Chef Watch – Willie McCurrach OBE FIH
Featuring Willie McCurrach OBE FIH, formerly Head of School, City of Glasgow College, Food Technology
How long have you been a chef?
I have been a chef for a total of 50 years and loved every minute of my career. I started as a student at Aberdeen Technical College and was really impressed by my chef lecturer who inspired me to get into teaching. After an indentured apprenticeship at the North British Hotel I then transferred to Gleneagles Hotel, specialising in pastry. I then spent 42 years in Further Education as a chef lecturer at Glasgow College of Food Technology and ultimately finished as Head of School.
Why did you become a chef?
It was something that I always wanted to do from an early age. I used to cook and bake at the weekends. One day I made lumpy custard and had the sense to strain it! My mother was French but did not influence my cooking. It was her sister in-law and her mother who would come over from France for holidays and teach me dishes and sauces.
This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many to choose from. We are so blessed by being able to get ingredients from all over the world; however, Scotland has such an amazing larder to choose from - meats, fish, shellfish, soft fruits and game. It is just so exciting for chefs to create their menus from.
Being pushed I will choose two, scallops and langoustines, fabulous either cooked simply or created into complex mousses. There is nothing nicer to eat!
Favourite or signature dish
Another difficult question to answer but whilst working in hotels competitions played a major role in my career development. I have been successful in competitions with dishes as diverse as afternoon cakes, decorated gateaux, shellfish dishes, sauté chicken and soufflés. One of my signature dishes in those days was a hot orange and brandy soufflé which I got a gold medal for.
I also hold the record for the largest Cloutie Dumpling in a competition in the Sunday Post to commemorate SCOTHOT Salon Culinaire moving from the Kelvin Hall to the SECC in Glasgow. It weighed 650lbs!
Favourite kitchen tool or equipment (apart from sharp knives)
Over the years at the college we had the chance to try out all the latest equipment. Over the years we have been loaned steam convector ovens, food processors, thermochefs, soup passing machines, vacuum packers and driers. These have all changed how we work in the kitchen. Non carcinogenic cling film was revolutionary, a great invention, though single use plastic is now an issue and being frowned upon.
To answer the original question, a powerful high speed blender/liquidiser would be my choice, whether you’re blending spices, chopping herbs, crushing shells for bisques or making meat or fish mousses, they are so labour saving compared to mincing/chopping and then passing through a fine sieve which is challenging to clean.
My heroes were Albert and Michel Roux, Gary Rhodes and Anton Mosimann to name but four. They produced fantastic dishes and recipe books to support the television programmes and were also happy to come along to talk and demonstrate to our students.
I remember Anton Mosimann at one talk and demonstration saying, simple things are beautiful, beautiful things are simple. That’s such a true statement. Chefs should remember these words when they produce their menus and dishes.
Any food you can’t/won’t eat
I am very fortunate that I have travelled extensively and had the opportunity to taste many unusual things from a variety of insects in Thailand to hákarl (fermented shark) in Iceland or guga (northern gannet) from Stornoway, or deep fried snake in Taiwan. These are certainly a challenge but I will try them. One flavour which I find very challenging and possibly dislike is honey and I don’t know why as it is the perfect food and so versatile and has so many uses in the kitchen. I just wish I could love it!
Comfort food/guilty secret
This is very easy - a Twix bar, I love chocolate caramel biscuits, so a Dime bar or millionaire’s shortbread will also suffice.
Stupidest customer or kitchen experience
A very early learning experience for me was to be clear and concise when asking students to do something. I once told my class to put their potatoes onto boil and go for a break. I could smell burning a few minutes later. One of the students hadn’t put water in the pot. When he came back, I challenged him to be told you did not say put water in the pot!
As Willie’s experience is totally different from anyone we’ve ever had on Chef Watch, I asked him for some more background. He chose to give this plug for the City of Glasgow College.
In my final 5 years in education I was given a fantastic role, a once in a lifetime job to work with the planners and architects to design a hospitality department for a new super college in Glasgow.
City of Glasgow College has Scholar's Restaurant and a training kitchen, a bistro open for breakfast and lunch, a butcher’s/fishmonger’s suite and retail space including a baker’s shop where the produce prepared in the area can be sold to the public.
There are also 4 bakeries, 2 cake decorating rooms, 8 training kitchens, a patisserie kitchen with chocolate tempering and sugar boiling facilities and a training larder all fitted with state of the art modern equipment.
There are two supported learning suites with domestic equipment and also a rise and fall cooking suite and sink ideal for wheelchair users. Finally there is a demonstration suite which can seat up to 150 people with TV screens to enable the audience to see, ideal for visiting chefs and companies to demonstrate from.
Famous chefs who have benefitted from Willie’s teaching and support over the years include Gary Maclean, Master Chef Professional Winner, now Scotland’s National Chef; Andy Cumming who was the celebrated chef at Rogano and who now teaches at the college; Giovanna Eusebi and her head chef Seb Wereski of the famous Eusebi’s Deli in Glasgow; and Stevie McLaughlin of Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. Truly, we have much to thank him for.
Wow, what a fantastic biography.
Nice one Willie…..but surely Jack Monteith should get a mention in the food hero section ? 🙂