Roberta Hall-McCarron

Roberta Hall-McCarron

Roberta Hall-McCarron

Roberta Hall-McCarron spent the early part of her career under the wing of Tom Kitchin but has since gone on to carve a path of her own, opening the acclaimed The Little Chartroom in Edinburgh, where her bold, seasonal food brings Scotland’s natural larder to the forefront.

There was never any doubt in the mind of Roberta Hall-McCarron that she wanted to become a chef. From the moment she first stepped foot in a professional kitchen aged sixteen, as part of a week’s work experience, she felt at home and quickly made it her mission to become a top chef. ‘I came back into school the week after my work experience and I was the only one in the class who was buzzing,’ smiles Roberta. ‘It was the fast paced nature of the kitchen and seeing simple things being elevated to become incredible that I fell in love with.’ Since then, she’s never looked back.

This week of work experience was at Edinburgh’s The Tower Restaurant and began a career which would ultimately revolve heavily around the Scottish capital. Roberta took a full-time position at The Tower after finishing school, before moving to Glasgow to attend culinary college, which, she explains, was a necessary break from working at the time. ‘I was only eighteen and was already working sixty hour weeks,’ she says. ‘It was a lot to do straight off the bat, so I think having a bit of an education to ease myself into it better was important.’ After finishing her training (during which she worked part-time at Number 16 in Glasgow), Roberta ended up spending a year in the kitchen at Slaley Hall, a hotel in Northumbria, before returning to Edinburgh to take up a position at the Balmoral Hotel in banqueting.

Soon, however, the opportunity arose to move to Dubai, where Roberta would work at one of the most famous hotels in the world – the Burj al Arab. With luxury ingredients available at the drop of a hat and everything produced on a vast scale, she was able to experience a very different style of kitchen to anything she’d witnessed before. ‘There were truffles galore and they’d even get langoustines delivered all the way from Scotland,’ she laughs, ‘it was a crazy experience working somewhere like that in my twenties.’ For most chefs, there tends to be a kitchen that proves formative in their careers and for Roberta that came on her return to Scotland after eighteen months in Dubai.

Tom Kitchin had only recently opened his restaurant The Kitchin and had already won a Michelin star within six months, so as soon as she was back in Edinburgh, Roberta went knocking on his door and was soon working in the capital’s hottest new restaurant. ‘I’d always had this mentality of wanting to aim for the restaurants with stars,’ she explains, ‘as I thought that’s how I would progress the quickest.’ Working as part of a small team with Tom Kitchin himself and then Dominic Jack, Roberta held her own in a kitchen with notoriously high standards and thrived under the pressure. ‘I’m not going to say that it wasn’t incredibly hard and stressful at points,’ she smiles, ‘but I learnt so much during the time I was there. I worked every single section and my eyes were really opened to the broader spectrum of foods. By the end, I was pretty much getting one-on-one tutorial from Dom, which was invaluable.’

After three years at The Kitchin, Roberta had made up her mind that it was time to move away from Edinburgh and cook elsewhere, but Dominic Jack had different ideas. With plans to launch a brand new restaurant with Tom, he asked Roberta to join him as part of the opening team and she couldn’t refuse the chance. Six years on, Roberta had helped to establish Castle Terrace as another of Edinburgh’s top restaurants, working her way up to head chef and meeting husband-to-be Shaun McCarron in the process, who was the restaurant manager. Their next move was to take over a rural pub and restaurant in Cambridgeshire, which she explains was a huge shift in direction and a shock to the system (produce and staff were far harder to come by in the countryside compared with what Roberta had grown used to at Castle Terrace) but a necessary step towards opening a restaurant of their own.

Ultimately the couple only ended up staying at the pub for a year, but returned to Edinburgh raring to chart a path of their own. Following a period of downtime, during which Roberta sharpened her bread-making skills working in a local bakery, they found a site for their first restaurant and in 2018 opened The Little Chartroom. The tiny eighteen-cover restaurant served a more casual style of food than the likes of The Kitchin and Castle Terrace whilst still shining a light on exceptional Scottish produce. ‘The idea was always for it have the feel of neighbourhood bistro but serve really delicious food,’ explains Roberta. ‘It’s funny because I look back at the early menus now and the food was so similar to Dominic’s at Castle Terrace in terms of flavour combinations but as I began to trust myself more, it really developed. I wanted there to be a balance between the food being interesting and not just run-of-the-mill dishes but without being pretentious and alienating people.’

Roberta’s approach quickly won over locals, then critics, and before long people were coming to Edinburgh specifically to try her food. Attention on her only continued grew after she reached the final of BBC’s Great British Menu before winning the fish course in 2021. ‘That’s when everything really started to explode and it was in the middle of lockdown,’ she laughs. ‘It was around that point too that we decided that The Little Chartroom needed to grow up.’ Roberta and Shaun found a larger site nearby which benefitted from a much larger, open kitchen and relocated the restaurant.

‘Having more space definitely allowed us to do a lot more with the menu at The Little Chartroom,’ says Roberta, who previously had just six burners in the kitchen. ‘We no longer had to limit the number of hot starters we could have, for example. As the team has grown too, my food has also developed more layers than before I’d say, because I’m collaborating with chefs who have influences from further afield.’

The move to the new site also freed up the original space, which Shaun and Roberta eventually decided to reopen as a more casual restaurant-cum-wine bar called Eleanore. Initially inspired by a food truck that the couple ran during the national lockdown, Eleanore opened as a small plates restaurant but has since transitioned to a set menu format. ‘There’s definitely still a common thread running through the menus at Eleanore and Little Chartroom,’ Roberta adds, ‘but you’d still instantly know whether a dish is an Eleanore dish or a Little Chartroom dish, which I really like.’

There’s no doubt that Roberta’s cookery alone proves why she’s one of Scotland’s most highly regarded chefs, but for her, it’s about more than just the food. ‘Obviously I want to be recognised for quality,’ says Roberta, ‘but I would love to be seen as a bit of a role model for women working in kitchens. You can have a family and continue to run a kitchen. I was told I couldn’t do it but I’ve managed, and that’s something I’m very proud of.’