Going against everything you’ve been taught to do is no easy feat, but for one Aberdeen chef, taking a step back from the kitchen and into the dining room is exactly what was needed when he took over Cafe Boheme.
Owner Paul Mair took on the front of house role last November and has since been learning – and perfecting – the ropes while managing and developing his staff at Aberdeen’s only French-inspired restaurant.
The former executive chef, who oversaw a variety of PB Development Company’s venues including Soul Bar and The Bieldside Inn, has worked as a chef for 16 years.
Eager to take on a new challenge that would push him in a number of ways, be that with social media, running front of house or dealing with day-to-day tasks, Paul has taken to the role like a duck to water.
Located on Windmill Brae, Paul laughs that the restaurant is not only best known for offering unique food, but is also referred to as “the restaurant with the bike outside it”.
Parisian cafe by day and relaxed candle-lit fine dining restaurant by night, Cafe Boheme has been popular with diners for more than a decade.
Living by the slow food values, and in true Parisian style, the restaurant encourages diners to take their time and enjoy the experience of Cafe Boheme.
And with a variety of event ideas up his sleeve, new menu concepts and an enthusiastic team, it’s clear Paul and his staff are not slowing down anytime soon.
You’re a chef by trade Paul, how has the transition of back of house to the front been?
I’m a chef by trade and have had to learn the front of house very quickly. I took over the restaurant from Dominique Mancello last November and I needed to learn everything he knew. It was a massive challenge in itself, I felt like a commis chef again – I was back to the basics and it was a huge learning curve and real eye opener.
What was it that led you to take over Cafe Boheme?
I’ve always put myself in positions that will teach me something and that are a step up from the last. Having my own place has always been the aim – I wanted to challenge myself. My passion has always been driven by food and I wanted to be able to produce what food I wanted when I wanted. When I was the head chef at Cafe 52, the owner there made me realise there are no rules. Once you have the customers’ trust, just go for it.
Dominique was looking to wind down after 14 years of running the place and he wanted someone to carry on its legacy with its staff and its ethos. I came to have a look at it and after a three-week travelling holiday where I was climbing in the Himalayas, I decided that I would do it.
It must have been strange not being in the kitchen?
I took it over in November last year and we had a transition period with Dominique until January.
The whole handover process was very slick, there was no massive launch, it was just gradually introducing myself to all the customers and it was a very seamless transition. I gave myself a year to get into the feel of it and winning the Evening Express Retailer Award for Fine Dining Restaurant last month really just came at the right time. Going into our second year with a title to defend is very exciting.
And for anyone who’s never dined at Cafe Boheme, what’s it like?
The majority of people who dine here are either on dates, celebrating something or going to the theatre. It’s very relaxed and I’m trying to make us approachable. Our style of cooking is quite unique.
When you think of fine dining, you think of microdots, design and all these other things. We’re not about that. There’s certain rusticness to our style. The technique is definitely French and we’ve got a number of classics, too. I’m really interested in what happens to the produce beforehand.
What do you mean by that?
I mean like, can we start growing stuff ourselves next year? Can we get a little bit of land and grow vegetables? Where are we getting the game from? What local producers are we using? It’s all that. We’re now talking to a few small beef producers and John, the head chef, grows a lot of stuff himself. It’s looking at the food before it’s plated.
So, supporting more local producers is something you’re quite passionate about?
Yes. We support as many as we can, but we’ll really focus on this next year. When the menu changes we’ll be looking into this and the more independent we can be, the better. Think slow food, just really enjoyable delicious food in a relaxed environment. That’s what I want for us.
Talk to us about your kitchen staff and how they go about creating a new menu?
John Pattillo is our head chef – he’s been here for about 14 years now. He has been the backbone to this place for years and the fact I’m front of house just means we all work so well. He has been creating dishes for years and he knows what works and what doesn’t. When you have a chef with that consistency and knowledge you know you’re in good hands.
Then there’s Andy who is quite different and mixes things up when we do our Sunday events. John’s stuff is very classic and his confit de canard has been on his menus for years – whenever he talks about changing it I have to say no, as so many people love it. It’s one of those must-try signature dishes.
Zizzy, our sous chef, is absolutely brillaint too and extremly creative, and Dominique’s daughters Antonia and Nina also work here, so it’s really nice to them here as part of the team – especially with the family history here. It’s a tight-knit team that are really adaptable.
You’ve organised a few events here, are they quite popular with customers?
I want to freshen and modernise our formulae slightly by doing more events and tastings. We’ve got plans for gin tastings and we’ve already done wine events that sold out in two or three days, and funky brunches on Sundays. We’ll maybe look at being a bit more cafe-style during the day, too. I’m so protective of our clientele and our identity, so that’s why I left it how it was for about a year to fully understand what the customers want. The events are always well received, so I’ll definitely be doing more next year.
And what makes you guys a little bit different to everyone else? Other than being the only French restaurant in Aberdeen.
The foundations are strong, but it’s just getting a bit more creative. We’ve created ad hoc menus for some customers who come in – the kitchen love it and we quietly offer it. We can do tasting menus for groups and do five or six course menus, people love it. I’ve had a food blogger from Norway who came in recently and I did this kind of thing for him – he’d been in before and was super impressed and the kitchen really enjoyed it. It’s all about being adaptable.
And as the owner of the business, what’s been the real highlight over the past year?
The interaction with customers. When a customer gets what your restaurant is about, it’s so refreshing. We’ve got a lot of loyal customers. I think everyone really likes that the owner of the business is working just as hard as everyone else and I take real pride in that. People notice it and it means a lot when they do.
I put a lot of pressure on myself and this isn’t the last stop for me. I want to do high-end weddings next year, and I’d love to grow the business into another space, too. I want to look after all the people who work for me, so that really drives me.
Watching the customers having a good time is the best. My passion will always lie with food, but I adore getting the chance to speak with the customers. I like being able to make the service as personable as possible and front of house really allows me to do that. I’m excited for our future.