Ryan McCutcheon never set out to be a chef. As a kid growing
up in Stranraer, he thought he would follow an inspiring maths teacher into the
However, the lure of the kitchen proved too strong:
'I started off as a kitchen porter in a local hotel and then was taken into the kitchen after a sous chef burnt his hand,' he explains. 'I caught the bug. It was never my intended career choice. I had wanted to be a maths teacher but the longer I spent cooking the more I wanted to do it.'
That happy accident has worked out well. Since first washing the pots at the age of 14, Ryan has done stints in Gleneagles, Cromlix, Knockinaam Lodge and Chez Roux at Greywalls.
He was head chef for three years at Greywalls in Gullane before coming to work at the nine bedroom Achray. Ryan was instrumental in taking the restaurant at Greywalls to two AA Rosettes and aims to do the same at Achray:
'Within the first six months, we would like to secure two AA Rosettes and within eighteen months, I would like to have secured three.'
As noted in a blog last week, Achray House Hotel has new owners and, with Ryan heading up the kitchen, the aim is to make the 19th century venue a place that attracts the culinary curious.
'We're going to make the business grow,' says Ryan. 'We will explore different markets - corporate, weddings - but the main goal is to create a food-led destination. A place where people want to come because of the food. We have a stunning location here but we want the main focus to be the food.'
Local produce and seasonality will be key to making that happen:
'We are in the heart of Scotland's larder and we are going to make the most of that using a few different techniques. We'll be using some Asian influences, some classic French techniques and some modern techniques to take these Scottish ingredients to the next level.'
The 5pm Food blog went to Achray House Hotel recently to see first-hand what this might mean. The menu is designed to appeal to a wide range of customers; from drop-in locals after a super fresh and crispy fish 'n' chips to staying guests who are celebrating a special occasion and want a meal to remember.
The stand out dish made the most of a couple of cuts of Ayrshire pork. Simply presented on the plate, its different levels of flavour were the result of a complex cooking process.
'We took the belly and the cheek from the beast,' explains Ryan. 'We made a dry salt rub using salt, garlic, rosemary, salt anise, fennel seeds, coriander. We blitzed that into a fine paste and rubbed it on both the belly and the cheeks. You let the cheeks marinade for around six hours and the belly for 24 hours. We washed the dry rub off the cheeks otherwise it would have been too salty. We wanted the flavour to just infuse the meat not dominate it. We braised the cheeks for two to three hours at a light simmer with a cartouche on top. Then we then removed the liquid and reduced it down with some veal stock to make a glaze for the dish.
'After the belly had been marinated for 24 hours, we washed it in cold running water for about 20 minutes and then we put them in sous vide bags and cooked them in their own juices for 12 hours at 88 degrees centigrade. After that we pressed them and cooled them in their own juices. Then we seared the belly to get a nice crispy skin; added the pork cheek into the pan and then the glaze. Cook for five to ten with a little butter to give the glaze a good shine. Plate the dish with some pak choi.'
That is a lot of work for one dish and it was worth every minute of it. It is also a clear illustration of what Ryan means by Asian influences and a mix of classic and modern cooking techniques.
Seasonality is just as important in the Achray kitchen. Ryan is looking forward to the first wild garlic and wild leeks making an appearance and then the spring nettles will be harvested for soups. Lambing season is not far away and the kitchen brigade will be visiting farms to see which animals will be at their peak come autumn.
Achray also takes venison from a local gamekeeper. We sampled the most tender, earthy venison loin when we visited. Like all good chefs, Ryan uses every part of the carcass from the shins to the haunches. When we spoke, he was looking forward to gin-curing the belly to make venison bacon.
Ryan has often lived in a rural or semi-rural setting and the rhythm of the countryside has an effect on his cooking:
'You are more aware of your produce if you are in the countryside than when you are stuck in the city. It is easier to see what stage the produce is at. I always say you should cook for the day. You might wake up thinking you will write a menu with, say, a light chicken terrine starter but then it is cold or rainy and it's a better idea to prepare something heartier that suits the weather. You feel that more if you are living in the countryside.'
As well as all-day barbeques on the sundeck at the front of the hotel, this summer will see a new kitchen garden begin to take shape at Achray.
'You can take inspiration from a garden,' says Ryan. 'You might go out intending to pick a particular thing and it is not at its best. It might need another couple of days but there is always another herb or vegetable that looks bright, colourful and ready to go. If you have access to a kitchen garden then the ingredients are there telling you what is ready to be used.'
Looking out over Loch Earn, Achray House Hotel has a spectacular location. Chef McCutcheon aims to produce dishes that reflect its gorgeous setting in the heart of Scotland's natural larder. We suspect that the AA inspector may become a regular visitor.
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