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Ones to watch: Roberta Hall-McCarron

Ones to watch: Roberta Hall-McCarron

by Pete Dreyer 01 August 2019

After nine years spent under the wing of Tom Kitchin, Roberta Hall-McCarron is charting her own path in food, and her neighbourhood bistro The Little Chartroom is the jewel in the crown of a resurgent Edinburgh food scene.

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We’ve waxed lyrical about Edinburgh’s exciting food scene over the last few years, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when this gleaming jewel was more of a culinary backwater. As is often the case, it took the vision of a few to open the door for the many; the likes of Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart helped to turn the tide in Edinburgh by championing Scottish ingredients. Now a new generation of chefs are following in their wake, transforming the Scottish capital into one of the UK’s most progressive food cities.

Roberta Hall-McCarron is one of those chefs. She was born and raised in Edinburgh, but it wasn’t the city that inspired her to start cooking – what resonates instead are memories of holidays on Scotland’s blustery coastline. ‘My Dad had a boat so I spent a lot of my childhood on the west coast,’ she says. ‘We used to go sailing every summer. When I think about food as a child, I think about eating mussels and langoustines and scallops, knowing they’d just come in off the boats.’

The name of Roberta’s restaurant – The Little Chartroom – points vigorously towards that inspiration (a chartroom being the room on a ship where charts are read). ‘I’ve always been a better chef than I am a sailor!’ she laughs, ‘but I always had a huge interest in food, from a really young age. When I was fifteen at school we had to do a couple of weeks’ work experience somewhere – I wasn’t really sure what to do, but my parents suggested I go and work in a restaurant. So I wrote to a few of them, got a placement for a week and that was it – I just fell in love with it.’

Roberta and husband Shaun opened The Little Chartroom in June 2018, and have made it into one of Edinburgh's most exciting restaurants
Part of the charm is The Little Chartroom's size – with just fourteen covers in the dining room and four seats at the bar, the atmosphere is always intimate and homely

Roberta has worked in restaurants ever since, regardless of what else she was doing. She worked part-time in the same kitchen – The Tower Restaurant in Edinburgh – whilst she finished school, then worked there full-time for a bit before heading off to catering college. She admits that college wasn’t really for her – ‘on-the-job experience is much better than standing in a classroom being shown how to do something once,’ she says frankly – so she carried on working on her evenings and days off, first at Number 16 in Glasgow and then at Slaley Hall hotel, south of the border in Northumbria. From there she went to Edinburgh’s famous Balmoral hotel, then spent eighteen months in Dubai at the world-famous Burj Al Arab – the self-proclaimed most luxurious hotel in the world. ‘That was pretty amazing,’ she says. ‘We used to get some amazing chefs from all over the world coming to do pop-up dinners. I remember Yannick Alléno (head chef at the three-starred Pavilion Ledoyen in Paris) came over and did a dinner with us. That was incredible to be a part of.’

After a year and a half in the baking sun of the Middle East, Roberta returned home to Edinburgh. It was meant to be a brief visit; a stop-over before heading to another country. Instead, she found herself knocking on Tom Kitchin’s door at The Kitchin in Leith. ‘He was kind enough to give me a job,’ she grins, ‘and I worked at The Kitchin for the next three and a half years.’

It’s funny how seemingly small actions can have such huge consequences. Had Roberta charted a course overseas and never approached Tom, the two would have passed each other, like ships in the night. Instead, Tom became a mentor for the young chef and remains a huge influence on her cooking. ‘We still keep in touch,’ she says. ‘Edinburgh is tiny, it’s hard not to cross paths with people! He’s always offering his time, even just for a chat. Tom is a very inspiring, driven, passionate chef – great to work for – and he has shaped my career, big time.’

After three and a half years at with Tom at The Kitchin, Roberta considered leaving to go overseas but she chose to stay once again, this time to help Tom open a new restaurant called Castle Terrace. That decision led her to another fateful meeting, this time with her now-husband Shaun, who worked front of house at the restaurant. Roberta spent six years at Castle Terrace – three as sous chef and three as head chef – and then the pair left to pursue their own dreams.

‘We had loosely started talking about doing our own thing,’ says Roberta. ‘We had front and back of house covered between us, and we’d worked together for a long time so we figured it wouldn’t compromise our relationship! That said, we knew we weren’t quite ready mentally and financially to own our own place.’ To dip their toes in the water, the pair took over a pub – The Abbots Elm in Cambridgeshire. ‘I’ll be honest – it was a massive shock to the system,’ she continues. ‘It was so different to what we’d been doing – when you work with someone for such a long time, you get so used to the way they do things and their ethos and style. It took us some time to work out our own.’

The pair returned to Edinburgh a year later with a much clearer sense of their own identity and started looking for restaurant sites. ‘Shaun has a friend who works in commercial real estate, so he was sending us stuff all the time,’ says Roberta. ‘I think he actually sent us the site for The Little Chartroom as a joke – he didn’t actually think we were going to go and see it!’ Shaun and Roberta did view it, though. ‘I remember we walked out and we were both like, ‘yeah, I think that’s the place’.’

Elderflower posset, oat cookie and strawberries
Trout, potato puree, kale, mussels with sauce made from roe and spinach

The rundown old café on the road to Leith needed some serious TLC – the kitchen was a shell, so Shaun and Roberta had gas installed and a restaurant-quality stainless steel kitchen fitted, before giving the whole place a facelift. ‘It was a few months until we got everything together,’ says Roberta. Evidently though, it was worth it – the pair opened The Little Chartroom in June 2018, and received vociferous support from the likes of Marina O’Loughlin and Grace Dent, before winning Best Newcomer at the 2019 Edinburgh Restaurant Awards. Edinburgh is a competitive place to run a restaurant these days, but the city is well and truly on notice about The Little Chartroom – the place is buzzing most evenings, though Roberta admits that is in part because of its size.

‘It’s really small, hence the name,’ she laughs. ‘We can fit four people at the bar and then fourteen in the dining area, and we only have room for four staff in the restaurant at any one time.’ Unlike most restaurants where there’s a clear delineation between front and back of house, Roberta hires staff who can do both roles. ‘We only employ chefs,’ she explains. ‘There’ll be five of us soon, and everyone does everything – cooking, obviously, but also greeting, making drinks, taking orders. We all serve the food, we all clear the food. We don’t have a kitchen porter so we do all our own washing up. It’s very hands-on and it can be intense, but we really care about the restaurant and the people that come here. We want it to be good, so everything is on us.’

Raw mackerel, oyster and gooseberry
Chickpea pancake, pea, lemon and Grimbrister cheese

The result is that, even when there’s a flurry of activity going on behind the scenes, The Little Chartroom always feels homely and welcoming, as though you’ve come for dinner in someone’s house. The menu is just as tiny as the restaurant – three starters, three mains, two desserts and a cheese course. There’s always one vegetarian, one fish and one meat option for starters and mains. Seasonal and interesting is the vibe, says Roberta – ‘classic combinations with interesting twists’. ‘I just want to keep things as local and seasonal as I can,’ she says. ‘As soon as something comes into season, I’ll get it in and build a dish around it.’ As we’re in Scotland, you can expect a lot of typical Scottish produce – Roberta has a particular fondness for game, and you’ll see plenty of furred and feathered Scottish game on the menu from August onwards. ‘I find I gravitate towards meat dishes generally,’ she adds. ‘We have a lamb dish on at the moment that I love – it’s a saddle of lamb stuffed with braised lamb neck, apricot and spinach, served with a black garlic puree, apricot puree and smoked yoghurt. It’s so tasty! It’s gone down really well; we’ve had loads of great feedback on that.’

Despite the accomplished cooking, great reviews, feedback and awards, Roberta still feels that she’s finding her feet as both a cook and a business owner. There’s little room for site expansion in the tiny restaurant, but there’s still plenty of room for personal growth. ‘I’m still trying a lot of things and experimenting,’ she says. ‘There’s lots I’m still finding out about myself and my palate. We’ve just bought a little konro grill, so I’m excited to try that out and see what new things we can do with it. I’m just a bit worried about the extraction; hopefully the fire alarms won’t go off!’ If year one of The Little Chartroom is anything to go by, Edinburgh has a real gem on its hands, and the best is yet to come.

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Ones to watch: Roberta Hall-McCarron


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