Bringing traditional Argentinian grilling methods to Aberdeen, steakhouse Vovem Meat & Liquor offers up a rich variety of quality dishes.
Specialising in mouthwatering steaks, head chef Murray Dawson, who has worked at the contemporary Union Street venue since January, couldn’t be more proud of his team and the variety the restaurant offers.
Previosuly working as a head chef in numerous successful Aberdeen establishments, the seasoned professional has also worked in various Michelin star eateries, bringing a wealth of experience with him.
Forever learning and advancing his cooking skills and techniques, the talented chef is now looking forward to introducing his first major menu change since he started working in Vovem Meat & Liquor earlier this year.
The restaurant is known for its Argentinian grilling ethos. Can you tell us more about it?
The kitchen is very well facilitated. We’ve got every bit of equipment you could really want in there. It’s based on an Argentinian design. We can move up the grills and change the heat.
We use different woods, but mainly silver birch, and then charcoal. The wood burns faster at a higher temperature than the charcoal and the combination of the two is how we can fuel it throughout the course of the night. It produces a slightly different flavour, too.
It’s an interesting way of cooking. It’s very caveman-esque, you know, very back to basics.
We’ve got another new bit of kit arriving soon, which I’m very excited about. It’s a small version of our Ox Grill which we use for our steaks and meats and it produces an amazing flavour to our main courses.
Because of this, I’ve kind of always felt that our starters don’t really have that grill or barbecue flavour. So essentially, this smaller Japanese-style barbecue box is going to elevate some of the new dishes and it’ll be predominantly used for fish. It has less heat but it’ll induce a lot more flavour into the dishes.
So does that mean we can expect a to see a new menu soon?
I’ve been looking at changing some elements of the menu and trying to make them more cost-effective and give customers a bit more flavour and variation of what’s on the plate.
This will be the first major menu change since I’ve been here. I’m used to working around the seasons and that is what I try to bring a little bit of in here. Because we’re a steakhouse there are things people expect so we need to work around that. But, for example, I added a kebab part to the rack of lamb I made. It’s created with a pressed lamb belly and pickled courgette. It’s done on a skewer rather than having one really big bit of lamb, it adds variations of texture and flavour as you’re eating. It’s all about flavours and hopefully customers will have a better dining experience.
How do you come up with ideas for new dishes?
I’ve been cooking for a little while so more often than not, I’ll start with an idea. There’s a lot of education and knowing which flavours pair well together. I’ve got a bit of technical experience too, so I’m trying to throw some of that in there as well. It’s just about touching, feeling, smelling and being like ‘I can do this with that, I can play around more with that’. I like it to be new for me too.
I try to think about what I’ve done before and try to manipulate it in a different way and I try to push it forward. I’d say I have a good eight or nine out of 10 success rate with new dishes.
Would you say presentation is important for Vovem?
Yes, it’s really important. I think customers eat with their eyes first. Unless it’s a very aromatic fish, you’re going to see it, then you’re going to smell it before you start indulging in it with taste.
The only thing with the presentation is that if it looks stunning, it then needs to follow up with the flavours. So you’ve got to be solid across the board. It can’t just be looking amazing but then taste bland.
Are you passionate about using a lot of local produce?
We have a variety of different meats. At the minute, we work with Grace Noble, owner of Aberdeenshire Highland Beef. We only get a select amount of steak from her because she only slaughters two cows a week. We use a lot of prime cuts such as fillet, sirloin and ribeye, so it’s not quite enough to sustain a restaurant. It’s an exclusive product we’re very happy to have.
We also use Bannerman Butcher. They are our main supplier and supply the main volume of steak and the quality is outstanding. It’s very impressive.
Where did you work before becoming Vovem’s head chef?
Prior to here, I did a stint for BrewDog. I helped them launch in Union Square and re-do the Ellon site. I worked there as an area chef. I tried that out for a little while but the smaller burger and chicken wings menu just wasn’t quite for me. I don’t have that in me to be doing the same thing all the time. It’s impressive what they can pump out and what they can do, but it doesn’t fit with my soul or style.
I was the head chef at Fusion and The Adelphi Kitchen before that, which ties into what we’re doing at Vovem Meat & Liquor. We had a smoker at Adelphi and we were cooking on charcoal. Our Ox Grill here is much bigger and better facilitated to what we had at the Adelphi, I think having that background and experience has definitely helped.
How do you keep things exciting here? Do you experiment a lot?
Yes, I don’t want things to get stale. And that’s what I’m trying to implement now. I want it to be an evolution all the time of people learning. At the minute, we have nine members of kitchen staff, one of whom is a student. Sebastian Watt, the student, is about to start college this year. I thought what the team missed was a young individual, somebody to nurture. I think it’ll be a good thing for him being here and it’ll make his college life a lot easier. We should be able to work with him and help him through that as well.
Everybody is very grounded. Everybody knows what’s going on with everything and is more than confident doing what they need to do.
I don’t want this good team to get bored and start breaking up because they would feel they’ve been doing the same dish for too long, so I wanted to add a few little twists and turns so people could start learning again and advance things.
What do you consider the highlight of your career so far?
Vovem is a brilliant venue to be in and be involved with. It’s quite prestigious and upmarket. It’s definitely up there.
Previous to that, I went on a stage – an apprenticeship – two years ago and I worked in various places including Midsummer House, Morston Hall and other venues with Michelin stars. It was a great experience to see how those styles of chefs work. It’s not something I’d ever strive to do for a full time job because it’s a long week. You start at seven in the morning and finish at 2am or 3am. It’s amazing and immaculate. The food these guys produce is fantastic – they’ve got Michelin stars for a reason.
Before I had my kids, travelling was always something I strived to do. That was the part of the appeal in being a chef – everyone’s got to eat so I should be able to go and travel.