Imagine a man who is commonly known at his local berry farm as Graeme The Tart. He is also referred to by many, including his wife, as Big G. Are you feeling a little bit of frisson emanating from your screen – wondering what on earth this man might do to earn such marvellous monikers? Well, ladies and gents, he is a pastry chef. But not just any old pastry chef, he is the man who supplies Tart Citron to Holyrood Palace and Afternoon Tea to Becks (As in David. As in Beckham).
Mr Graeme Maxwell is one of the biggest, loudest, noisiest personalities I know and I have been saving him for Hallowe’en just so I could use this breathtaking photograph of him dressed up as Cheryl Cole circa 2010 – beard is model’s own.
Given the level of experience he has under his belt you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the presence of a man who ‘always knew’ he was going to bake. Not so. He studied Local Government and Public Finance in his home city of Glasgow, mainly because he didn’t know what else to do.
(Can I just say that throughout this blog you have to read Graeme’s bits with a Glasgow accent – and imagine a wee bit more swearing than I can write into this family website!)
“I was one of those kids who just followed a path because I didn’t think to question it. I was good at Modern Studies and I liked it so I looked at courses and bang, there I was. Chryston High School wasn’t really a place for turning out bakers – we never did any home ec after second year and even at that it was sewing tea-towels and making toast. I knew that I should go to Uni because that’s what you were meant to do.”
He was staying at home, studying, flirting his way round Glasgow and then at the age of twenty he was stopped in his tracks. He spent a full six months in and out of hospital suffering from what was eventually diagnosed as an extremely rare brain infection. Severe headaches for a couple days took him to the doctors, which took him to A&E, which had him in overnight and sent home. Within a matter of weeks he was back in hospital, having daily lumber punctures and causing rooms full of doctors to scratch their heads before eventually sending him to The Southern General and the team specialising in neuro-conditions.
“It was frightening. I remember the doctor going out to the car to get my Dad and my knuckles turning white as I gripped onto the chair. It was 6 months of hell; and I was a bit doolally with it all as well. I got up one morning, had a shower, stood in a towel in the kitchen and argued with my Dad that I hadn’t had a shower. My girlfriend at the time had to drive me to hospital one night because I threw up in the bed and then lay rocking back and forth. I was eventually diagnosed with Neuro Sarcoidosis but not before I’d wandered starkers one night to the nurses station (like, bollock naked, not a thing on!) declaring I was going for a walk. I spent Christmas Day 1996 having brain surgery – my mammy still says she almost passed out when the surgeon came in because she looked like she was about 12. And then as quick as it started it stopped - I just started getting better and the headaches went away. They could shine a light in my eyes and see the discs they were supposed to see. It was crazy.”
Graeme got through this traumatic time and came out relatively unscathed – although he does have a scar under his hair – whereupon he headed back to Uni to complete his degree, graduating with honours. Three days later he was sitting in front of an interview panel for a job as a trainee auditor with Audit Scotland.
“I was the only one of my class to land an interview relating to the course. I got the job – the woman on the panel told me later I was the only one with any chat. So there I was at 24, job for life in the public sector, company car, pension plan – all mapped out. And of course, in keeping with what people did, I proposed to my girlfriend and I was all set.”
Only there was a nagging doubt at the back of his mind and he knew that this couldn’t be it. He wasn’t happy, he didn’t enjoy what he was doing and since his recovery he had had this idea that he wasn’t making decisions based on what he really wanted. He was looking a future that had been built on expectations – his own, to be fair – of what a man’s life should look like. His decision to pick up a new interest and do something that was just for him led him to night classes where he found that his only option was cooking. No matter, he was in.
“I wish I could tell you that I’d had some great epiphany and that my love of food and helping my mum to bake suddenly came calling me. In fact, I was a nightmare eater when I was wee, really fussy, didn’t like bits, didn’t want gravy or sauce… The truth was I was just bored and wanted to get out of what I was in - the cooking class looked as good as anything else.”
He won part-time student of the year and he loved the kitchen environment; and so while he was still working at Audit Scotland he took a job at weekends as a kitchen hand in the Glenskirlie in Kilsyth. Before long a full time job came up and he was asked if he wanted it.
“That was me. It was a tipping point and I thought ‘I need to do this’. For the first time in my life my decisions were driven by what I wanted to do instead of what I thought I should do. It was mental – it was like something was lifted. I packed in my job, broke up with my fiancée, took a substantial drop in salary and moved back into Mum and Dad’s. It was proper baws oot!”
So, happy as Larry with his old life in tatters and his new one kicking off, Graeme worked full time as a kitchen commis at The Glenskirlie. Six months in he was flicking through the Evening Times when he spotted an advert for Gordon Ramsay’s new place in Glasgow, Amaryllis.
“By then I was thinking that if I was going to do this then I needed to do it right. I wanted to get into a proper kitchen and work amongst the best people. The Amaryllis open day had been the day before but I rocked up to the front door anyway, saying I knew I was late but I was also keen. No-one was doing food to that standard in Scotland at the time and it wasn’t every chef that could cope with the pressure of the precision cooking. They were just walking out.
So there I was, first day. In a set of new clogs cos my mates had told me I had to get proper gear for this one. Only I had bought these wooden clogs and my feet were torture within five minutes. I was meant to start on veg but the pastry commis had walked out so I was put there with John-Paul, the head pastry chef up from London. That was it – he changed the direction of my life. I loved it."
And they loved you?
"Well... I almost never made it! First off I was sent for a Saint Jacques Couquille from the fridge upstairs and I never had a Scooby what I was looking for. Not a clue. Then every time I did run upstairs to fetch something my wooden clogs were hammering off the steps. Colin the head chef eventually made me take them off. No messing about – he just said, ‘Get them off. NOW.’”
But he did make it. He tells me he knew from that very day that he loved the pastry, loved the buzz of this big, hectic kitchen.
“When John Paul asked me how I thought I got on I told him I loved it. I remember him looking at me and saying ‘you think you can do this eh? You think this is for you?’. And I did. I went straight in at the deep end and I had a year of complete madness starting shifts at 7am and working until midnight. We were making everything for that day, fresh desserts, from scratch. I would stand turning apples for the Tarte Tatin, almost crying. Everything was a process, it was precision sharp.
It was that exactness that drove other chefs out after just a few weeks and so you were left with the real nutters; perfectionists who were amazing at what they did but who were all a wee bit bonkers. People don’t get that ‘it has to be right’ mentality unless they are part of it and its why only a few rise to the top. John Paul was incredible to watch.
We would all head out boozing as a team on a Sunday. You worked hard and played harder. But it wasn’t to last - Glasgow just wasn’t ready for it at the time. It closed after a year, and at the same time quite a few of Ramsay’s restaurants went to the wall.”
So there he was, sitting in his Dad’s office at home, jobless and really only experienced at pastry in a top end restaurant. There was no big plan and it was a quick glimpse of the Three Chimney’s Cook Book that prompted his next move. He called Shirley, in Skye, at The Three Chimneys. We’re only calling her Shirley now because he ended up there, but at the time of the call he was just chancing his arm. She must’ve heard either his passion or his madness coming down that line because she told him to come see her. So he got in his Dad’s car and drove to Skye.
“She never had a pastry section but she offered me a job and I accepted. One, because it was The Three Chimneys, and two, because I thought it might be good for me to learn other areas of the kitchen. Plus, it was a lot more relaxed than Amaryllis and I thought that might b egood for me.
It was up there that I had a mental one-off relapse of my brain infection. My vision suddenly split as I was driving home from the shop one night. I was on the back road from Portree and I blacked out and rolled the car into a field. I managed to get out and walk back to the road but I was gibbering rubbish and completely incoherent – la la land. Thank God the person who stopped was brave enough to help!
I’ll give you a right laugh though. I had given a lift to my mate’s girlfriend the day before and little beknown to me she had been at the family planning clinic and forgotten to pick up her paper bag from the car door. When I went back to the scene the next day, there in the middle of the field was my car on its side, my loaf of bread, pint of milk and about 100 johnnies scattered everywhere!”
He had some time at home following this and he got to thinking that as much as he loved Skye, he missed his pastry section and he needed out and back to the mainland. So, as is the way with Big G, he sat himself down in front of Google to look for jobs. However, instead of looking for ‘pastry chef jobs Scotland’ he googled ‘Michelin Star Restaurants UK’. Up popped Gidleigh Park with two Michelin Stars and plans to open more restaurants over the following few years.
“I emailed them. I knew I wanted to work at the top of my game. And there’s only one way you can do that. I went back to Skye the following week and then my Dad called me to say there was an email from a bloke called Micheal Caines and I was to phone for an interview. Remember, this was just after I’d flipped the car so I had an eye patch and a missing tooth. I headed down to this interview to meet Micheal, who famously has only one arm, walked in and said ‘I don’t normally look like this by the way’. That was it. We hit it off.”
Back in a big kitchen and in a pastry team at Gidleigh Park he found himself reinstated to the throes of precision pastry. he worked under the watchful eye of a man he describes as a ‘wee, snippy bam. The original angry chef.’ It was 35 covers and there was a team of three pastry chefs making everything from scratch, every day. The wee snippy bam was determined to drive each of them into the depths of despair, but for Graeme he had come through too much and worked too hard to let himself be broken.
“It was incredible. At Amaryllis I just survived. At Gidleigh I learned what I needed to know. It was brilliant. Micheal taught me everything from how to make fresh bread to how to run a pastry section properly. Every day he was in his kitchen working and pullingthe best out of this team of amazingly creative chefs.
If you were to ask me who I found inspiring on my life's journey, I’d have to say Micheal. Without a shadow of a doubt, he is a motivating force. The fact he has one arm made no impact on his work or our kitchen at all – except every now and then he’d ask you to tie his apron.”
A year later Micheal opened Abode Glasgow and Graeme moved back to his home city to head up the pastry section, helping to recruit the new kitchen team for his friend and mentor. He will tell you that at this time, he was ‘mental’.
“I was so invested in Micheal and in the restaurant that I couldn’t relax my two Michelin standards. We weren’t anything like that level but I was kicking off at anyone who wouldn’t grasp the exact nature of what I wanted. I didn’t know how to give any slack and I went through staff like you wouldn’t believe. I was 29 at the time and I was on people like that wee bam had been on me. I refused to budge.”
At this time a new Events Manager started and Graeme took a shine to her. Let’s just say up to then he’d enjoyed all the trappings of a crazy life in a popular kitchen and that he was, and is, one of the biggest flirts I have ever met! Rhona liked him but wanted it played down and kept low-key, and so they started their romance under the radar with him practically living in her flat in Partick between his torturous 18 hour shifts.
Enter a phone call from Darryl at The Glenskirlie, asking him to come back and join them. They had moved up into the realms of award-winning food and he needed a Head Pastry Chef to join the team. The idea of a calmer life sounded good at this moment in time. Graeme had missed the whirlwind that most 19 to 25 years old go through and when he walked out of his old life he had a yearning to play catch-up. And catch up he did; long hours, meeting girls, drinking beers. His wonder years were carried out from 25 to 29 but he was now looking at 30, with Rhona, and The Glenskirlie sounded perfect.
He spent two years at Skirlie and loved it, but Rhona was working in Edinburgh commuting and they decided they wanted a bigger move to a quieter life. They both secured jobs in Perth at which point they bought a house in Alyth and moved across the country.
“Yeah, the job lasted a day. Let’s not get into that… I managed to get temp work at Murryshall while I sorted things out and then someone I knew saw that a kitchen unit in Bridge-of-Earn had come up for lease. The guy had been supplying cakes and desserts to some big catering operators and he was chucking it in. One of his suppliers knew me and by then I knew that there weren’t any jobs in pastry in Perthshire. Rhona had a job she loved and we’d bought a house. It had to be worth a look.”
So, in his own inimitable style of ‘why bother with a plan’ Graeme, took possession of the keys to the unit in Bridge-of-Earn in 2009. He secured a meeting with his predecessor's largest client, Heritage Portfolio Catering, Googled them to investigate who they were, bought himself a tie and talked his Dad (a salesman) into coming along for the ride. The pair walked into Heritage’s kitchen with a box full of samples and watched on as three of their most senior people pulled out forks and started tucking into the desserts in front of everyone. He must’ve impressed them, because he secured the contract and the starting point for Maxwell’s Desserts.
“Everything else sorted itself out. I mean, I worked incredible hours but suddenly it was for me and Rhona and so it was different. I was getting decent contracts and it felt everything had been worthwhile. This was it. And then about six weeks in the credit crunch hit us and the phone just stopped. I was still getting orders from these big guys but their value had plummeted. I muddled through the first year and then in year two I looked at the marketplace and knew I needed a change of direction. Everyone had gone from corporate functions to Afternoon Tea and I started to offer cakes, bakes and speciality Afternoon Tea pastries. I picked up some tearooms, then Gleneagles, then Bruar. And it was only another year before Heritage’s orders picked back up and I was suddenly flat out!”
Maxwell’s Desserts is about to celebrate six years in business and now makes bespoke products to pastry chef standard. He has taken on the wonderful Gemma who has somehow impressed this man who will admit that his standards are as exact today as they were a few years in Abode. In fact, they have earned him the title of Graeme The Tart. It's what the call him at Mains of Errol Farm where he sources his summer strawberries every summer.
“They all need to be the exact same size for my strawberry tarts, so they pick special punnets just for me. I can’t help it – I’m mush more relaxed and less of a nutter but I still like it to be just right. On the morning we got married Heritage had requested a Tarte Citron for Holyrood Palace. The queen was going to be there – there was no way I was asking anyone else to do that. So I went in, made it fresh and drove it to Edinburgh. I was back in time for the ceremony so Rhona was fine about it.”
He’s grinning at me now – he knows he’s a bit of the wall. He and I met not long after he set up Maxwells Desserts. It was through a work thing and we hit it off instantly. Big, loud, flirty and full of nonsense. RG and Rhona are equally as similar in their laid back, less obvious way and we have all become firm friends. He makes our favourite desserts whenever we go for dinner (RG Lemon Meringue Pie me Tarte Tatin or Chocolate Fondant) and always has extra for us to take home – RG loves him for that alone!
Graeme is one of those people who will help you in any way he can, he is generous of his time and company and there is no hidden agenda, no secret layers. His best mates are the ones he had at Chryston High and this is exactly as he likes it. He may flirt outrageously but he loves and respects his wife without question. It is love in that wonderful, proper old-fashioned, he-just-adores-her kind of a way.
That said, he calls a spade a spade and I would suggest he is more marmite than vanilla. Again, somthing he is completely comfortable with. "It means you're always surrounded by people who love you and that you love back."
Since starting Maxwells Desserts his reputation has grown and in the past few years he has supplied some extremely important desserts. Like the Chocolate Fondants that were served at Zara Phillips wedding to Mike Tindell.
“That was mental. It was Will and Kate’s first public engagement since their wedding and the Royal Family were all sitting one room away from me eating my puddings. And this year we made Afternoon Tea for David Beckham when he was up launching his whiskey project. All a bit nuts really.”
He has, to some extent, found that balance that he has been looking for in life. He works hard, he still pulls long hours and it has been known for him to go without days off. But he also closes in January for a week or two, takes long weekends now that he can leave his hard working prodigy Gemma, to man the ovens for a few days – “She’s brilliant. She’s just head down, works hard, has standards that count.” – and makes sure he enjoys almost every offer purchased from his wife’s Itison addiction.
It is still high pressure, just in a different way. A couple of years ago, his job was beginning to show round his chins. Keen to work off those essential tasting sessions he took up running in a bid to lose pounds and to de-stress. An Itison deal for Louise’s PT4U in Dundee appeared and he and Rhona headed through to start a health kick. He and Louise instantly hit it off. “I swear to God, she’s me in a woman’s body!”.
In true Big G style a few PT sessions and some running quickly turned into a healthy obsession and he now runs Spartan Races and Wolf Runs, dragging Rhona up and down the country to cheer him on. Of course he does. Why would he do anything by half?
(Can I just say, I have been weeping with laughter over this photograph since he showed me it and begged for it to used here.)
'Did you think it would look like this? Your life here in Perth with your business?'
We are both howling with laughter. I know the answer already.
“Look like this? I never had a clue what it was going to look like. My plan is there is no plan. Or occasionally the plan is f**k it, it’ll be fine. If I want to do something then I will. And I’ll do the best job there is to be done. That’s about it really…. What would it look like? Brilliant!”
He’s shaking his head and giggling. But a wee calm enters.
“You know when I decided to pack it all in back in my twenties I had everything you’d want for your child. Good job, company car, decent salary, girlfriend, nice flat. I told my mum and dad that I was just walking away from it all and they opened their door and helped me find my feet. They’ve been to every restaurant I’ve ever worked in. When I started the business they were in from the word go, helping me clean, coming to meetings. My mum has stood layering chocolate onto traybakes and spooning batter into muffin cases at hours of the night you wouldn’t believe. My Dad has done the same. And he’s been my delivery driver, my side-kick during meetings and the man who helped me price my product list and find my niche. They have supported me in every decision I have ever made and if I end up half as good a parent as they’ve been I’ll be happy.”
The wedding was slipped in a few paragraphs ago. After Rhona’s initial resistance to his charms, he wore her down and they moved to Perth looking for a new life. Just a year later he made his first proper plan - to propose in Dublin, the town in which she was born. He told his mum and dad what he was going to do the night before they left for Ireland and his Mum promptly handed over his Gran’s engagement ring. This was it, full circle but this time it was exactly what he wanted. On a wee bridge in the grounds of Marlfield House in County Wexford he got down on one knee and proposed. Three years on she is now pregnant with their first baby.
“So,” I say. “Is there a plan for fatherhood at least?”
“Aye. I plan to be amazing.”
Of course, a website, a facebook page or a twitter account would be too much like a plan. He has none of the above. But his Tarte Tatin is the Food Of The Gods.
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