The fourth in our monthly series of chef interviews is with David Monaghan, head chef at Two Fat Ladies at The Buttery. Over the last eight years, he has worked at all four branches of the TFL family and before that he rattled the pans at Glasgow restaurants such as Gavin’s Mill in Milngavie, the Brasserie on West Regent Street and Brian Maule at Chardon D’Or.
Here he tells us why he doesn’t like oysters much but loves monkfish and also details how to deal with customers who mistake their finger bowls for sauce jugs.
What is your favourite ingredient to work with?**
DM: It would have to be fish. I like the simplicity of it. You just have to choose whether it would be best to pan-fry, poach or grill it. I eat a lot of it myself and love monkfish. It holds together well and can take a lot of cooking.
What do you like to eat on a night off?
DM: I cook for the family so I do a lot of curries and pastas; simple things that the whole family can eat.
Which chef has inspired you?
DM: I like Rick Stein’s books and, closer to home, I worked with Brian Maule for a short time while waiting for Two Fat Ladies West End to start up. It was his work ethic which struck me. He was in the door at half seven in the morning and wouldn’t leave until late at night. He was there six days a week. Also, Mary and Evelyn, the two chefs who trained me at the Brasserie. Their organisation and flair was inspiring.
What makes a good chef?
DM: A chef that knows his own abilities is important. So many chefs think they are at a Michelin star level when clearly they aren’t and they mess it up. I know my own abilities and stick with them. You have to know what level your skills are at and build them gradually.
Is there anything you don’t like cooking with?**
DM: I’ve never been a big fan of pastry work. I can get on with it but it’s not something that I’m that good at. The pastry section is usually in a wee corner of the kitchen. It’s a bit out of the way and can feel like it’s not in amongst all the action.
Is there anything you couldn’t eat?
DM: I don’t mind them but I think oysters are over-rated.
What has been the most exotic thing you have eaten?
DM: I’m up for trying anything. I had a goat curry once which was different rather than exotic.
What gadget/utensil can’t you work without?
DM: I got a nice set of Japanese Sai knives from my family for my 30th birthday and they are quite important to me.
Ketchup or Maldon sea salt?
DM: Maldon sea salt.
You can get anyone in the world to cook you a meal. Who will it be?**
DM: Marco. That would be an interesting meal. I imagine that he would be a nightmare to work for but it would be an interesting kitchen.
Apart from your own establishment, where do you like to eat out?
DM: Me and my wife eat out quite a lot. Recently, we were at the new Mother India Dining In place. I enjoyed that. I like the whole idea of it and the portions are just right. It’s not pile it high and it’s good, fresh ingredients. I think Glasgow has a really good pub eating scene at the moment with places like Velvet Elvis, The Goat, Stravaigin and The Left Bank. I like No Sixteen on Byres Road as well; that’s fabulous value for money.
What is the best thing about being a chef?**
DM: I enjoy the whole kitchen atmosphere. We can go from being quite serious about something to having a good jolly. You also get to meet a lot of people through your suppliers. The trade nights out are always a good laugh and usually full of the weird and wonderful. There are a lot of quite eccentric people in the trade.
And the worst?
DM: The hours. We’re not too bad here. We do a four day week with no splits although your three days off are usually during the week so you don’t get to see as much of your family as you might like.
Have celeb chefs been a good or bad thing on the whole?**
DM: The programs which are coming on now, things like Masterchef: the Professionals, let people see how difficult the industry actually is. Initially, some of the programs led people to think that cooking is dead easy. It is easy enough to cook but actually being in a kitchen and organising everything else is the hard part.
One of the good things is that the public are getting into it and they appreciate what you do when they eat out.
What’s been your worst kitchen disaster?
DM: One of the very first nights at The Buttery wasn’t so good. The sweet section hadn’t been set up properly and the brulés weren’t set. We had about 90 people in and we were trying to make brulés on the hop. People were waiting forty-five minutes for sweets. We ended up bringing them in from the other Two Fat Ladies restaurants. That was a long, horrible, heads down shift where you don’t make eye contact with anyone.
Chefs are well known for drinking in moderation but what would you cook for a colleague who was suffering from a hangover?
DM: Black coffee, lots of water throughout the day and just push on. I remember when I was younger, we would go out for what was supposed to be a couple of pints after work. It would end up being four in the morning before you headed for home and you had to be back in the kitchen at eight. You would open the walk-in fridge and all the different smells would come at you at the same time. Your head chef would know you were suffering and give you the worst jobs to do.
Surely you don’t mean that head chefs can be sadistic?
DM: Sometimes you get a wee kick from giving a horrible job to someone who has been misbehaving or annoying you over the last week.
You are cooking a romantic meal. What is on the menu?
DM: My wife loves these goats cheese parcels I do with caramelised red onions and a wee balsamic dressing. At the moment, I like doing a fillet steak with a Wellington parcel. We cook the fillet and then we take layers of filo and spring roll pastry, Parma ham, a layer of the mushroom duxelle and then a herb crust. We cook that and sit it on top of the steak with a rich red wine jus. To finish, it would be a raspberry cheesecake.
Tell us about your most memorable meal?
DM: We went to Sangster’s in Elie. It was about four or five years ago and I don’t think that Bruce (Sangster) had had the place that long. We had four courses and were there for about three hours. I remember it as being a really relaxed and enjoyable night.
Do you get many daft customer complaints?
DM: We’ve had a few when people have ordered lemon sole Meuniere and complained about there being little brown bits in the sauce. Then we have to explain to them that it’s a brown butter sauce and meant to be like that. I’ve also had people send finger bowls back with the complaint that the ‘wee sauce with the mussels doesn’t taste very nice’.