He started out at Ardoe, he left and then he went back to conquer.
Alan Clarke was just a young pup when he took his first steps toward a career in food.
At the age of 15, he started working in the kitchen at the Mercure Aberdeen Ardoe House Hotel.
But seeking pastures new, he left the hotel on South Deeside Road and spent two years working at one of Scotland’s leading restaurants – The Three Chimneys on Skye – before returning to Ardoe as head chef.
Learning the true meaning of supporting local and making use of the high-quality ingredients available to him on his doorstep, Alan returned to the hotel with a whole new ethos – from farm to fork.
And he’s championing his team to do the same.
With various awards under his belt, new innovative menu concepts in the pipeline and a talented team ready to back him at every opportunity, the young head chef has a promising future.
After leaving Ardoe, you went off to work at The Three Chimney. Having been away and returned, what would you say you can now bring to the table as head chef?
It really inspired me to ensure we use only the best ingredients here. It may be a Mercure hotel, but it’s Ardoe House and it stands really well on its own.
We’re now doing everything we can to get as much local produce on the menu. At the moment I’m using John Savage, who’s a very well-known fish supplier, for all of my fish – he gets them straight out of the water on the day I use it.
I’ve started using HM Sheridan’s in Ballater for all of my meat and I’m using Turriff’s of Montrose for my vegetables, but it would be good to use someone more local, too.
Shirley Spear – one of the owners of The Three Chimney’s – approached me about the job there.
I wanted to try something new and was really excited about the move, but it was really nerve-wracking telling Richard – Ardoe’s head chef at the time.
I’d grown really fond of him and the team, but The Three Chimneys was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
It was an incredible experience. Forget about the hours and the labour, the actual produce you had available to use was unreal and that really taught me about making the most of using local produce as much as possible.
So tell us about your concept – from farm to fork? What does that entail?
For me, locality and seasonality is really important, but it’s more about taking an ingredient in its natural surroundings and plating it with its natural surroundings. For example, the lamb dish I’ve created has the lamb loin, sweet breads, haggis and ewe’s cheeks which showcases four elements of the lamb and is served with wild garlic. I love experimenting in simplistic ways.
I want to do a rabbit dish where I serve rabbit with carrots, taking an ingredient from its natural surroundings and serving it with what it would eat.
It’s obviously going to go really well together, so I’m working on a project to see what else I can create. It’s really like a farm to fork ethos we’ve got here and this is the next big thing for us.
That sounds like a really interesting concept – how do you decide what dishes work and what dishes don’t?
We have kitchen meetings every Friday where we discuss business for the week and brainstorm as a team. We’ll take an ingredient and brainstorm various techniques and ingredients which will go with it and build a dish from there.
We do this with a lot of different ingredients and create a menu with it. We then have a big cook-off and put the dishes through a taste test which is really fun and everyone gets involved.
My favourite ingredients are probably fish and shellfish. That’s where my real speciality lies. My mother put me off meat a little when I was younger, so fish is where my passion really lies. I love halibut and surf and turf, langoustines, you name it.
My mum – she wasn’t a terrible cook, but everything she did cook was well done. Growing up, chicken was pork, pork was chicken. I disliked pork and red meat because it was always so well done… but I really enjoy cooking it myself now.
The Ardoe is obviously a popular spot for weddings and events which would require a lot of teamwork in the kitchen. How do you keep calm and keep everyone in check?
I am 100% no-one without the team here at Ardoe. They all support me and I’ve had a stable team the whole time since I’ve been back. The success of our food offering is definitely down to them.
There’s only a team of seven of us here so everyone gets stuck in at all times and is super dedicated.
It’s definitely a case of one team, one dream – and teamwork definitely makes the dream work. We get really good feedback and reviews and that really means a lot to us as chefs.
Our job is very rewarding. For us, with having a full restaurant and also being able to feed over 500 people successfully in the ballroom too at the same time is really amazing.
Looking to the future, what are your plans for Ardoe in the kitchen?
There’s so much I want to do at the restaurant. It would be great to do a tasting dinner to really showcase the incredible skill the team has in producing outstanding food. Something like a five-course dinner with paired wines would really allow us to show what we have on offer out here at Ardoe.
The restaurant menu is brilliant as it is, but this would give us a real opportunity to show guests and diners what we can really do.
Doing these smaller tasting dinners would be extremely fun and push the team and allow them to be very creative.
You run a good team, you can cook up a storm… you sound like a strong head chef. Tell us something we might not expect to know about you?
I actually don’t really cook much at home – it’s just not the same not having the space to utilise! I guess I’d definitely have some milk and eggs in my fridge, but that’s probably about it.