Interview: John Paul, chef

John Paul's organic, Scottish-influenced dishes have proved a hit
John Paul's organic, Scottish-influenced dishes have proved a hit
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HE has worked with some of the biggest names in fine dining, picked up a host of awards and even has his name on the door — but for chef John Paul, that doesn’t mean he can rest on his laurels.

Indeed, just days after winning an industry award, he found himself up at the crack of dawn with a 5am start needed to get breakfast under way.

John Paul has been chef at the Marine Hotel in North Berwick for five years now, and last year his hard work was rewarded when he was handed the chance to run his own signature restaurant.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t an offer he had to think about for too long.

“To get an offer like that is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it’s the sort of thing a chef would chew his right arm off to get,” he says.

His employers must have been equally thrilled this week when, after just a year, he repaid their faith by picking up the prestigious title of Scottish Hotel Chef of the Year at the Scottish Hotel Awards — generally considered to be the Oscars of the industry — for his signature restaurant, John Paul at the Marine.

In doing so, he faced stiff competition from across the country, but his organic, Scottish-influenced, seasonal dishes took home the top prize.

Unlike many of his contemporaries the chef, now 39, admits the start of his culinary career was not entirely motivated by a love of food.

“I studied home economics at school, but to be honest I wasn’t really there for the fairy cakes,” he says. “I definitely enjoyed it, but I was there because I fancied someone in the class.” He may have been more interested in the girls than the grill, but when looking around for somewhere to get work experience he found himself back in the kitchen.

“We all had to do a week of work experience and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did a milk round at weekends and one of the deliveries was to a local restaurant. The chef there was really organised, he had everyone in the kitchen working and I liked the look of that so I asked if I could do my work experience there.

“My first job in the kitchen was peeling Brussels sprouts.”

After that there was no turning back, and his skills saw him become a head chef at 22. Four years later he started to study the finer arts of cooking, spending £2000 to study at the prestigious Le Manoir aux Quat’Saison cook school — run by Raymond Blanc. There, he started to perfect his techniques and admits: “I wish I had started sooner.”

He went on to work in Amaryllis, the famed Glasgow eatery of Gordon Ramsay. So what was it like to work for the world’s most famously foul-tempered chef?

“This was quite early in Gordon’s career so he was about a fair bit, popping in to make sure everything was running well and dishing out some of his pep-talks,” says John Paul. So did he ever come in for the famous Ramsay treatment?

“No comment,” he laughs. “I learned so much from these experiences and, really, it was the best thing I’ve ever done with my life.”

Working in such a high-profile restaurant was a million miles away from those early home economics classes, but his love of fine food has also helped him meet the love of his life. He and wife Elaine now have two sons, although initially their relationship was very different.

“She was a waitress in my restaurant,” he admits. “I was the head chef and I had a rule that I didn’t get involved with staff, but as soon as I saw her that went out the window.”

And as for the thorny issue of who takes control in the kitchen when one partner is a chef, he admits they each have their own specialities.

“It’s a bit of both,” he says. “We each do different things. She makes the most amazing toasties. She uses a George Foreman grill — I think it’s shameful, but I have to admit they are fantastic toasties.”

So with his industry Oscar and a host of Hollywood celebrities in town, has John Paul’s restaurant been given the stamp of celebrity and provided cutting-edge cuisine for the likes of Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman?

“I have to say, I’ve not heard if they have been in,” he says, perhaps diplomatically. As the most highly regarded restaurant in the area it would be the natural place for the two — on location for the filming of The Railway Man — to eat.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t recognise Nicole if she came in,” he says.

“The Nicole Kidman I remember is from Days of Thunder— all fiery red hair. I think she’s looking a little different for this role . . .”