Jonathan MacDonald on Formula One, Scottish dining and burnt aubergines

By Georgia Bronte contact

- Last updated on GMT

Jonathan MacDonald on Formula 1, dining culture, and burnt aubergines

Related tags: Head chef, Restaurant

Chef and owner of Glasgow-based restaurant Ox and Finch Jonathan MacDonald has a colourful employment history, having previously worked as head chef for the McLaren Formula 1 team, feeding everyone from engineers to Jay Z. He will open BABA, in partnership with London-based Gorgeous Group, in Edinburgh this October with the aim of introducing the vibrant flavours of the Levant to the Scottish foodie capital.

You used to cook for the Formula 1 team, travelling the world and cooking for celebrities. What made you decide to set roots down in Glasgow?

I considered setting up in a lot of places when I was travelling. I lived in Melbourne for a while, and London. I loved both cities, but ultimately it was the draw of home that got me. When you start your own thing, you can’t underestimate having the support of all your aunties and your friends.

Does it feel a bit tame in comparison to your previous role?

It’s definitely not tame. The pressures are very different. When I was cooking on a drum BBQ at the back of a garage in Albert Park in Melbourne people were thinking ‘Wow! You’re in Melbourne, that’s so glamorous and high octane and exciting’. They didn’t realise I was cooking on a barbecue at the back of a shipping container, working 20 hours a day. It sounded more glamorous than it was. The part of it I really enjoyed was going out to markets and sourcing different produce, meeting locals and connecting with each place I went.

Why did you choose to open BABA in Edinburgh as opposed to Glasgow?

Robbie Bargh, our partner on BABA from Gorgeous Group, had been in many times to Ox and Finch and really liked it. He came to us with this great opportunity at an amazing property. I never felt we were the type of restaurant that would be tucked away in a little fine dining wood panelled room at the back of a grand hotel, but this is big, and it’s right in the heart of Edinburgh. The timing, the site and the chance to work the people involved made it feel like the right thing to do.

What is the team like that you’re going to be working with at the new place?

We appointed an amazing head chef, David Barnett. He’s headed up The Torridon Restaurant [in the Scottish Highlands] for a number of years. We’ve spent the past few months in the BABA development lab with him, perfecting all our dishes and recipes. He’s got a really solid background and shares our passion for food. My partner Daniel Spurr - who has been at Ox and Finch since its very conception – and I will oversee both restaurants. Aurélien Mourez, Daniel’s sous-chef at Ox and Finch, has been promoted to the role of head chef and has taken the reigns there.

Why did you decide to go for Levantine food at BABA, instead of something more general and global like at Ox and Finch?

Being where we are in Edinburgh - in George Street, right in the town centre - with the competition of great restaurants, it’s important to be recognisable. In Glasgow we were in a little corner with 60 seats, but this is a bigger restaurant with more competition. To give it that point of difference I thought it was important to have a real sense of identity. I also have a passion for the food. You can’t beat the smell of things grilling over charcoal, and my earliest Levantine food memory is eating baba ghanoush. That’s how we arrived at the name ‘BABA’.

What’s on the menu?

There will be a bespoke charcoal grill in the open kitchen where we’ll cook Scottish lamb, beef and seafood spiced and grilled Levantine-style over coals. Sides could include whole cauliflower with tahini and harissa pumpkin. [Other dishes in development include labneh balls with dukkah, aleppo and za’atar; lamb cutlets with burnt tomato; and smoked salmon and keta with pickled cucumber].

Do you have any plans for more expansion?

Nothing immediately. Anything we do will be when we feel that we’re resourced enough and have the right team to do it properly. I would only do something if I could give it the same level of love as the others. It has never been my motivation to expand for the sake of expanding.

Would you consider doing a second Ox and Finch?

That proposition came to me early on for this site, but I would not want to stamp out the same thing. I want to do things that share the ethos of Ox and Finch, which is relaxed, approachable, family-style dining. The challenge is in trying to be recognisable, but also accessible in terms of price. All the things that work at Ox and Finch we will recreate at BABA, and we would recreate wherever we did something else, but we would not make it into a chain. I’d be guided by the chef that we took on, and I’d let them take ownership.

What are your views about the differences between Glasgow and Edinburgh’s dining scenes?

People try and make distinctions between them a lot but they’re not as different as people think. The big distinction that everyone makes is that Glasgow doesn’t currently have a Michelin star and Edinburgh has got a few. There are great quality dining options in both cities that I really respect. There are Indian restaurants, for example - be it the traditional Mother India in Glasgow, or newcomers like Dishoom in Edinburgh - they’re all great at what they do in different ways. There really is a thriving scene [in Scotland] with very innovative things happening.

130 George Street, Edinburgh, EH2 4JZ

Related topics: People, Small Talk

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