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Luxury Hospitality Magazine interview with Mark Donald, Head Chef at Number One

What inspired you to become a Chef, was this always what you wanted to do?

I was always interested in cooking when I was young but never career wise. I studied hard, was accepted into university and was also interested in drama school. I started washing dishes at a pub near my parents’ house when I was sixteen. The chefs would be outside smoking when orders were coming in. I would call them to come in. Eventually I stopped calling them and I started cooking the orders.

You have worked in some prestigious Michelin star establishments, how has this enhanced your skills?

Working at that level day in, day out really has an effect on your awareness of what is going on around you. Attention to detail is paramount in the places I rose through the ranks in.  I’ve worked from classical with Andrew Fairlie to quite minimal and modernist having spent time with Claude and Rene, so I would say my skill set and knowledge gained is quite broad.

Noticing all of the small things that no one else picks up on has definitely been enhanced by working at these places.

What have been some of your highlights in your career so far?

The biggest highlight looking back is travel and really the people I have met along the way. I doubt there’s another industry with so much diversity and originality. From suppliers, chefs, sommeliers and front of house teams all over the world. A bunch of total nutters.

What is your signature cooking style?

I am often asked this question and I find it difficult to answer. Obviously I have my own style but it’s my own so it’s hard to define. For the most part I put flavour at the forefront when coming up with a new dish and then work on the rest. On the odd occasion I’ll have a colour or image in my head and will then search out the ingredients after to make it work. Bottom line it has to be delicious.

Who inspires you?

My peers, and people I trained alongside. It’s great to follow each of them and see how they are getting on.

What ingredients are currently inspiring you?

Any chef will tell you that the shellfish in Scotland is some of the best in the world, and for a good reason too. I really missed working with it when I was away. Strawberries, raspberries, cherries etc have been sensational this year in Scotland, so good in fact, that if I didn’t know they were from Blairgowrie, I would have said they were from somewhere else.

What is your naughty but nice food treat?

Mie goreng instant noodles. They are head and shoulders above any similar products.

What are the challenges faced with being a Head Chef in charge of a team of chefs?

Being a Head chef adds a whole new level of pressure. I still hold the people running the sections accountable for their shortcomings/mistakes and give praise when they excel. However the head chef has to deal with a lot more than just being ready for service and general prep. There is a lot of admin and organising to be dealt with on a daily basis. I think it’s very important to get to know your team on a personal level too as not every individual can be managed the same way. Maintaining the standard and questioning everything can be overwhelming for any new head chef.

Talk us through the menu at Number One, what is your favourite dish?

We have 2 menu formats. A la carte and tasting. If I was to sit down right now and eat any dish it would be the scallop kedgeree from our tasting menu. It’s really punchy with salt, acid, spices and fresh herbs then balanced out with a smoked egg sabayon.

What foods are Scotland known for, and how have you drawn inspiration from this to create the menu?

The shellfish in Scotland is some of the best in the world. Strawberries, raspberries, cherries etc have been sensational this year.

Talk us through the international elements that have also been added?

I don’t want to pigeon hole our cuisine into Scottish only. Yes, a bulk of the produce is Scottish. At certain times of the year not much is growing here and I don’t want to limit the menu by saying we use produce from within a 10 mile radius only. It is a romantic and lovely approach but not always possible for us. If we can make a dish better by using bonito, Iberico pork or coconut then we will. My team is international and although young, most are well travelled and they are encouraged to develop and give input on the menu from what they have experienced gastronomically up until now.

How important was it for you to use seasonal ingredients that are carefully sourced?

Seasonality isn’t just a buzz word or trend in cooking. Everything tastes better when it is in season.

How inspiring is it to be the Head Chef at such a prestigious venue?

It’s a fantastic opportunity to be leading a team in The Balmoral. It’s steeped in history, is the leading hotel in the city and it’s held in very high regard amongst our peers in the UK.

What is a current food trend that you love and one that you hate?

Love: I like the fact that there is much more information on fermentation and food preservation readily available to us.

Hate: puree splatters.

In a few words, tell us why everyone should visit Number One at The Balmoral ASAP!

We are constantly striving to innovate and create a delicious and memorable dining experience in the heart of the capital of Scotland.

Image Credits: Rocco Forte Hotels