Leaving the stunning sunny beaches of South Africa behind for the glistening Granite City would be no easy move – especially with the recent winter weather we’ve endured.
But for one Aberdeen chef, that reality has now resulted in him working at one of the north-east’s most picturesque castles while launching and heading up his own vegan catering company.
Nick Coetzer has been the head chef at Drumtochty Castle, near Auchenblae, for more than two years but has more recently started his own plant-based firm called Roots Catering, which specialises in vegan cuisine.
Arriving in Aberdeen in 2002 after working as a beach barman in South Africa, Nick worked his way into the kitchen, perfecting his cooking skills along the way, working in a variety of Aberdeen venues including The Ferryhill House Hotel, The Marcliffe and The Cowshed.
Pursing an opportunity to work at a two-Michelin-star restaurant, The Vineyard in Berkshire, for six months, Nick’s fine-dining approach to vegan cuisine is apparent in the way he constructs and plates his dishes.
With a background working in the catering side of the hospitality industry when he worked at Deeside Cuisine, Nick has applied all he has learned over the years to bring something new and refreshing to Aberdeen foodies.
And with veganism a growing trend, there’s never been a better time to be promoting this lifestyle.
But why did he specialise in vegan food, something Nick knew nothing about in the initial stages of his business? Well, because challenging himself and being different seemed like the right thing to.
You started Roots Catering not knowing much about vegan food, what made you focus on it?
Going into Roots, I had no preconceptions of vegan food and no ideas about it really.
I didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t know the tricks of the trade so it was a little challenging, as you can imagine.
I just figured it out by myself and went around it my own way. There was a real bit of problem-solving involved and it was really exciting.
I learned a lot in a short space of time and I wanted to challenge myself and push myself out of my comfort zone.
When did you launch the company? How did it all come about?
It came from many conversations with Lara Bishop, one of the owners of Foodstory. I’ve spent a lot of time there and it’s got such a good vibe, I just love what they do.
We got chatting one day and she found out I was a chef so we decided to partner up for a vegan dinner.
I had no idea how it was going to go. It really challenged me and I was nervous that no-one would turn up.
I did five-courses that night and I ended up doing the food in a more fine dining style and it went down a treat.
I think that was back in mid-December 2017 when I did my very first dinner. Since then, I’ve done various others, as well as private dinners and pop-ups, too.
And do you lead a vegan lifestyle now?
I primarily eat more of a vegan diet just now, which has really just developed. It’s more of a lifestyle choice through doing Roots more and more.
Because I’m a chef and still look after all the catering at Drumtochty Castle, I can see the beauty of different dishes from both sides.
When I think of vegan food, I don’t want it to look or taste boring. I knew as someone who likes food that it needed to be more than that.
With the vegan focus, it wasn’t about the politics behind it or the beliefs, I’m a firm believer that food brings people together and that’s all I wanted to do.
At the events at Foodstory, there are these large sharing tables and people from all walks of life all get chatting and I love that.
There’s a lot of vegans and non-vegans at these dinners and it’s when people who aren’t vegan come along, that’s when I know I’ve cracked it. I feel really proud about that.
Tell us, how hard is it to cook without using any meat?
With vegan and vegetarian cooking, you can’t hide behind a piece of meat or anything. You tend to rely on your quality of your protein and it being cooked well rather than anything else around it. It really forces you to get creative and be imaginative.
You stop repeating yourself and use a heap of new ingredients.
You’ve done quite a few events with Roots now, how have they been received?
Roots is really gathering a bit of momentum just now. I’ve met a lot of really interesting people and have a couple of really cool ideas in the pipeline.
I’m really enjoying what I’m doing at Roots and never in a million years did I think I’d be running my own vegan catering firm.
I’ve done a few pop-ups at Foodstory and Orchid myself, so it’s nice to now be taking over these places for one-off events with Roots.
We do pop-ups, weddings, corporate events, dinner parties and more, there’s a lot of interest in it so I’m looking forward to developing and working on even more events.
And how do you go around creating a menu for these events?
The menus just come to me. Most of the dishes are 80 to 90% just created in my head and then I try to figure them out by the time I’m plating them. I like to challenge myself to try to push for different things and figure out new techniques so I don’t repeat myself too much.
It’s fun learning new dishes, how I come up with them, I really don’t know. I read a lot and have lots of cookbooks so there’s some inspiration from there, I guess.
Sometimes I try to turn a non-vegan or vegetarian dish into a vegan dish. I’ve done beetroot ravioli before and the ravioli was pickled beetroot and inside was filled with cheese then there was all different bits and bobs. I didn’t know vegan cheese existed so when I did, I started making my own and using it in dishes. It’s really tasty.
I’ve made things like vegan meringues, which was very interesting. That was a whole learning experience and there’s been a lot of trial and error but I always get there in the end.
Do you use local producers at all, being a small business yourself?
I’ve used a few smaller local producers and I’m always looking to meet new people and try out new things. I have used the Artisan Grower for micro herbs and things like that.
Sometimes the logistics with the smaller guys can prove a little challenging but it all takes time. For the functions, I’m always trying to team up with local people and use local produce as much as I can.
What have you been up to in the kitchen more recently? Are you working on anything different?
I’ve been experimenting with Asian vegetables quite a lot. I often think about how I cooked meat – you could salt it, cook it, braise it, confit it, fry it – so I’m just trying to apply these techniques to vegetables. I’m still experimenting a lot and seeing what works best.
I’m getting into fermented products to get that umami sort of flavour too so that’s been fun.
You must be a very busy man running Roots and also overseeing everything at Drumtochty, what’s been the real highlight of starting up your own business?
I think the fact people come to the events we’re running is hugely humbling. I see so many new and familiar faces coming to them all the time and to see people coming back is just brilliant.
I’ve got a lot to learn from it and because I’m trying to create dishes that are vegan, even just simplifying dishes down to one ingredient has totally changed the way I cook as a chef in general.
I’m all about pace and the taste from some of these dishes is incredible. I’ve adapted a lot of my cooking styles now and I like to let the cooking do the talking. The fact people are enjoying it and coming out to support it is so humbling.
What’s next for Roots? Where do you see the business going?
I’m just trying out new venues, new pop-ups and I definitely want to get into different things – not just fine dining but do some more casual food too.
I guess it’s all about getting out and speaking and meeting new people all the time.
I’m enjoying it a lot and I can’t wait to see where it goes. Maybe one day there will be a Roots restaurant – now that would be amazing.