Ones to watch: Graeme Cheevers

Ones to watch: Graeme Cheevers

by Tom Shingler 27 April 2016

Tom Shingler talks to the head chef of Martin Wishart's Michelin-starred restaurant at Cameron House to discover how he rose through the ranks so quickly at such a young age.

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Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

As head chef of Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond, Graeme Cheevers has achieved a lot in his career. It’s when you discover he was given the position at just twenty-three years old that you realise just how accomplished the young chef is. Growing up in Glasgow meant Graeme was always surrounded by Scottish produce, and his love of cooking came naturally in his youth.

‘I’ve always had a connection with cooking, ever since I was twelve or thirteen,’ he says. ‘I just cooked in the house at weekends, got really interested in it and decided to do home economics at school. It turned out there weren’t enough people interested in it for the class to go ahead, so they referred me to a catering college. I went there for a year but didn’t really enjoy it – everything was very repetitive, and I liked my part-time job in a kitchen much more. I eventually gave it up and starting working in a two AA rosette place in Glasgow, which really got me interested in high-end cooking.’

Graeme’s passion for the best produce didn’t wane, and soon he was working all over Scotland, including The Peat Inn with Geoffrey Smeddle. Martin Wishart was already well known for his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in Edinburgh, and was planning to open a second venue at Cameron House on Loch Lomond. When Graeme got wind of this, he jumped at the chance to work there. ‘Loch Lomond was near to where I was based at the time, so I went for dinner on the opening night and approached him about a job,’ he says. ‘They didn’t have anything available, so I started working there one day a week for work experience. After about three or four months I was given a commis position in pastry, even though the head chef at the time didn’t think I should get it – something he later regretted!’

Working in a newly opened restaurant with a lot of press attention wasn’t easy, but Graeme – who was just twenty-one at the time – rose to the challenge. ‘It was quite a tough environment as we had to get a Michelin star within the first few years of opening,’ he says. ‘A lot of people couldn’t take it and left, so it meant there was plenty of room to move up if you had the nerve.’

Quality of produce is key for Graeme, who is happy to go abroad for the very best ingredients
Graeme was named head chef of Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond when he was just twenty-three years old

Rising to the top

Wasting no time, Graeme applied himself and started rising through the ranks at an incredible pace. His hard work and dedication didn’t go unnoticed, and just two years later – at the age of twenty-three – he was offered the job of head chef. ‘Initially I didn’t want the job, but Martin’s head chef had given him a year’s notice and said he was moving back to Canada,’ he explains. ‘Martin must’ve seen something in me and basically told me I was going to fill the position, rather than asking! It was a big challenge. Some of the guys in the kitchen had worked there since before I started, which was a bit difficult to deal with, but I’d already made a good mark in the kitchen and everyone supported me.’

Becoming a head chef is never easy, and Graeme found it was hard work in the early days. For the first year he continued to work under Martin’s guidance, continuing to do what he’d always done. ‘Martin would come up every Thursday to design the menu and create the dishes, which would then change every Friday,’ he says. ‘But eventually I wanted to be doing something of my own, rather than just recreating what was being served at Martin’s other restaurant in Edinburgh. I started getting a bit of experience in other restaurants so I could move the style in a new direction to keep things interesting. Now, the restaurant has a much stronger modern European influence, whereas Restaurant Martin Wishart is still very much classical French.’

Five years later, Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond is a Michelin-starred restaurant in its own right. Graeme has managed to stamp his own mark on the menu whilst keeping it true to Martin’s own ethos, a true balancing act. Quality of produce is integral to the menu, which means the team will source outside of Scotland if the ingredients are better. However, roe deer from the Borders and local seafood is almost always on offer. ‘My favourite dish on the menu right now is roasted langoustine with pumpkin and tandoori spices, which we serve with puffed rice and a carrot sauce,’ says Graeme. ‘Prawns, curry and rice is something a lot of people can relate to, so we get a lot of good feedback.’

My favourite dish on the menu right now is roasted langoustine with pumpkin and tandoori spices, which we serve with puffed rice and a carrot sauce. Prawns, curry and rice is something a lot of people can relate to, so we get a lot of good feedback.

Graeme Cheevers

Evolve and adapt

Being head chef for five years has meant Graeme has had to move with the times. ‘I’ve noticed a huge shift towards more relaxed dining,’ he says. ‘People don’t want pretentious, stuffy service anymore – because we’re a hotel we always have diners coming in wearing sandals and t-shirts, which we’re fine with, and we’ve got a kid’s menu. I’ve talked to others in the industry and they’re all finding the same thing. Everyone wants the same high quality but in a more relaxed atmosphere.’

For now, Graeme is happy where he is, building on an impressive CV that any other twenty-eight-year-old chef would love to have. He doesn’t deny that another star would be incredible, but – as always – the diners and the food come first. ‘For the next one or two years at least I’m just going to stay here and carry on building on what we’re doing,’ he says. Accolades are great – they get you out of bed in the morning – but everyone in the team wants to go further and see where we can take the food.’