Food for thought – how our Head Chef turns divine inspiration into delectable dishes

It’s no exaggeration to say that ‘food is life’ for our Head Chef here at Maryculter House. Whether he’s directing the kitchen team during a busy lunch service, or spending time with his family, Alan Clarke lives and breathes cooking.

As experienced as he is passionate, Forres-born Alan has created culinary masterpieces at some of the most prestigious eateries in Scotland.

Alan Clarke – Head Chef at Maryculter House

With his trademark imagination and expertise, Alan has recently devised a brand-new menu for our Poachers restaurant. As you would expect, it’s bursting at the seams with punchy seasonal ingredients and locally sourced artisan produce.

Ever wanted to find out what goes on behind the scenes when a new menu is being developed? Then read on, as Alan gives us the low-down on how he and his team create such a cornucopia of deliciousness!

“When devising a new dish or a full new menu, the first question I always ask is ‘What’s in season?’ I can’t stress enough how important it is to use the best quality produce that is available at different times of the year.

While that information is readily available, it’s not quite the full picture. You see, because we source local produce as far as possible, we’re able to forge close relationships with our suppliers. They tell us how different factors may have impacted on their produce that year, so we can select the ingredients which are at their best at any given time.

For example, all our fish is landed in Peterhead and delivered up to 6 days a week, while we source our meat from Charles McHardy Butcher in Stonehaven. Our fruit and veg suppliers are based in the town of Montrose, in the heart of Angus – a region renowned for growing the freshest, most flavoursome produce.

That relationship is also critical to maintaining the sustainability of the produce. We never want to be in a situation where a particular food or ingredient has been over-used, plunging its future into doubt.

So, having done my homework into what’s both seasonal and sustainable, I compile a list of my ‘dream ingredients.’ I then think about all the different ways I can prepare individual ingredients, from slicing and mashing to julienne and roasting, and how I can combine these with various complementary elements to make the dish really sing!

Now, I’m no artist, but I find it really useful to draw out exactly what I’m putting on a plate. I can then visualise how the different elements will work together and how they will look presentation-wise.

Then the fun really begins, as we embark on an exciting, creative process of cooking, tweaking the recipes, and of course, the all-important tasting! Both the kitchen team and the senior management team take part in the tasting sessions, with everyone’s feedback being taken on board before the menu is finalised.

Before the menu is launched in the restaurant, we make sure that everyone from waiting staff to the kitchen team, is aware of any allergens in different dishes, and also how these can be adapted to suit any intolerances. We know how embarrassing it can be when you’re eating out, and you need to continually check things out with the kitchen. We take steps to avoid all of that awkwardness, so our guests can enjoy their dining experience to the full.

Throughout my career I’ve learned a number of lessons about devising new menus. For one thing, the whole process must be underpinned by a strong understanding of who your customers are. As a chef, I’m not cooking for myself; I’m cooking for our customers, so it’s all about me understanding what they would like to eat. Having said that, I realise that it’s simply not possible to please all the people all of the time! It’s always a balancing act. But wherever possible we try to be flexible and adapt dishes as required.

My favourite dish from the new menu, and indeed past menus, is Grace’s Highland Beef. The produce we receive from Grace Noble at Aberdeenshire Highland Cattle, based near Banchory, is second to none. It’s a unique product, and by far my favourite ingredient to be using, as it works all year round, served with a variety of seasonal accompaniments.

Aside from that, my key ingredients for the next few months include beetroot – the options for cooking with it are almost infinite – and halibut, which is by far my favourite fish to cook.

I’m so looking forward to sharing the new Poachers menu with customers new and old. It has been a long time in development, as I wanted to get it just right. I hope our customers will agree we have done just that!”