Chef Watch – Neil Forbes, Cafe St Honoré, Edinburgh
Featuring Neil Forbes, Chef Director of Cafe St Honoré, Edinburgh
How long have you been a chef?
I have been a chef for roughly 35 years but if you included time at my parents’ and grandmother’s side cooking then I guess I have always been a cook. I recall the soup pot early in life, and my father, who was also a chef, bringing home food from the hotel or college he was working at. I was hooked by the flair, the ability to be whatever you wanted through food.
Why did you become a chef?
I became a chef simply because I was mesmerised by produce and how one can turn something with just a few quite simple ingredients into something so delicious. I was heavily influenced by my dad, a chef from 15 who worked his way through the ranks in hotels and restaurants, and who latterly taught cookery for the Army, at Westminster College then at Loughborough College. I fondly remember making Madeira cakes on a Sunday afternoon when I was a young teenager and helping him royal ice cakes. I was also influenced by my gran, a genius in the kitchen, who made proper food like soup, dough balls, old school puddings and was always so happy to cook for you. But my blind and deaf grandfather was also hugely inspirational, he filleted trout with his fingers and made incredible dishes. And his porridge was the best, made hours before I got up, and served in his best china. Stone cold but I loved it.
I am so sure of my favourite ingredient, it’s oats. I adore the flavour, how the complex carbs are good for you and their slow releasing throughout the day and how they have sustained us for hundreds if not thousands of years. The humble oatcake, porridge, brose, skirlie, cranachan and mealie pudding are all made from oats and Scotland would have starved without them on our table. If I ever open another restaurant I will make sure there are oats in every dish.
Favourite or signature dish
Wow, quite a question. My favourite dish is simply a piece of grilled fish or sardines cooked over charcoal and served with good salt and lemon, a few potatoes and a wonderfully dressed salad. My signature dish, if I have one, would be our ham hock terrine at Café, with our piccalilli. It’s a perfect dish, so simple, a good British story to it and easy to make. We sell a lot of it too.
Favourite kitchen tool or equipment (apart from sharp knives)
My favourite kitchen tool has to be for me my chopping boards, I have collected quite a few over the years, not the plastic colour coded ones we use in the restaurant but my wooden boards at home, I drive my family mad wanting them on display but they see them as firewood. I have become emotionally involved with my wooden boards, I almost remember every cut I ever made on them, as every mark can tell a story of a meal a day or an event in my life. I will cherish them forever, they for me are priceless.
Another tough question, but my food heroes are few and much admired. I do swap and change them as I think about this a lot. Fergus Henderson from St John for his ability to be proud of ridiculous simplicity. Ruth Rodgers from the River Café in London, quite simply stunningly tasty and simple food which is reliant so heavily on the produce, no fancy stupid tweezers there. Marco (Pierre White - Ed) for bringing us White Heat when I was a young chef and thought this was cool. Mark Hix, his food has always been wonderful and tasty and fun. And I guess my dear father for insisting we ate well growing up. Dinner was at 8, whilst my friends had their tea at 5.
Any food you can’t/won’t eat
I am known for eating almost everything put in front of me but I watched something online recently that made me squirm. In Asia somewhere they were eating live baby octopus and they were still alive in their stomachs. I don’t ever wish to do that thank you. Sometimes I also have a love/ hate relationship with kidneys.
Comfort food/guilty secret
Oooh, comfort food for me is winter food and lamb hot pot or beef stew and dough balls, proper pies with suet pastry, apple crumble using apples from the garden, with custard. My dad’s cassoulet is a memory I cannot escape from, the sausage, the confit, the breadcrumbs on the top, the steam dissipating as you serve a portion from a terracotta dish (acquired from Sainsbury’s deli counter in 1983). It is a wonderful food memory.
Stupidest customer or kitchen experience
My stupidest kitchen experience (of which I might add there are many) but one that rings a bell was my first day as a sauce chef at Kinnaird in Perthshire, probably ’91. I spilled a whole copper stock pot over the floor, about 80 litres of boiling stock and bones with gelatinous marrow that took some time to clean up, red faced and with donkey ears on. That stock pot was a thing of beauty though alongside all the other estate copper pans.
Neil is one of Scotland's most passionate chefs who describes cooking as an "emotional experience that uses all the senses". Born into a family of chefs, it was his granny's soup that first inspired a young Neil to get behind the stove, and inspires him still. Like the soup, the menus at Cafe St Honoré make the most of good, honest ingredients cooked simply.
Neil is joined in the kitchen by a team of equally passionate chefs who can't wait to see what will be delivered each day, and what they can create from it. They pride themselves on producing everything in-house using ingredients sourced from local producers and suppliers.
Whilst the restaurant is closed, Cafe St Honoré offers an ‘at home’ menu for customers to collect from the restaurant, as well as a general store and a stall every Saturday at the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market. A review of Cafe St Honoré At Home will appear in Friday's Tom Eats! column, and Tom Cooks! will have a recipe for oatcakes.
Neil regularly demonstrates his skills at a broad range of events across the UK as well and writes a monthly recipe column in Saturday magazine of The Scotsman.
Follow Neil on Twitter @chefneilforbes or Instagram @cafesthonore
All photographs courtesy of Laura Meek
Great read Tom. Interesting and amusing as usual. Gives a brilliant insight into what makes the chef what he is. Not sure about the oats 😏
I’ve been doing this feature for a year now, Kevin, and I’m always surprised and fascinated by what the chefs come up with,