Crowned ‘best newcomer’ at the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards the Capital’s top female chef has revealed the secret to success a year after opening The Little Chartroom in Leith.
Coached under Michelin-star Tom Kitchin, Roberta Hall-McCarron knew from an early age she wanted to cook for a living.
But it wasn’t until meeting, and marrying, front-of-house superstar Shaun McCarron that she embarked on a dream to open her own restaurant.
Returning to their home city after a stint running a pub and restaurant in Cambridgeshire, Roberta and Shaun found the perfect location for their first restaurant and in only a year have won the favour of Edinburgh diners as well as the UK’s toughest restaurant critics.
Described by formidable reviewer Grace Dent as “unique, delicious, risky and completely remarkable”, the neighbourhood bistro on Albert Place crashed onto the city foodie scene in June last year.
It marked Roberta’s arrival back cooking for Edinburgh diners but this time serving up her own distinctive style.
Classically trained and nurtured in a classical cooking kitchen, her menus are dotted with some familiar combinations but modernised and slightly more off-piste. “I was classically trained and I like taking classic combinations of flavours but modernising them,” Roberta said.
“I try and change the dishes every three to four weeks and it really is to do with what’s in season. For example, heritage tomatoes just came in and I have created a dish around that.”
The dish, with octopus, also includes burr chervil, a foraged herb with a hint of lovage.
“It’s a small thing on the plate but it completely changes the dish,” Roberta said. “Having my own restaurant allows me to completely do what I want, which is really nice. Although I’ve got training I am constantly experimenting and always learning.
“Opening The Little Chartroom in this tiny space meant I had to really strip things back. I’ve worked in amazing kitchens but now I’ve only got a six burner stove and a pull down oven and that’s it.”
And although she’s justifiably proud of The Little Chartroom, Roberta didn’t always want to go it alone. Her career began after a week’s work experience at The Tower in the National Museum of Scotland. It sparked a love for cooking that has endured over the last 17 years, including a foreign foray – working at the world’s most luxurious hotel, the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah in Dubai.
It was on her return to Edinburgh that she got a job in an up-and-coming restaurant in Leith. “I ended up working for the Kitchin Group for nine years,” Roberta said. “Three and a half years at The Kitchin and six years at Castle Terrace.”
And it was at the restaurant that sits in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle that love blossomed between her and Shaun, the restaurant’s manager. Roberta worked up to the head chef position before the couple started planning their future.
An opportunity to run a pub with restaurant in Cambridgeshire was the perfect chance to hone their skills running a business without the safety net of a large group.
“We wanted to take a step away, branch out and figure out what styles I wanted to do but also to get experience completely running a place,” Roberta said.
“In a big group there are lots of people behind the scenes dealing with the nitty gritty and we wanted to get experience of doing everything but before taking the bigger step of using our own money.
“We did it for a year and it was definitely a good move for us – we learnt a lot.”
With a tinge of homesickness and armed with the skills to open their own restaurant and Roberta and Shaun headed back to Edinburgh on the hunt for a site for what would become The Little Chartroom.
“I didn’t always want to have my own place,” Roberta admitted.
“The thought terrified me initially. It only became a thing when Shaun and I had got together and we started to talk about a five year plan and we thought ‘why don’t we do our own thing, we’re the perfect team’.
“Moving away really sealed the deal for us about wanting to come back to Edinburgh. We really missed home and the city has a great and expanding food scene.
“It’s a great city and the food culture is changing and growing – it’s crazy to look back ten years and see how much it has changed already.
“Instead of music festivals with big name acts we have food festivals where top chefs are the headliners. That just didn’t use to exist.”
Never resting on her laurels, Roberta continues to learn and adapt to ensure she’s at the forefront of foodie advances, delivering cutting edge flavours.
And while searching for the right venue she worked at Twelve Triangles, a ‘scratch’ bakery off Leith Walk. The less demanding hours gave her the chance to develop the restaurant concept as well as her bread-making skills.
“I had a really good time at Twelve Triangles and we now buy our bread from them,” she said. “It also allowed Shaun and I time to work on our idea.”
But the extra time didn’t last for long. The perfect unit came on the market, perhaps not at the perfect moment. “We got married two weeks before opening the restaurant,” Roberta said. “I wouldn’t recommend it but when you get the keys to somewhere and start paying rent, you’ve got to get things moving as soon as possible.
“It’s going well and hopefully the next year will be the same. At the moment we’re trying to work on getting people to come around to the idea of eating quite early.
“With 18 seats, we have to do two sittings an evening to make it work. They’re coming around to it though!
“We want to maximise everything we can do here before we even think about taking the next step.
“You should always take your business as far as you can and at the moment what makes it successful is that it has both of us here. We are the restaurant – if we opened somewhere else we’d have to split ourselves. We’re happy right now taking each day as it comes.”