I am always fascinated by the life of a chef. Without exception every good chef I have ever known has been an intense nucleus of both creativity and control-freak. I’ll go even further and say that outside of their kitchen they are usually full of wild abandon – smoking, drinking, party animals – or enjoy award-level obsession within another area of their life – running, shooting, keeping their house tidy.
Now, that may seem like a sweeping statement but I want you to apply it to every good chef you know and I will bet a week’s worth of tips it rings true. It is most certainly the case with this week’s Big Personality. This is a Perthshire boy, schooled in Blairgowrie and trained under the watchful eye of some of our best local chefs. He has won Scottish Chef of the Year in 2013, was Perthshire’s overall Hospitality Hero in the 2015 Thistle Awards, is an Ambassador for both Slow Food and Eat Scotland, has held two AA rosettes for over a decade and all of this before his fortieth birthday.
He also runs, swims and cycles through some of Perthshire’s toughest terrains and lochs, wrote a paper for Scottish Government to consider how chefs can help educate the next generation in cooking and is currently putting himself through crazy-assed workouts in The Box.
I should also mention he’s a bit reserved around people he doesn’t know, reluctant to come out from behind the kitchen door and a doting family man who has been with his wife since they were teenagers.
This week we’re meeting the reserved extrovert, the creative control-freak, the man behind the door of 63 Tay Street, Mr Graeme Pallister.
Graeme grew up in Coupar Angus where his dad was the local bobby and his mum worked as a secretary for Blairgowrie Golf Club. His maternal Gran and Grandad ran the Red House Pub in Coupar Angus before it became a hotel and his paternal grandparents ran hotels on jersey so hospitality has always been in the blood. Growing up he remembers enjoying food, feeling comfort from his Mum’s plain, eighties cooking when he piled in the door from football or hanging out with his mates.
“The thing about the eighties is food wasn’t as on tap. There weren’t coffee shops on every corner and we just didn’t snack. You’d be out, burning energy and come home starving. I spend half my life trying to find my mates. If they weren’t at the bins at Coupar Cross it was mission impossible time.
When I eventually did get home it would be straight into the kitchen for three courses. Every night of the week. Soup, meat and two veg, and pudding. My mum was a working mum and when I look back now I’m in awe. She was amazing. She’d be up first thing, braising a bit of meat and sticking it in for a slow cook so it was ready for our tea.
We were well kept, me, my brother and my dad; she had about ten dishes that rotated so you were on a roll with favourites like corn beef hash or mince and tatties. We were those kids whose mum cooked and we never had a chippy tea unless it was someone's birthday. At the time I was for phoning childline but now when I look back, I know she started us right.
I remember one night feeding my tea to the dog under the table and then he spewed everywhere and there on the carpet were my sprouts! There was nowhere to go when that happened!”
Picture 15 year old Graeme, growing up in Coupar Angus, paper round to provide the cash needed for playing pool at the Red House (he tells me he spent most of his teenage life in this establishment! First pint, first dance, first pool win.) or buying new shin pads. He was working 6 days a week and was up at 6.30am and then back in again at 4pm after shool. His grand total for the week was about a tenner and eventually he’d had enough.
“I went into the Kyber Pass Indian Takeaway and lied about my age to get a job. It was run by a guy called Shakio Khan who to this day is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever known. He made these amazing sauces with fragrant, spicy ingredients and would whip up a fresh dough for the nan bread that he baked in the tandoor. It made sense to me right away. I mean I’m not saying it was free range chicken but the cooking was amazing and he really looked out for me.”
Graeme had known from a young age, 11 or 12, that he would find his passion in the kitchen. He recalls his Gran and Grandad’s anniversary at the hotel and him finding himself in the kitchen and experiencing a strong feeling of belonging.
“I had no lack of confidence at 15. Shakio handed me a sack of onions as big as myself and before long I could peel them in 15 minutes. I knew I had to prove myself so I worked hard and showed willingness in a bid to get to cook. It paid off – I was soon making fresh puree from ginger and garlic and learning how to make the base for the tomato sauces. At 16 I progressed to the fryer and even though I was still at school, when he moved to a new takeaway in Perth, I went with him.
Anyhow, that was soon knocked on the head cos I was it was a bit bonkers and all sorts happened. My mum eventually put her foot down and that was the end of my Indian cooking career! I think she secretly wanted it to be over mind you; I would come in stinking from the fryer and the cooking smells and she used to make me strip at the door, right down to my underwear and march me to the bathroom!”
School was difficult but Graeme was good at football so he made up a wee bit for being so uncool! He wasn’t allowed cool stuff, to hang out in the cool places or do whatever else it was that made school bearable in the eighties in Blairgowrie. The kitchen though was another story, here he felt at home and he saw it as a great escape.
“I was half way through sixth year studying highers when a guy my brother knew through his YTS told my mum about a job that had come up in Kinloch House. I got in on a YTS and on the first day I was shown how to fillet a salmon and pluck a pheasant. It was three rosettes at the time and everything, everything was immaculate.
The best bit was though, it was live in and so at 17 I left home to live in a flat with a bunch of other chefs in the middle of nowhere. It was proper upstairs / downstairs and I was still studying Higher English, convinced I should finish something – honestly, I used to read Romeo and Juliette to the housemaids. (He giggles and shakes his head at his own youthful nonsense).
Bill McNicoll, the head chef became my friend and mentor. He was a beautiful man, so brilliantly good at what he did and only too willing to show me the ropes. I would go in for my one day a week at Perth College and without fail I’d already learned what was being shown. I was so lucky to be in the environment I was and I did a two year course in a year, SVQ 1 and SVQ 2. I won student of the year and was this blue eyed boy of the kitchen.”
Now, this is where fate plays her part and a young girl he knew from High School started as a receptionist. Fiona was one year younger than him and he would joke that she’d always fancied him at school. (To be clear, it was only ever him that said this!). They began dating but Graeme had already been bitten by his career and was looking to move on. He kept asking what this term ‘Michelin Star’ meant and wanted to know what all the fuss was about…
“I’d read White Heat by Marco Pierre White and I loved it. All I could think of was how I could get some of that. My Granny lived on Jersey and so when the chance came up to move to Longville Manor, a one Michelin star on the island, I wrote the head chef there a long letter about how much I loved food and what I wanted to do. That was it… Andrew Baird took me on.
It was hell to hand in my notice – I was in a good position and I’d met Fiona. Langville was eighteen hour days and I’d gone from being the blue eyed boy to a commis in a huge team of faceless young cooks. The food was amazing but it was seriously hard core. Fiona had put in her notice to come and join me but I knew it wasn’t right for us and so I made a decision to come home.”
So, he gets back to Scotland to find himself and Fiona, unemployed at which point he started on agencies. Eventually a job came up in Sussex and the pair moved together at just 17 and 18 years old. It was a tough kitchen but he knew he couldn’t fail twice and so they stuck it out in their tiny wee room, with a dodgy door lock, a wonky wardrobe and a questionably stained mattress!
“We were a couple of kids and suddenly we were living together in this strange environment. We barely knew each other and we were thrown into this odd existence. There were a few tears but we knew we’d be fine – I’d walk her to work at reception every morning and somewhere in amongst it all I knew she was the one for me.
I proposed in the car park of the red lion pub in Chichester but I was skint so she had to buy her own engagement ring for £35 out of Argos and that was us! The guys in the kitchen had a field day with me and the Head Chef gave me a row for doing something so stupid. Turned out alright though!
No one thought we’d go the distance, but I felt safe and secure with Fiona and she felt the same with me. She was incredibly homesick so we headed back to Scotland and I spent the summer breaking my back picking broccoli on the Strathmore Estate. We were living together at her Mum’s house and after a brief spell at the Inverdale Hotel I knew we had to get out of Blairgowrie.”
Graeme sat down to put pen to paper again but this time his passionate plea for an environment with real food and a great mentor went out to Tony Heath at Let’s Eat. He and Fiona moved to Ballantyne Place and after a year in Perth, settled into life in the city, they married.
“Fiona was working at Specsavers, I was settled and happy at Let’s Eat and it had been four years since that romantic proposal in the car park! I loved my life; Tony was like a father figure to me and he taught me so much more than cooking. In Let’s Eat at that time he set us an example of how to act. What it meant to be restaurateur rather than a chef – he’s such a gentleman. I knew then I wanted my own restaurant. “
He is thoughtful before his next statement… “Tony’s approval meant a lot to me – it still does –and he’s still my first port of call to chat about changes and the kitchen. “
As soon as he realised that his end goal was a place of his own he enrolled to do an HNC in Hotel Management. He knew he needed more than the cooking if he was to make a business work and so while rising through the ranks at Let’s Eat, he studied via Open Learning to further his potential.
“The environment in Let’s Eat at that time was fast and busy. Everything was done right – no matter how flat out you were everything was done with respect and precision. We had Sunday and Monday off but we crammed 70 or 80 hours a week into five days. We were doing 50 lunches a day and 70 or 80 covers at night.
The biggest difference between then and now is the number of restaurants in the town. There were about a third of what you have now and there are pros and cons on both sides of that statement.
There was only four of us and a KP – called Greig Farmer, who was to become my best friend to this day – and I think we were there so often we all started to look like Tony! I have the deepest respect for him to this day.”
However, ambitious young Graeme wanted to head for bigger things and with Andrew Fairlie opening what was to surely become Perthshire’s first Michelin Star restaurant the boy got out his pad and pen and set to work on the letter that would end all letters!
“It was by far the most eventful thing that was to happen to food in Perthshire and I was itching to be part of it. I’d never even been to Gleneagles before and as I’m sitting there in front of this God, I just kept thinking ‘Am I saying the right thing?’. He’s staring back at me, super focused and I’m pissing my pants!
He showed me round and I still remember being gobsmacked. The kitchen was half built but you could see, even half done, that it was going to be on another level. I didn’t think I’d get the job so I knew I had nothing to lose by begging a bit! I looked him in the eye and told him I’d work harder, longer and better than anyone else if he gave me chance. “That’s what I’m looking for.” was all he said and the job was mine.
I was there for the opening year and it was just amazing. I began to truly understand what simplicity could give you. It was so, so focused and the attention to detail was insane. Anyhow, Fiona fell pregnant with Ethan and we had to get a mortgage. There was no two ways about it - I had to earn more and I needed to come out of the intensity of that kitchen and refocus on my marriage.
Tony was just about to open Let’s Eat Again and offered me my first head chef’s job. I jumped at it and suddenly my chef’s ego was soothed a bit; having my own space to look after and control was amazing.
Ethan was born in 2003 – my wife, by the way, blew me away that night – and I took one night off and was back to work. Kacey came three years later and I think I did the same again.”
There was a brief spell where he moved back to Kinloch House, but it was never the same and so when he saw the efforts that a new-to-town, young couple were pumping into their newly purchased hotel at the South inch he thought he’d get in touch!
“We had moved to Craigie before Ethan was born and I walked to work through the South Inch every day – I still do in fact. It means everything to me that I have that grounding before the madness of a kitchen. When I joined Parklands it was as though I had the perfect fit – everything suited me. I liked the rhythm of my life as well as my work.
Scott, Penny and I just clicked right away and after a couple of years I very honestly sat down and told them my dream of owning my own restaurant. 63 Tay Street came on the market quietly and as I was about to turn 30, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to take that next big step.
Jeremy Wares spoke to Scott and three months later we bought 63. Fiona and I remortgaged the house to go in as partners and there I was… 30 years old, a mortgage, a wife, two kids and an obscene amount of money piled into a business with people I’d known two years. Crazy!”
That big decision came ten years ago and in that time Graeme has grown both as a chef and as his own person. He will admit to making huge mistakes at first, more bothered about impressing people and stroking his chef’s ego than really thinking about what he wanted.
It took him a few years to settle into the right groove and it was all to be helped along by a meeting with Jim Fairlie, the man behind Perth Farmer’s Market and a passionate advocate for sourcing and using local produce, and as anyone who knows him will testify, Scotland!
“Jim is the reason my love of Scotland became so enthused. He lives and breathes his passions and he takes no prisoners in his voicing of that. He influenced me hugely and I learned from him as I found my own voice and applied my love of Scotland, its larder and its produce to my own ethos for my business. I’ve worked with him loads over the years but apart from the food he’s become a real friend.
These two passions blending together led to my involvement with Slow Food and it was after my first visit to terre madre I came back fired up about making a difference. It engaged me in a way I didn’t know I had in me and suddenly I found my position in the journey that is Scottish food. I knew there was a chain and that I was only one small part of it. I’m now an ambassador for Scotland Food & Drink and Slow Food Scotland.”
Over the next four or five years that followed Graeme’s involvement in ‘the power of food’ as he calls it, became far bigger than a restaurant and slow food dinners. He joined forces with Moncrieffe primary School, where his son Ethan attended and with them he built a programme that aimed to teach children about the forgotten art of home cooking and fresh ingredients. It is while Graeme talks about this that you can see his passion shine through; those years behind a stove or standing stooped, chopping sacks of onions come to the surface and he will tell you in no uncertain terms what supermarkets are doing to our small businesses, our food chain and subsequently our health.
“I had to make a difference. I helped Moncrieffe raise the funds needed to put in a kitchen and a garden and worked with teachers so that they could then teach kids. The red tape was hellish and every Monday I’d go in to another bank of questions.
I knew I couldn’t do it on my own so I called wrote a paper for the government to highlight the need for nutritional food education to be started in primary Schools. It was one of the things that influenced Chefs At School, a new Scottish Government Initiative.”
The Local Honest Simple mantra that Graeme has built up over the years is now an integral part of his business and has opened many doors, leading to all sorts of wonderful people. Scott Brown from Harvest Magic is one of these people and Graeme has been working with him for the past two years.
“Harvest Magic is a Sustainable Garden Eco System. This may sound a bit ‘trendy’ and there are far too many buzz words in there but the truth is, Scott Brown has developed this amazing system that uses waste, worms and old fashioned elbow grease to produce some of the most stunning produce that goes through our kitchen.
Lee and I love working with his produce and knowing we can rely on him. We’re a bit like kindred spirits me and Lee! I’m deeply respectful of his talents and enthusiasm and he has a great career ahead of him. It’s a pleasure to spend time working with him which is just as well because he’s like my second wife our days are so long!”
(If you want to know more about this, check out our 'Perthshire Magic' story over on the small city stop press section! )
I said at the beginning that all chefs were obsessional and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was Graeme’s other passion. It is, but all of this comes under a big banner of FOOD, leaving his mind free for exercise and health.
“I'd always played footie and although I cycled a bit and walked to work it was all between beers, fags and kebabs. About twelve years ago I decided to go for a run round the South Inch one day and almost died. I thought to myself, ‘This is not good!’.
Anyhow, like anything with me it became an obsession and that’s when I hooked up with Steven Bonthrone and got into running distances. I did a few marathons, Steve and I have become great pals – he’s an amazing guy, and started to look at what else I could do to take it up a notch.
Greig was a policeman by this time and he had to get his fitness levels up so we decided to go the whole hog and to the Kindrochit Quadratlon. It was crazy! We were training every spare minute I had – I don’t know how Fiona put up with it – and it was by far the most insane thing I’d ever done. Finishing it was an incredible feeling though and we went to go again a couple of years later but an injury stopped me from doing the whole thing so went for a relay instead.”
For those who don’t know the Kindrochit Quadratlon is pitched as “an exhilarating test of stamina, strength and fitness through some of the most spectacular and historic areas of the Scottish Highlands. It will be a weekend you never forget and you’ll need to be on form – this is a tough event!”
The lead on from his has been a keen interest in health generally and it was only a matter of time before his two great passions merged. Graeme has been experimenting with food and its effects on your body for some years now and optimising his health by looking at what goes in is his most recent fixation.
“I’ve driven Fiona and the kids up the wall. I’m just a human guinea pig for ideas. Over the years I’ve eaten so much crap – I know that’s surprising but so many chefs get into a routine of coming in late and living on toast and cheese or snack food. I am so much more aware of eating healthily now and about a year ago I binned sugar almost entirely from my diet. I still taste food, of course I do, and I’d never preach it because everyone enjoys a treat when they come out, but generally speaking I’m for getting rid of it.”
Graeme has taken this idea to his gym, Crossfit, and is now helping the members of ‘The Box’ with nutritional advice and food based challenges. This new, intense form of exercise suits his manic lifestyle perfectly and after being introduced to Chris Brown by his amazing pal Sara McBride, he joined up to experience the fuss for himself.
The community feeling and camaraderie that goes along with this small, local gym is an ideal mix for Graeme and he has gained energy and brain power since changing to the short speedy workouts that it celebrates.
“Chris is the owner of Crossfit in Perth and Sara is a friend who has joined me in the human guinea pig experiments! They’re both really supportive and Sara in particular is just high on life! We’ve set up a monthly Sunday dinner where everyone comes along and joins in and after some great feedback we looked at how to keep that going all month round. We’re just about to launch Fresh Fix, a focused eating programme that is designed for athlete’s to ensure they’re eating healthily. We’re starting with breakfasts at Cross fit and then we’ll take it from there – the hope is to develop good quality, well balanced meals that will help people get everything they need to workout productively. It’s really exciting.”
Graeme Pallister is about to hit 40. He has been in 63 Tay Street for over a little over a decade, married for some 17 years to his childhood sweetheart and is dad to two children. He loves his oldest friends, respects all of those who have taught him and helped him get to where he is today and finally, finally he seems to have found the secret to a content life.
“I always think I kinda stumbled into everything in my life. Yes I made things happen for myself and for my family but it was always done as a snap decision, never really planned through with minute detail.
I’ve never been money orientated – thank god cos I’ve never had any! – but as I get older and look at my kids growing up and my life as it is I know I made some good decisions along the way. Ethan has left primary school and suddenly my wee boy is taller is than me – and Kacey. My God she’s just a bag of energy. When I see them I hope that they’ll find their passion in life, do what makes them happy. It’s always worked for me.”
Graeme Pallister is a chef to a T. He is passionate, obsessional, committed. He loves his food, his wife and kids and the friends he has met along the way. His mantra of local, honest, simple has reached every corner of his happy life and you just know that whatever changes lie ahead he’ll take them by the scruff of the neck and give them his obsessional all.
63 Tay Street is a local, family owned business and like all of these restaurants run by passionate people it can only survive if we all use it. Graeme is counting on serving us up his own special mix of Local, Honest, Simple for another decade or two and so it is with great encouragement that I urge you all to get down and try this fab wee restaurant and the amazing food cooked there.