing is, New York is different, there are unions and a different workforce, different style of diners. And he was under a lot of pressure to do well.”
Stuart stayed for a few years before moving to downtown Manhattan, where the young, cool vibe laid the foundations for his Edinburgh venture, Aizle.
Stints with double Michelin star holder Daniel Baloud and three star legendary chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten followed before, still aged just 26, he became executive chef at the exclusive Core Club in Manhattan, a private members’ club for the ultra rich which costs $50k a year just to step inside and attracts some of the city’s biggest names, including the Bridget Jones star.
“Celebrities, chief executive officers of big corporations, American footballers, record company and television executives,” lists Stuart. “It was an interesting mix of people and I loved it.”
New York was traded for Sandy Lane, the exclusive Barbados resort before Stuart and Krystal decided to swap the super rich set for Edinburgh’s Southside.
There, with his Michelin-star background, the ingredients are in place for another Edinburgh contender for the restaurant world’s top award – even if Stuart prefers to play that down.
“I don’t get out of bed in the morning wondering if I’ll get a Michelin star,” he insists. “I get up hoping the restaurant will be full, we’ll have a great atmosphere and people will have a good time.
“If it comes, it comes. But what’s more important to me is to be in my own restaurant, cooking and doing my thing.”
FINE DINING ALL OVER EDINBURGH
Edinburgh has star quality when it comes to top notch restaurants, with five Michelin star restaurants – Number One at the Balmoral, 21212, The Kitchin, Martin Wishart and Castle Terrace.
Among the contenders for a Michelin star in the future is the revitalised Pompadour by Galvin at the Caledonian Hotel. With head chef Craig Sandle at the helm, it is part of Michelin star chefs Chris and Jeff Galvin’s restaurant empire.
There is plenty of top end competition for neo-bistro Aizle – chef Tony Borthwick has held a Michelin star for his efforts at the Plumed Horse in Leith, while Mark Greenaway, who runs Restaurant Mark Greenaway in North Castle Street is a former Rising Star Chef of the Year. Neil Forbes of Cafe St Honore in Thistle Street Lane was Scottish Chef of the Year 2011, and Andrew Radford of Timberyard in Lady Lawson Street was name Scottish Restaurant Awards Chef of the Year 2013.