Lorna McNee: a new star in Scotland

by Pete Dreyer21 March 2019

As a young teenager, Lorna McNee approached Andrew Fairlie during his dinner to ask for a job. Ten years later, she’s one of Scotland’s brightest talents – a National Scottish Chef of the Year, Great British Menu star and sous chef at Scotland’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Since this interview, Lorna left Gleneagles to open her own restaurant Cail Bruich in Glasgow, which won a Michelin star in 2021.

As a teenager growing up in the northerly Scottish town of Forres, food couldn’t have been further from the mind of Lorna McNee. Cold as it undoubtedly is, Forres is striking and atmospheric – a mixture of windswept heaths, frozen beaches and ancient stone monuments from bygone civilisations. The area has been inspiring people for generations – Forres was even immortalised in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the location of King Duncan’s castle. Perhaps encouraged by the landscapes around her, Lorna had dreams of being a photographer and washed pots in a local Italian restaurant as a way of making a bit of pocket money. ‘The chef at the restaurant was determined to get me cooking, but I wasn’t interested,’ she says.

The course of true love never does run smooth, though. After failing to get into photography school, Lorna gave into her persistent head chef and took a job in the kitchen, whilst studying at nearby Moray College in Elgin. It was a lightbulb moment for the young chef – she instantly fell in love with the buzz of service and camaraderie of the brigade, and discovered a considerable talent she didn’t know she had. ‘I absolutely loved it,’ she grins. ‘My college tutor really pushed me to go and work somewhere decent, so I went down to London and spent two weeks at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s.’

Two weeks may not seem like a long stint in the kitchen, but it can feel like a lifetime working the long, intense shifts required at a restaurant like Claridge’s. It was more than enough for Lorna to realise that she wanted to continue her career in her home country, but she returned knowing that she could cook at the very highest level. A short time later, Lorna found herself having dinner at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, unaware that the visit was about to change her life forever. Another lightbulb pinged. ‘It was the best meal I’d ever eaten in my life,’ she laughs. ‘I didn’t know food could taste that good!’

Restaurant Andrew Fairlie sits in the heart of the famous five-star Gleneagles Hotel. Photo: Jean Cazals
The restaurant has held two Michelin stars since 2006. Photo: Alaisdair Smith

Weeks later, she returned to undertake some work experience, and on her last day, Andrew just happened to be eating in the restaurant. Spurred on by the kitchen team, Lorna asked the legendary Scottish chef for a job. ‘I just tapped him on the shoulder whilst he was having dinner,’ she laughs. ‘I was like, ‘any chance I could get a job?’ He sort of looked me up and down, and said, ‘are you sure? It’s not easy. Go away and think about it, speak to your friends and your family, think about everything you’ve seen, come back in a week and tell me if it’s still what you want to do.’ I came back a week later and told him I still wanted to work there, and he gave me the job.’

Andrew’s faith turned out to be well-placed – Lorna started as an apprentice at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie but she has risen up the ranks, becoming sous chef at the two-starred restaurant and unquestionably one of the most talented young chefs in the country. Today, she’s an integral part of the team at Gleneagles, helping head chef Stevie McLaughlin with dish development and playing an important role in mentoring the younger chefs. ‘I’ve done absolutely everything in this kitchen,’ she says. ‘I’ve been through every single battle here, so it’s good to be able to give back.’

I ask if she’s ever thought about leaving and she shakes her head. ‘I’ve never needed to. There have always been things to challenge me. Andrew and Stevie have always given me new things to tackle, whether it’s trips, new sections or competitions.’ It was Andrew, for example, who put Lorna forward for competitions like Game Chef of the Year and National Scottish Chef of the Year, both of which she won, becoming the first female chef to ever win the former. ‘There’s never been a dull moment,’ she remarks. ‘Chef Andrew was always giving me new challenges.’

Spiced breast and confit leg of Anjou squab. Photo: Myburgh du Plessis
Scallops, spoots, squat lobsters and sea vegetables. Photo: Myburgh du Plessis
Roast hand-dived king scallops with a fricassée of clams and sea vegetables. Photo: David Gillanders
Peach, almond and basil. Photo: Myburgh du Plessis

Among the biggest of those challenges was Great British Menu – another competition that Andrew encouraged his protege to take part in. Lorna took part in the 2018 series and did well, winning her regional heat (though not making the banquet). Many would consider that a success, but not Lorna, who returned to compete in 2019. ‘I didn’t win, so it was a no-brainer,’ she says with a shrug. ‘I don’t like being beaten.’ Although driven by her competitive edge, Great British Menu also presented a valuable opportunity to keep learning. ‘It’s great to meet your peers,’ she says. ‘You get to meet other chefs that are like you and learn from them. Getting to learn from someone like Tom Brown was amazing – I love his food and his ethos.

‘I remember meeting Phil Howard last year,’ she continues. ‘He was my veteran judge. After I finished and found out I got through to the judges, he came and tapped me on the shoulder and said some very nice things. To have someone you respect so much give you that kind of endorsement is amazing.’

Lorna’s education as an Andrew Fairlie scholar has served her well. Her style is very much the same as her mentor’s – it’s about celebrating great produce and honouring the history of Scottish food with great-tasting dishes. ‘I love Scottish produce – game, berries, fish – we have some of the best produce in the world here,’ she says. ‘Game is particularly special – you get so much flavour from game because they are eating all those other Scottish ingredients.’ Her venison shepherd’s pie made a big impact on the judges at Great British Menu, as did dishes based around Scottish crab and lobster. Her cooking at the restaurant plays on a similar field – on the menu currently is a choux farci of mountain hare with caramelised apple and fig, oven-baked scallops with ginger, lime and lemongrass and a magnificent roast saddle of venison for two, with salt-baked and truffled celeriac. ‘We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,’ she says. ‘It’s just about great ingredients cooked well.’

Given her success in competitions and on the TV, 2019 might be the first time Lorna has considered what life might be like away from Gleneagles. ‘I’d love to be running my own thing someday,’ she admits. ‘I think most chefs dream about that. But I love where I work, I always have.’ When the time comes for Lorna to eventually fly the nest, there’s no question in her mind where she’ll be. ‘I would never leave Scotland.’ She smiles. ‘Nothing wrong with England! But Scotland’s my home – I’m very proud to be Scottish.’

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