I first wanted to be a chef because I thought it was an easy career. That’s how little I knew. My first job was at a small restaurant in Lanark which took me on as a KP. At the time, I thought that meant ‘chef’, so I turned up in full whites only to be told to jump from one sink to another.
For every job I’ve had, I’ve always taken a demotion. I never left one job to get a promotion within another - I waited for that promotion within the new business. The place I work has always been more important than the role I have within it.
I never asked how much I got paid. I always found out when I actually received my first pay check.
I’d met a lot of Australians who said I should go and work there, so I did. I spent five years in Sydney, from the age of 22. I became an executive pastry chef at a multi-outlet operation. My whole objective was to learn their style of cooking.
They were using hot jellies, foams – it’s where I first picked up a lot of the modernist techniques and ideas I have today. It also taught me about how to respect your local ingredients.
I was always itching to do my own thing. Almost three years ago, I opened my restaurant at 12 Picardy Place with a business partner who I’ve known since I was about 12.
The business grew to such an extent that we had an agreement that I would move away from the business and start up on my own here (at North Castle Street).
It’s now just myself and my fiancé Nicola, who is the Maître D, that own this place; we run it together. There’s no outside influence or shareholders - from 15 years old, this is what I’ve wanted.
Owning a restaurant in a city like Edinburgh is my greatest achievement. It’s the gastronomic capital of Scotland. This wouldn’t be the same restaurant if I opened it in Glasgow or Aberdeen.
The biggest challenge is staff retention. It’s hard to not overwork your staff and also not overstaff your business - It’s all about trying to get that balance between how well you treat your staff and how long they work for.
When I started cooking in 1994, all of the best restaurants were in hotels. It’s where you had to go to get the grounding and the experience. You learn everything at hotels, from breakfast right through to function food and everything in between.
As the industry’s evolved, that’s probably no longer the case. It’s not just about the cooking now; it’s your whole attitude towards the respect for your ingredients and your teammates.
As much as the media’s helped restaurants, a lot of chefs now come into this industry thinking they can be Jamie Olive - they want to write cookbooks, they want to be rich and famous. It’s never going to happen.
Some of these youngsters just don’t realise how hard it can be to progress through the ranks.
Great British Menu got a hold of my molecular cooking techniques and just ran with it. I was cooking to a brief which was all about pushing boundaries and doing something that nobody’s ever done before. To me, that meant ‘modernist’ – so that’s what I did, and I’ve been tagged as that sort of chef ever since.
If you buy a rubbish carrot, it’s never going to be anything but a rubbish carrot. You can make all the hot jellies and foams in the world, it’s still going to be crap. You’ve got to buy in the best ingredients you can if you want to get the best out of them.
We spend 80 per cent of the time sourcing the ingredients and 20 per cent of the time cooking them.
If I was to cook one last meal, it would have to be a one pot wonder roast chicken with everything in the tray at the same time. It would be a proper Sunday roast – who doesn’t like that? It certainly wouldn’t be a ‘carrot fluid gel on top of a smoked mozzarella ball filled with basil jelly’.
My advice for young chefs would be to get into the best kitchen you can get into and focus on whatever task you’re given at any one time. Try and perfect those tasks rather than working your way around the restaurant circuit for the sake of a CV.
Get yourself a notepad and write everything you learn down - the recipes you learn are yours forever, they are your rewards for working so hard – you can use that as a base for other things in the future.
Mark Greenaway recently appeared in our Hospitable Cities Special Feature, talking about the growth of Edinburgh's restaurant scene in the below video interview.