Nestled in the quaint village of Udny sits one of the north-east’s most prestigious Scottish fine-dining restaurants.
Having welcomed a number of celebrities over the 15 years it’s been operating, head chef and owner Craig Wilson says that every guest who walks through the door of Eat On The Green is treated like royalty when visiting the restaurant.
Craig, who is also famed as the Kilted Chef, knows many of his clientele visit for special occasions and at Eat On The Green they certainly offer something rather special.
Always destined to become his own boss, Craig has worked with numerous impressive chefs from around the world and is an advocate for promoting Scottish produce, primarily nodding to his home, the north-east.
An Aberdeenshire lad, he opened his restaurant with his wife Lindsay – realising a lifelong dream of his.
Starting in the industry at the age of 16, Craig has worked in venues across Scotland, including Cromlix House where he became the youngest head chef in the country at the time at the age of 24.
Now, with more than 30 years’ experience, Craig continues to challenge and develop his small team, presenting them opportunities to showcase their skills by organising a number of events and pushing them to understand the importance of developing relationships with local suppliers.
You’ve worked in some brilliant places, but what was it that inspired you to open your own place?
It’s been 15 years now since I got the keys, which is absolutely insane. Undoubtedly, it was about following a dream and being in control of my own destiny, to be honest.
To be creative you really need that freedom and I knew I would get that by having my own place. Since opening, my creativity and food concepts have continued to grow.
You champion Scottish produce and have been flying the flag for local producers for so long. Talk to us about the local produce you use?
I’ve always been very proud of my homeland and of Aberdeenshire. I really understand the area and the produce here and we almost take some of it for granted. We’re always going to get world-class beef every week and I’m also getting more and more in touch with nature, so we now grow some of our own stuff and that’s been a real pleasurable experience.
It’s brilliant we can grow so much here and when you combine ingredients that are grown locally, they generally tend to really complement one another.
I’m working with a few new local producers which is very exciting and is keeping it fresh. We’ve used our butchers Presley’s of Oldmeldrum since we started and Jimmy Buchan provides our langoustines. We’re also working with a new honey and mushroom supplier.
And how important is it for your customers to know a little about what they’re eating?
The more information we share with the guests and diners in the restaurant, the more they understand where all their food has come from. I think people really want to know where their food is coming from nowadays and it’s good to be transparent about that. Our customers really appreciate it and it’s a great way to educate people.
How do you go about developing your menu?
I really enjoy putting the menus together. It generally involves a nice pen, scribbling things down and scrunching up paper at times. It’s writing things over and over. You’re imagining the flavours on the paper to begin with and then it’s about how you feel what will work and what’s actually available.
If you want to take an influence from travelling, or something you’ve tasted, it can be extremely exciting. From the minute you write it to eventually plating it, the whole process is really fun.
In my 30 years as a chef I’ve learned you can put one ingredient on the description of a menu and that ingredient can make or break its appeal. So I’m much more aware of this now.
You mention travelling. You were recently in Vietnam cooking with 12 Michelin chefs, were you not? How was it?
To go to an area in the world where I’d never been before was incredible. I did a lot of research before I went, just from a food etiquette and a cultural point of view. I think when you go places it’s important to do that.
One of the things that will last a lifetime for me was that one of the French chefs in the group actually has a restaurant in Hanoi and he arranged for us all to go to the local markets. We got told the rules and culture of the food market and it was just so surreal.
Everywhere I looked there were people cooking, chopping, eating. The power of food when you go to a new place can be so overpowering. You could sell it, taste it, touch it, feel it, it was so overwhelming. The pride of the ingredients was almost an extension of those selling it.
The one thing it did do was show me we need to be a little more open minded about different ingredients other countries have and how they choose to consume it. We know what we like to eat but there’s so many different things other cultures eat instead.
Did you pick up any new techniques working with all these other chefs?
I was working with hundreds of chefs within the hotel as well as the 12 others who were with me for the food festival which was hosted by Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi.
The skill, interest and precision of them all impressed me. The attention to detail and freshness of the food was immense.
For one of my dishes I mixed haggis with a traditional Vietnamese spring roll and made a haggis dipping sauce. It was fun and almost shouldn’t have worked, but went together so well. The interest in Scotland’s food and drink over there is massive – I felt very patriotic. Being the only Scottish chef there and representing our country was a real honour and my A taste of Scotland event was one of the most popular.
Back to the north-east, how would you say your team works in the kitchen?
We’ve got a small team here. It’s a team of four and myself and everyone is very hard working. One of my chefs has been with me for 12 years in the kitchen. Everyone is a strong pillar in the team. Consistency is everything when it comes to the team, service and the food.
You’ve cooked for and had a real calibre of celebrities through Eat On The Green’s doors. Anyone we know?
The biggest, respected and most memorable for me was Sir Alex Ferguson. He shared a wee story with me that he worked in the kitchens at Hampden, which I don’t think many people would know. He’s well respected in the area and it was a lovely meeting.
The most iconic was when I cooked for Sir Sean Connery, which I’ve done on numerous occasions. He was extremely complimentary on the produce and the presentation, but he didn’t actually visit the restaurant. I’ve also cooked for Sir Patrick Stewart.
More recently, I would say our Susan Boyle lunch for charity was really great and we had Tony Hadley and her in the same weekend, which was pretty special. We’ve had a lot of well-known faces grace our restaurant and it’s a real compliment when people chose a rural restaurant to come and experience.
Recently you launched a gin bar within the restaurant, rebranded your Kilted Chef brand and arranged new events, do you think it’s important to diversify?
I think in the north-east it’s never been more important to not only diversify, but ensure that your core values are seen, tasted and in line with what you want to put out as a chef. Understanding the quality and key things people love about Eat On The Green makes it fun.
People expect a certain level of quality when they come to visit my restaurant and the best compliment I can get is people returning and saying they know they will get good food here no matter what they pick. Our values are respected and people really enjoy what we do.
Speaking of events, you’ve raised thousands for charity through events like your ladies’ days and other projects. What’s the events calendar looking like for 2019?
We’re going to launch a Kilted Chef supper club which will incorporate a more casual approach to cooking, eating and chatting to people who are really interested in food. We’ve got a vegan food and wine night coming up, a meet the butcher event in the pipeline and we’ve been running lots of ladies day events which sell out so fast. People absolutely love them.
It’s 15 years since we launched, so we’ll be doing a lot more events over the months. We’re trying to theme them each month, which will be a lot of fun and allow us to get really creative. We’ve done a lot of charity work so we focused on Generous January for the start of the year and in February we’ll be launching For The Love of Food. Valentine’s is very popular at Eat On The Green so I’m looking to share the love with people and getting the message out about how powerful cooking and food can be.
I’m going to be the chef ambassador for the Love Food Hate Waste campaign by Zero Waste Scotland and I’ll be demonstrating at Taste Of Grampian, so I’m really looking forward to that.
What’s next for the Kilted Chef and Eat on the Green?
There are a lot of things happening with the Kilted Chef this year and I’m really excited about our ambitious, passionate team. We’ve been very lucky and have received a lot of awards recently again. We took home the Best Dining Experience in the Shire at the Aberdeen City and Shire Tourism Awards at the tail end of last year. We’ve also got our rosettes and our nod from the Michelin Guide. We just want to continue to grow and make it even better.
We are firmly a special occasion restaurant and it’s a real treat and we just want people to continue to love us and enjoy what we’re doing.