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Land, sea and Skye: The Three Chimneys

Land, sea and Skye: The Three Chimneys

Pete Dreyer 27 July 2017

Skye is home to some of the best produce in the world, and the island’s Three Chimneys restaurant has been serving it for over three decades. We headed north to find out more about the much-loved Scottish bolthole and the suppliers that keep it ticking.

Cast your minds back to 2002, and the arrival of the very first World’s 50 Best Restaurants guide. El Bulli was top of the inaugural list, followed closely by Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and The French Laundry – so far, so not surprising. But if you allowed yourself to drift into the meat of the list, you’ll have come across The Three Chimneys at number twenty-eight – the sole Scottish representative.

‘That took my breath away,’ says Shirley Spear, who co-owns The Three Chimneys with her husband, Eddie. ‘I just remember wondering, ‘how the heck are we going to handle this?’’ It was quite the achievement for the pair, who had left London in 1984 with the modest intention of opening ‘a cosy wee bistro’ on the Isle of Skye.

By Easter 1985, The Three Chimneys was open for business. ‘That date happens to be very close to April Fools Day, and that's exactly what we were!’ laughs Shirley. ‘We had no commercial cookery experience or anything like that; we just loved cooking and wanted to create the kind of place we'd like to find ourselves if we were on holiday in Scotland.’

Under the guidance of Shirley and later, chef Michael Smith, The Three Chimneys was awarded three AA Rosettes in 2000 – which it has retained ever since – and received a Michelin star in late 2014. Just six months later though, Michael left the restaurant along with a large chunk of the staff, and the Michelin star they had worked so hard for flittered away shortly after.

‘There was a period in spring 2015 where I thought we weren't going to make it,’ Shirley admits. ‘I thought we were going to have to close and start again.’ A dark cloud loomed over The Three Chimneys, but the people of Skye are no strangers to clouds – and this one had a silver lining attached.

Shirley’s desperate search for a new head chef led her to Scott Davies – the runner-up in 2013’s MasterChef: The Professionals and head chef at The Adamson in St Andrews, which had just won CIS Scottish Restaurant of the Year. Fast forward to today, and Scott and his new look kitchen team are cooking food that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Skye – beautiful, unpretentious, honest. For Scott, that all starts with the produce.

‘We live and breathe produce – not because it’s on our doorstep, but because it’s the best,’ he says. ‘We’re on first name terms with every single one of our suppliers, and we see most of them every day. I don’t think many restaurants in the world could say that.’

It means that every dish Scott creates isn’t just food for the masses. It tells a story, and it supports a whole network of suppliers who all work incredibly hard to put their produce onto the plate. Take Keith Jackson at Orbost Farm, for example – just five and a half miles down the road from The Three Chimneys, and responsible for all of the restaurant’s pork, lamb, beef and venison. ‘When you meet Keith you can see how passionate he is about his meat,’ says Scott. ‘When he shoots a deer it's always a clean kill and he preps it beautifully, with nothing wasted or damaged. He takes great pride in it.’ That pride and respect runs through everything Keith and his wife Rachael do. Whilst others rush their animals to slaughter to maximise their profits, Orbost Farm preserves and celebrates Skye’s biodiversity, giving it time to develop into something special.

‘We’re very specific about getting the best from the meat,’ Keith explains. ‘With lambs for example, most people keep them until they’re four or five months old, then they sell them on to the east coast where they’re fattened and slaughtered. Nine times out of ten, they probably don’t even stay in Scotland.

‘Our sheep are a native breed called Soay,’ he continues. ‘They don’t really fit into that commercial category – they take a good eighteen to twenty-four months to mature, and they’re smaller than commercial breeds – but the flavour you get is much more intense.’

The Iron Age pigs at Orbost Farm make for a similar story. ‘Our pigs are twelve to eighteen months old when they're processed’ says Keith. ‘A commercial pig is three months old when it goes to the abattoir, and it’s the same size as one of ours at eighteen months!’

It’s not hard to understand why these products are special, and the results have been extraordinary, with Keith’s rose veal going down particularly well in the dining room at The Three Chimneys. ‘It’s been on the tasting menu for a week now,’ says Scott. ‘We always ask our guests if there was anything that really stood out for them. Normally we get a good mix, but last night the veal was a unanimous winner. It’s the flavour that makes it special. Rose beef is often very tender, but this one just has so much flavour. I remember when I came up here to try some of it – Keith asked me, ‘how much do you want?’ and I said, ‘I’ll take all of it!’’

Scott’s passion for the produce of Skye is clear from the outset, and his culinary education with the likes of Robert MacPherson at the Isle of Eriska Hotel and luminaries like Sat Bains and Massimo Bottura has forged him into exactly the right sort of chef to bring that produce to the fore. ‘They were always on about how to create pure flavours,’ he says of his mentors. ‘Classically, purées would be sweated with butter, then reduced with cream and puréed, but when you have high quality ingredients you’re actually diluting them by using butter and cream. A lot of what we do now at The Three Chimneys is inspired by that. When we make a carrot purée, it just tastes of carrot – it’s not diluted by any fats.’

That philosophy rings true in every plate that crosses the pass at The Three Chimneys. Scott takes each component and maximises its natural flavour, combining elements that belong together within the seasons, all within Skye’s natural ecosystem. Keith’s venison is served as tartare, with walnut ketchup, pine oil, mushroom and fresh salad leaves. A beautiful scallop from the shores of Loch Sligachan is roasted on a plancha, sprinkled with seaweed flakes, and served with dabs of burnt aubergine purée and succulent morsels of sous vide pork belly.

With Scott at the helm and Shirley still an ever-present figure around The Three Chimneys, the future looks bright again for the restaurant. As Scott rightly asserts, ‘the produce of Skye speaks for itself,’ but his unassuming touch elevates each dish to become more than the sum of its parts – a celebration of Skye. Like the food it serves, The Three Chimneys is proof that wonderful things can come from the most humble beginnings – sometimes, they just need some time to grow.

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