Erica Clarkson, who took part in the Orkney Food and Drink event last year, is heading for the acclaimed Three Chimneys restaurant in Skye to learn from Head Chef Scott Davies.
It has all come about after a single tweet from Erica before she took to the Master Chef stage in September. Now she’ll be spending a week learning the tricks of the trade from one of Scotland’s top chefs, as well as experiencing life at the award winning restaurant.
We’ve been asking Erica about her upcoming visit to Skye, and her foodie experiences here in Orkney.
How did the connection with The Three Chimneys come about?
The power of social media! When I was creating my menu for the last year’s Orkney Amateur Master Chef competition I put a tweet ‘out there’ and Scott responded almost immediately. I think the island connection helped! We exchanged some messages about how to ensure a happy marriage between my Orkney Buffalo fillet and my scallops and Scott helped me to construct something that was (I hope) really exciting for the judges to taste.
What kind of advice has he been able to give you?
Erica's delicious starter - Rumbledethumps and Highland Park Ketchup and Granny Margaret’s Scotch Broth Obviously there are a great many similarities between Orkney and Skye so he’s got me thinking a lot more about the provenance of the food I produce. He’s also helped me to match flavours and to make the most of all the great ingredients that are available to me from Orkney’s wonderful natural larder. But, most importantly, he’s taught me how to pan fry a Buffalo fillet to perfection!
What difference has it made to your confidence in the kitchen?
An immeasurable difference already – and I haven’t even got to Skye yet! Scott is a really creative, upbeat innovative young chef. He’s very highly regarded and I really can’t put a price on how grateful I am for the guidance and encouragement he’s offered me so far. The connection I’ve made with him has really fuelled my ambition to change direction in my professional life and I’m at the very early stages of opening my own café. I’m more tuned in to the importance of great raw materials and so I’m now growing more of my own produce.
What will you be doing at the Three Chimneys?
I fully expect to be thrown in at the deep end! My main aim is to see how Scott uses ingredients, how he runs his brigade and how a professional kitchen really functions. I'm so glad to be given an opportunity to work alongside Scott. I really want to run my own eatery here in Orkney, so I’ll also spend some time with Front of House to see what happens on the other side of the kitchen door.
Are you looking forward to it, and do you expect any nerves during the week?
No nerves – I’m just a little over excited! I’m keen to learn as much as I can while I’m there, but this is really one element of my journey. I’m also planning to head over to Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork to further develop my skills and I’m also going to the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School later this year. There’s so much to learn, but that’s part of the fun. I think it’s important for any cook to keep seeking out new experiences and learning opportunities so that they remain energised and their food stays exciting.
Have you always been interested in food?
Erica hard at work during the Orkney Master Chef event Yes - for as long as I can remember. My mum was an Orkney lass and a very plain but honest cook, so I grew-up eating mince and tatties, lentil soup, bannock, lots of roasts with vegetables – that kind of thing. My Granny Margaret was born just up the road from where I bide now in Holm and her house always had that magic triangle of aromas – fresh bread, bacon and sugary tea! As a result I’ve always cooked what’s comforting, and dishes that make me feel good. As a teenager I’d always choose Good Housekeeping over Jackie magazine and I had a slightly sinister obsession with Rick Stein – which led to a healthy interest in the sea and seafood.
Why did you decide to enter Master Chef?
I was reading ‘The Scots Kitchen’ by a formidable Orcadian woman called Floss McNeill and was so inspired by her that I was itching to try some traditional Scottish recipes. I do love a bit of an audience, I’m not known for being a shy lass, so I just filled out the application form and it went from there. One of the nicest things to come from it is a lovely hand-written invitation I received from the Holm SWRI to go and demonstrate my cooking skills later on this year. My granny was a WI member so it’s in the blood. It really is such an honour to be asked. I’m not sure what I can teach them though!
Make Erica's Master Chef starter for yourself - see her recipe here!
What was the experience like for you?
Her fantastic main course on the night, centered on Orkney Buffalo I loved it! It was great fun and I relished the opportunity to get up on stage. But, I did have a few disasters on the night! I couldn’t get the super, posh cooker to work properly (user error rather than system failure) and it was really hard to keep heat in the dishes before they got to the judges. I’d been practising my spun sugar for weeks building up to the competition and had it nailed, but the heat and humidity in the theatre meant that it just collapsed all over my pudding – so it looked a little ramshackle by the time I served it up! On the plus side, my Highland Park Ketchup was a hit with the judges and my edible flowers got lots of oohs and aahs! The other chefs were incredible and so passionate about their food – and Kerry absolutely deserved her win. Her food smelt and looked just delicious!
Did it give you the drive to continue cooking, learning etc?
Absolutely! I got some amazing feedback from the judges which was really, really encouraging. But, I also realised that I’ve got such a lot to learn and that I really do need to pay more attention to the detail. I’ve hardly been out of the kitchen since the event! I’ve done some outside catering for some super smart dinner parties, hosted a Secret Supper Club for some visitors from the London Film School who had exceptional palates, baked birthday cakes for punters and provided some naughty cupcakes for a Stag Party.
You mentioned your plans for a café in Orkney - is a career in food something you’re keen to get into?
Oh absolutely … yes, yes, yes! I’m definitely heading down a new career path and have had some early conversations about potential premises, which is scary but exciting. I like to take care of people and I reflect that in my food. I want folk to just come in, feel welcome, notice that the food is tasty, relax, and enjoy their meal. There are a couple of areas I really want to focus on in 2016 – growing and crystallising my own edible flowers and developing my bread making skills. The theory goes that you’re either a baker or a cook, but hopefully I can prove that you can be both!
Orkney’s food and drink has an enviable reputation - what's it like to be able to work with some of the best products available anywhere?
The happy judges sampling Erica's Cranachan dessert The word ‘artisan’ is a little overused these days, but I can’t find a better description for the fantastic array of producers we have here in Orkney. We’re blessed to have such a varied and fresh source of ingredients and produce here and it’s extremely rare for me to source food from elsewhere for my recipes. I’ve found that small is good and we really do have some of the best small scale producers right here on our doorstep. The most delicious strawberry jam I’ve ever tasted is made in Mrs Chook’s kitchen not 5 minutes away from my house and I can’t find the words to describe the pleasure I get from cooking and serving a fillet from Orkney Buffalo. And the cheese! Oh my goodness the cheese! Is there anything better? Our makers, growers, farmers, producers, suppliers, foragers, chefs, delis and foodies are second to none … lucky us!
Erica will be leaving for The Three Chimneys on the 29th of January. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with her experiences and to hear more about plans for a Secret Supper Club event in March.