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Thrills, Spills and The 88p Chairs

By 22nd August 2014

This week has been an abundance of foodie joy and so it seemed only fitting to spend a rainy Thursday afternoon sitting in the kitchen of Mr Tony Heath, eating soup made from his garden vegetables and perfectly dense soda bread fresh from his oven.  Tony’s company is relaxed and easy, as far removed from the stereotypical “angry chef” as you could possibly imagine.

He always reminds me for some reason, of a gentlemanly rogue in a Fawlty Towers Hotel sketch.  I’m not entirely sure that this is an appropriate simile given the tale that is about to unfold but it is true nevertheless. I interrupt Shona, his long-term partner, leaving for her Apron Stage restaurant and as I walk into their home, the smell of freshly baked bread is winding its way through the rooms to meet me.  It’s everything you want from a man who has spent his life in food.

For Perth’s food lovers Tony Heath is known and loved as the tall, elegant man who brought Let’s Eat to the city’s desperately barren food scene of the mid-nineties.  There were restaurants, yes, but nothing like we have today. There were no local “names” amongst chefs, no plethora of rosettes and very little in the way of quality, Scottish produce cooked and served to award-winning standards.   There had been; but at the point of his homecoming the city was in a food lovers’ slump. It was as though we had all been sitting, patiently waiting his return to the fold.

Tony as School BoyAs we sat supping at soup, breaking bread, it became apparent that the seemingly effortless rise of Let’s Eat and Tony’s untouchable reputation had in fact come after 25 years of hard graft and one or two fairly sizable mistakes! Tony is my oldest Big Personality to date and his is a life full of bold decisions and all the consequences that go hand in hand with this.  I like this in a person - I would rather fail trying than sit wondering every time.  I had wrongly assumed that my conversation with Tony would present me with a seamless path from catering college through a wealth of prestigious kitchens and up to meticulously planned Let’s Eat Restaurant. Instead I discovered a colourful, fearless, slightly maverick man who found his groove almost as much by gut instinct and default, as he had by talent and design.

So, with a career that spans five decades and more than one European country I have decided, unsurprisingly, that the only place to start is at the beginning of his life in the glorious industry of British Hospitality. 

It was a young 17 year old Tony Heath who decided that what he needed to better progress his career was kitchen experience. He had no obvious desire at that point to work as a chef but back in the sixties in order to become a good Hotel General Manager, you first had to hone your skills and earn your stripes in all areas of the business. And so he left his final year at college having lined up a job as a commis at The East Arms Restaurant in Maidenhead. This first role opened young Tony’s eyes to the good, the bad and the ugly of his chosen career as he worked under Ernest Stutz, a Swiss chef of unrivalled reputation who had a drink problem of great acclaim and an alcoholic wife to ensure it stayed that way.

“He was a brilliant chef when his mind was on it, he had one of these little chef’s offices at the back of the kitchen where he stashed his bottles of cooking brandy and his wife hid her gin.  George the sous chef, who was a few years older than me was gay and having an affair with our Spanish larder chef, Paco.  It was a wild time for a young boy in the sixties.”

After a year working, partying and learning from this wildly eclectic bunch, Tony and a friend packed up a morris minor and headed for Lyon. At this time France was still the leading light of the world’s culinary scene and the restaurant they worked in was attached to a vast Casino, turning over 240 covers of amazing food each and every night.  Describing the dining room, Tony still seems a little in awe of the splendour in which he worked and describes in detail the beautiful décor, the position of the bandstand for the nightly orchestra (!), the pool and the tree that grew up through the middle of the room and into the ceiling.

“We were commis stragiares, trainee waiters, the lowest of the low, but alongside our French counterparts who were simply killing time until National Service we were keen and eager to please.   The Chef De Rang would fight over us, taking us under their wing and showing us the ropes of a proper, prestigious establishment.

We’d set up the Tranche Du Flambe with a whole seabass, doused in alcohol and set alight before precariously moving in and out of tables, trying hard not to set yourself on fire. Once you mastered it you were sent out with two – it was terrifying!  It was so strict, with no room for errors but it was one of the most valuable points in my career; it taught me about a work ethic.”

Tony talks at length about the Maitre D’ and Chef De Rang in sixties France holding equal status in the local community with lawyers, teachers and other professionals.

“They were wealthy. They had month long holidays and new cars every year.  They’d go into a back room and count the huge box of tips – they were making a fortune. It was phenomenal and it wasn’t unique to Lyon and the Casino. It’s just how it was at the time. A waiter’s position was respected. Which, of course, is as it should be.”

A homesick Tony headed back to the UK after a year and with a new found enthusiasm for his trade he was keen to make his mark. He landed a job as a trainee manager with Esso who at the time were taking full advantage of Harold Wilson’s labour government offering grants to new build hotels. Tony took his charge at Shop Pen Hangers Manor in Maidenhead and learned everything he needed to know from a diverse group of amazing people including department heads, night porters and the God like assistant managers.

His eagerness saw him as a Junior Assistant Manager at the age of twenty and in order to learn the business end of hotels he was sent to Mons in Belgium for nine months, followed by a two month stopover in Maidenhead and finally, a transfer to Edinburgh.

“It was a quick progression. The Esso business was small enough for people to notice a young, keen manager and large enough to give me opportunities. It was just after the Commonwealth Games in 1970 and I was in the first new build hotel Edinburgh had seen this side of the 20th century.  I loved it but I was homesick off and on.  When Esso decided free up its funds for North Sea Oil developments, selling to Crest, I snapped up an offer from the new owners and headed to Hull in my first General Manager’s position.”

Tony was 24 years old at this point and newly married with a baby daughter, his only child, Tara. He watched the building of the Humber Bridge from his hotel and in 1976 he moved to a larger operation in nearby Grimsby.  It was a large, ”bed factory” which although great experience wasn’t enjoyable for our young hero who wondered daily at how the hell he’d ended up here! 

“I was hankering to get back to Scotland. My ex-wife is Scottish and we both wanted to move back.  As fate would have it I knew someone who knew someone and I ended up at The Huntingtower Hotel.”

It was Huntingtower that gave Tony his opportunity to settle into the trade and learn to love his craft.  The previous owner had transformed this old, stately building into a wreck and Tony was tasked with lovingly putting it back together.  When his chef, Steve, decided to move to Arbroath the sensible option at the time was for Tony to go back into cooking, leaving his Front of House team, Sue and Gordon, to hold fort while he ran the Hotel from the kitchen. After a month of feeling his way around he settled into the cooking and, he will tell you, it’s one of the best ideas he ever had.

By the time the owners sold up in 1983 Tony was ready for his own challenge and he and his wife opened the Coach House Restaurant in Perth (now the North Port) to great acclaim.

“Well, eventually we gained great acclaim. The first year was incredibly difficult but when it all clicked into place the accolades came and our following started. It was a big learning curve though.”

The Coach House was regarded by both Good Food and the AA as the highest rated restaurant in Tayside and it wasn’t long before they were made an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“What do you do? We were tired of the long shifts, the offer was there and we decided to take it.  It was from here that I made the biggest mistake of my life. There’s no dressing it up, it was a bloody disaster.”

The disaster Tony talks about was his ill-fated wine shop in St Andrews, Le Demi Bouteille. “I thought we could specialise in half bottles.” he tells me shaking his silvery grey head in mock disbelieve.  

“We spent a fortune kitting it out, the very best in beautiful shelving, an amazing array of wines, immaculate signwriting. And of course, our projections were way, way out due to a lack of proper research. From the moment we opened I knew it was doomed. I knew.”

He talks about it as the worst period of his life and remains resolute that his decision to cut his losses and sell the lease was the only thing that could have been done to allow him to leave with his sanity intact. “We lost a fortune.”

I am going to gallop through a few years or we’ll never arrive at Let’s Eat. The period that followed seemed to be demoralising and, to be honest, a bit grim. Tony worked between Pitlochry Festival Theatre as a cook, Murrayshall as a General Manager, Farleyer as a chef (which to be fair, he loved and felt that he’d finally found his future with) before finally ending up in Aberdeen running a public house / restaurant for an Edinburgh Property developer. During this time he had split from his wife and had met Shona, with whom he found contentment and happiness.

“It was a blur of years for a while and although I enjoyed some of it and learned a lot it wasn’t easy. You go through these periods where professionally and personally nothing seems to line up and between St Andrews and Aberdeen I seemed to fluctuate between the highs and lows of exactly this.”

Aberdeen brought a new sense of pride to his life, the developer they were working for offered them an opportunity to lease the restaurant within the pub / bistro / bar venue and they signed on the hand-written, slightly tenuous dotted line! They grew into one of the area’s most prestigious eateries winning the Scotland Restaurant of The Year award.  When the developer’s core business went bust and the receiver was sent in Tony tells me his life changed for the better.

“Not that I knew it at the time of course. But we had to move quickly and we were offered a small restaurant called The Courtyard in Aberdeen’s booming city centre. It was incredible. The kitchen was tiny and it taught me how to be organised and work flat out, neatly and efficiently. We were working so hard there, we were so busy and eventually we thought that’s it. We can’t do this anymore.”

The pair started making enquiries to come back to Perth and had spotted the building on the corner of Kinnoull Street and Atholl Street.  They began to make enquiries when Shona fell desperately ill and was taken into hospital.

“It was terrifying. I was working in The Courtyard, coming in at night and writing letters to councillors in Perth to try and combat the objections that had started when we applied for change of use.  We were having a real battle and Shona’s health just wasn’t up to it.   The provost in Perth at the time was Jean McCormack and thankfully we got her onside and she fought our corner. We moved down to Perth in late 1995 with nothing. Not a damn thing.  And we opened Let’s Eat.”

When Tony talks about opening Let’s Eat with nothing he isn’t exaggerating. They had no house, no asset to sell, he borrowed a little money from his brother and received a small bank loan which he says, if he was applying for today, he wouldn’t have a hope in hell of securing. It was a shoestring of a budget but the pair knuckled down and small triumphs kept them going. Like Shona’s find of 60 chairs for £53.

“Ahhhh – I always thought that shabby chic thing at Let’s Eat was deliberate.” I say.

He laughs and shakes his head. “No, we were just skint. We didn’t have money for curtains and that’s why we filled the windows with stuff. Within a few days of opening we had a neighbour from across the road come in and complain about the disgraceful mess.”

It was just before Christmas 1995 when they finally opened the doors and with the help of their friend, Libby Weir-breen, a PR agent, they quickly chalked up reviews in all the major newspapers and watched on in wonder as Let’s Eat filled the Timothy’s shaped hole in the hearts of Perth’s fine diners.  Before long they were joined in status by Exceed and 63 Tay Street and together they enjoyed their reputations as the leaders in the Perthshire Restaurant scene.  

“It was a mixture of luck and timing,” said Tony modestly. “And that old building.  It was tremendous.  Shona is an amazing front of house and the food almost came second to the atmosphere that we were able to create for people. I loved it all.”

It was a time of corporate accounts and disposable incomes, with £25 a head lunches no issues with their loyal following of regulars.   A brief foray into a second venue saw Let’s Eat Again come and go within a year “We were spread too thin, both of us obsessive about being hands on”.  Although, it turned out to be a sound investment with the excellent tenancy of Mario at Grande Italia now in its 4th year.

When Tony and Shona decided to sell to Willie and Margot in 2005 Perth was aghast. To be fair, Dean’s at Let’s Eat continues to thrive and Tony will tell you in no uncertain terms he believes Willie to be the more professional chef. 

With his new found freedom, Tony set up with Willie Little at Fish in Crieff and learned the trade of a wholesaler. At the same time Shona and Jane bought The Apron Stage in Stanley, a tiny restaurant with five tables and an instant army of followers.

Life was taking on a new, slower and enjoyable pace until Shona fell ill in 2007 and set about her fight with breast cancer. Tony was enlisted as the Apron Stage Pot Boy to help keep things afloat and gave up the fish business.  That was seven years ago.  And Shona is now well. And Tony is still the Pot Boy – sometimes!

“I love it and hate it in equal measure!” he laughs, “I love the customers and the open plan ease of knowing that people can see you cursing in the tiny kitchen.  And of course, it works because of Shona.”

At the same time as he was pulled into help at Stanley he set up Tony Heath’s Cook School in the very kitchen I am sitting scribbling notes and supping soup in.  The story goes that years before Nick Nairn had advised him to “get out and open a Cook School”.

Tony and The Belgians“It stuck in my mind! It was almost a hobby but once the guinea pigs had been done I realised I had something that people enjoyed.  It’s spread through word of mouth which is fine. It’s quiet in the summer and then busy in the winter with people coming in twos – or sometimes groups - and just enjoying the simple food and great ingredients and views across the Perthshire hillside.”

As a little aside, I spent a day at that Cook School in February with my son Cain and we had a tremendous day. If you’re a foodie you’ll love it – get booked in now!

Alongside this he has held a regular spot as Perth Farmers’ Market’s resident chef and cook demo expert and he is, as you’d expect, a huge hit with the customers.

Tony at Perth Farmers Market“I’m not doing as many now, although I am there at Adeline’s big event in October. I’m ready for a rest”. He is almost believable, but for the smile playing at the corners of his lips.

I say that his place in Perth’s food scene is so set in stone it will be nigh on impossible for him to retire complete.  And now that I know about his life spent on one of the colourful, fearless paths I’m even more reluctant to accept him as a man with a good book, a garden and quiet days making soup and bread.

“Well it has been a journey. I started out with these ideas of smart suits and a manager’s position but it turned out what I love best is personal involvement. Huntingtower was a turning point for me and then by the time I met Shona, I could stick to being shy and in the background because she was, and is, so good at being everything else. 

I’ve learned from experience that I am passionate in my own way, about good ingredients and a genuine love of food.  I know its trendy just now but the truth is, if you believe in this, you will know it has always been the way.”

I push a little, wondering at this epic tale of a career. Here he is at an age where he knows what makes him tick and yet he is hanging up the whites that have brought him personal acclaim and joy to many people.  Will he not miss it at all if he winds down?

“Nicki, I’m 66 years old. Let’s finish this story with you pitching a For Sale sign up for The Apron Stage and getting me away from those pots.  It’s a great wee business, ideal for a young enthusiastic couple. If I was twenty years younger I’d snap your hand off for it.  But for now, I plan to enjoy some time off, relax and visit my lovely granddaughters.”

If I was a betting girl, I’d say that Mr Tony Heath might try to take this route. But I doubt very much that we’ve heard the last of this glorious man just yet. 

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