For the past 17 years, Glasgow has not had a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Now a Great British Menu winner who knocked back Gordon Ramsay could bring dining’s highest honour to the city once again.
Lorna McNee, who won the BBC show last year, has taken over the kitchen at Cail Bruich in Great Western Road.
The 31-year-old spent 12 years working at Gleneagles’ Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, which is Scotland’s only two-star venue.
As well as Great British Menu, she has a string of other awards to her name.
If anyone can deliver the silverware, it’s her. But she is not jinxing her chances with the notoriously picky Michelin inspectors.
She said: “I’m not going to say I’m aiming for a star, though it would be amazing for Glasgow to get one.”
Industry insiders agree that the quickest route to a star is to hire a chef with solid Michelin experience, then let her (or him) use the best possible local ingredients to make interesting, imaginative food.
That is exactly what Cail Bruich’s owners have done.
Lorna was mentored by Fairlie, who died last year, and his No2 Stevie McLaughlin.
They recognised her potential from the start.
McLaughlin encouraged her to take the Cail Bruich job and is there for her at the end of the phone if she needs his help or advice.
Lorna almost went to work for one of their Michelin rivals. After studying catering at Moray College in Elgin, she did a two-week stint at Ramsay’s restaurant in Claridge’s.
After her student job in a family-run Italian restaurant in Forres, a 100-cover-a-night Michelin-starred restaurant was a culture shock.
She said: “Growing up, Gordon Ramsay was my hero. I aspired to be like him – his food was great, I loved the way he worked.
“It was intense. It was really eye-opening. I thought, ‘Wow, this is how a big kitchen works.’ It was a big, bad kitchen with lots of strong chefs.”
At one point, someone asked Lorna for “a microplane”. She said: “I had absolutely no idea what that was (it’s a grater). I went up to some guy who was prepping fish and he helped me out. It was eye-opening to see stuff like that. It was a really great experience.”
Claridge’s offered Lorna a job and she was all set to move to London until one of her lecturers suggested she
look at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie first. Her tutor took her there for a life-changing dinner.
Lorna said: “It was the best meal I had ever had. I never knew food could taste that good. I immediately wanted to work there. It was great and I didn’t have to go to London for it.”
A few days of work experience convinced her that this was her dream kitchen.
She said: “London was busy, it was loud, it was everybody running round – whereas Andrew Fairlie wasn’t like that at all. It was quiet, organised, everybody’s work flowed.”
Aged just 19, she asked the chef for a job. He made her think about it for a week and then insisted that she start at the very bottom, as an apprentice.
But Lorna bit his hand off. She started in the larder section, slicing bread, picking herbs and opening scallops. For most of her years there, Lorna was the only woman in the kitchen, going from Moray College catering course to Michelin standard cooking at 100mph.
She said: “There were plenty of times I wanted to leave. I thought it was too much for me – ‘I’m not good enough for this.’ I’d be on the phone in tears to my mum saying I can’t do this.”
Fairlie and McLaughlin reassured her that this was normal.
She said: “They would remind me what I had achieved, going from someone who really didn’t know much to opening scallops and prepping lobsters, langoustines and sea urchins.”
Lorna reckons it took a year to get the hang of the rare ingredients, the discipline and the mindset of the country’s finest kitchen.
She moved up the ranks, working on vegetables, then sauces, then desserts. Within three years, she had covered all the stations of the kitchen.
Her mentors never let her stand still, encouraging her to enter competitions and grab opportunities such as appearing on Great British Menu.
If she looked under-stimulated, they would give her a picture from Instagram and send her away to work out the recipe.
She thrived under the pressure of competing in Great British Menu.
Lorna said: “Being filmed and cooking at the same time is difficult. The cameraman would ask me to stop and start and I’m trying to cook something. But it was so much fun.”
Lorna came away with a raised profile and some sweet new recipes.
She said: “I loved seeing other techniques, things I hadn’t known before. Tom Brown did an amazing duck dish and sent me the recipe.
“It is a way of getting your name out there and showing people what kind of food you do and how you cook. There’s a lot of food programmes and a lot of chefs out there. People say we’re rock stars and it makes them want to come and taste our food.”
Lorna has waited a long time for a Scottish job where she can write her own menu and stamp her personality on every plate.
Her food at Cail Bruich has Fairlie’s attention to detail and pristine ingredients but a different style of presentation.
She said: “I like something you can eat through all at once. If you put something down that’s really pretty, people taste a bit of this and a bit of that. As a chef, you want them to eat it all together.”
That’s the theory behind her current favourite dessert – white chocolate, creme fraiche, basil oil and a crunchy biscuit topping all covered with fresh strawberries. Every spoonful should contain all the different elements.
A classic French foie gras dish that she made at Andrew Fairlie’s has been given a new look for the same reason.
She said: “I always wanted to cover it so you eat it all at once. Now I’m able to do something like that.”
She has yet to come up with a signature dish to match her mentor’s famous smoked lobster. But Lorna’s menus read as if she already has a Michelin star.
The six-course dinner is £90, with £60 more for matching wines. There are no safe options for folk who don’t fancy raw scallops with crab, or turbot with pig’s trotter sauce.
But that hasn’t put people off. Lorna added: “We’ve not had anyone asking for chips on the side. Everyone’s eating it and really enjoying it.”
Gallery: Whatever happened to the Great British Bake Off winners? (Hello!)