Stuart Ralston

Stuart Ralston

Stuart Ralston

Since opening his first Edinburgh restaurant Aizle in 2015, Stuart Ralston has gone on to earn himself a legion of fans both in the Scottish capital and further afield. With four concepts now to his name, each unique in its influence, he has established himself as one of the country’s most ambitious and intriguing culinary talents.

For so many young chefs, venturing into the professional kitchen for the first time feels like entering into the unknown – an act of rebellion even - against the more traditional routes into work promoted at school. For Stuart Ralston, however, it was something he was used to from an early age as both of his parents, his older brother, and eventually his younger brother too, worked as chefs. ‘Me and my brothers were both put to work as kitchen porters at thirteen,’ Stuart explains, ‘and I just came to like the lifestyle. Being in restaurants late at night with other adults just felt exciting, so I stuck with it.’

Stuart’s father, the head chef of a Kirkcaldy pizzeria at the time (he then went on to become executive chef of Queensferry hotels), was wary initially of Stuart going into what could be a very harsh industry but ultimately gave Stuart his first opportunities to cook in a professional setting. ‘He was definitely pretty tough on us,’ he smiles, ‘and there was that added pressure of not wanting to embarrass him in the kitchen because he was the exec chef, but it did mean that we learnt quickly.’ By the age of eighteen, Stuart was ready to fly the nest and took a position in the kitchen at The Roman Camp Hotel in Callander, where he remained for the next four years and was taught essential skills like sauce making and butchery. Stints at Greywalls Hotel and the Michelin-starred Inverlochy Castle followed but by twenty-two Stuart was already looking for a bigger challenge.

After a chance meeting with Gordon Ramsay, aware that the chef was soon to open his first restaurant in the US, Stuart wrote to him asking for a trial and within a matter of months had a position secured in Manhattan at The London Hotel. ‘It felt very surreal at the time,’ explains Stuart, who ended up spending over five years in New York. ‘It was such a big move at a pretty young age but American culture really appealed to me and it brought me out of my shell. It was tough being so far away from home, but I learnt so much working in New York and really sucked up the culture.’ It was in New York that Stuart was exposed to a wider range of influences, with Japanese food in particular having a big impact on the young chef. ‘It felt like a bit of a new beginning for me,’ he remarks, ‘as I hadn’t ever had good sushi growing up in Scotland. It became something I just loved to eat and has definitely influenced my food down the line.’

While in New York, Stuart went on to stage at restaurants including the three-Michelin-starred John-Georges and also took on his first head chef role at a private members restaurant where, he says, he first got an insight into how to run a business. By 2009 though, he was ready to return to the UK and moved back with his now wife Krystal, taking up a head chef position at Lower Slaughter Manor in the Cotswolds and quickly winning three AA rosettes. His return to the UK was short-lived however, thanks to the combination of the hotel going bust and a well-timed offer to move out to Barbados to become the chef de cuisine at the Sandy Lane Hotel. ‘Suddenly this dream move to the Caribbean was on the cards and it felt like we’d won the lottery,’ he laughs. ‘Funnily enough, it was a hotel that had always been on my radar, as I’d heard that Angela Hartnett had worked there at some point, and I fell in love with it straight away. That was the restaurant where I first felt like I had total freedom and that allowed me to really discover what my own style of food was.’

With this in mind, and having gradually grown weary of working for other people, it was time for Stuart to move back to his native Scotland to open a restaurant of his own. In 2014, Aizle opened its doors in a former Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh’s old town and was instantly well received. This was a few years before the city’s food scene really exploded, meaning that locals were ready for something different. ‘The idea was to do Michelin-level food using amazing Scottish produce but in a relaxed, stripped-back setting and with a menu that was relatively cheap and accessible,’ Stuart explains. ‘All I wanted was for it to be busy and for people to enjoy it and they really did. We were one of the first restaurants up here to open with a surprise tasting menu and that seemed to really appeal.’ Aizle announced Stuart on the scene as one of Scotland’s most exciting new chefs and over the next five years, he gradually refined the offering as he began to push for accolades.

By 2019, reservations at Aizle had become tricky to come by and Stuart, meanwhile, was eager to open a different style of restaurant to run alongside his flagship. This led to the opening of Noto – a more causal, small plates spot with a broader range of influences than Aizle, inspired by the neighbourhood restaurants that Stuart had fallen in love with in New York (‘I wanted it to be food that people really craved’). Noto proved just as much of a success as Aizle, going on to win a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide, and establishing Stuart as a chef with many different sides to his cookery. Less than six months after Noto opened its doors though, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and changed everything for the Edinburgh chef.

Both restaurants were forced to close their doors and Aizle ultimately never reopened in the same space again due to social distancing measures. Instead, it reopened later in 2020 in a much bigger site within the Kimpton Charlotte Square Hotel, and the loyal fans of its first incarnation ensured that Aizle continued to flourish in its new home. Its success allowed Stuart to open his third restaurant Tipo in 2023, this time an even more casual Italian small plates restaurant - something he and his head of operations Jade Johnson had felt was missing from Edinburgh. ‘There are obviously lots of that style of restaurant in London and even Glasgow,’ says Stuart, ‘but no one was doing it here at the time, and I knew we’d be able to do it really well, so it felt like a bit of a no brainer.’

The plan was to stop there with three successful restaurants under his belt but following the untimely death of much-loved Edinburgh chef Paul Kitching (famed for his restaurant 21212), Stuart was offered the opportunity in 2023 to open a new restaurant in the space that formerly housed 21212 and it was a chance he didn’t feel he could miss. ‘It was obviously a bittersweet opportunity,’ he explains, ‘and it came at a time where I was low on energy; I’d just opened another restaurant and my cookbook was about to come out. But it’s a site that I’d always cherished and even wondered what I could do with, as I honestly think it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Edinburgh.’ Stuart decided that for this fourth restaurant, he would do something which was closer in feel to the places he'd worked in at the start of his career in New York, rather than the stripped-back, casual openings that he’d become accustomed to.

Lyla opened its doors in late-2023 and sees Stuart showcasing an exquisite level of refinement and technique through a lengthy tasting menu, which particularly focuses in on Scottish seafood. ‘In my eyes, the food at Lyla is still very simple in its structure, but more complex in its flavour,’ he says. ‘It’s quite classical and elevated but with a bit of an edginess to it too. Aizle definitely has a younger, more rebellious feel, but as I’ve grown older I’ve moved away from that, which is why Lyla feels a lot more polished and mature.’ There’s a sense that things have come full circle for Stuart, from first working in the high-end restaurants of New York to now, but it’s the journey that he’s been on to get to this point, that makes Lyla the restaurant it is. And whether there are more restaurants to come from Stuart or not, there’s no question that he’s now staked his claim as one of finest chefs working in Scotland.