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Master of One: Gary Maclean & Creel Caught

If you’ve never had an Arbroath smokie, a few minutes in the company of award-winning chef Gary Maclean might have you yearning for one of these traditional delicacies. He lovingly describes the laborious process of how a smokie is prepared, which involves a whole haddock suspended in a half-whisky barrel over glowing hot whisky-infused wood chips. Coals are laid across the embers, the fish is covered in sackcloth, and it is very slowly smoked, absorbing all the earthy flavours from the process. “It’s an incredible thing. I do a food festival in Dundee every year, and I love it. It’s always a big crowd… the people that run it are amazing, and I always really enjoy it, but all I think about when I’m heading up there is, ‘I’m having an Arbroath smokie for lunch!’"

Edinburgh locals won’t have to go that far as the Arbroath smokie is among one of the specialities at Creel Caught, opened by Maclean in the Bonnie & Wild Scottish Marketplace at The Quarter. Fresh scallops, crabs, langoustines and other locally sourced seafood are lovingly prepared by a team of enthusiastic chefs, hand-picked by Maclean himself. 
 As someone who has opened more than 80 restaurants and received countless awards (including, of course, the MasterChef: the Professionals title in 2016), his enthusiasm for producing fine dining experiences is undimmed and stimulated by the Bonnie & Wild offering, where ambitious young chefs are learning from each other and evolving the menus all the time..

“This whole environment at Bonnie & Wild has been amazing. I don’t know how many people are working there at any one time, but there are eight kitchens, butchers, a wine shop, a pâtisserie… and everyone’s getting around. My young chefs are in the Southeast Asian place next door having a look at what they’re doing… tasting food, going around the corner and looking at what the vegan offering is. So, there’s a real sense of teamwork within that space as well."

Bonnie & Wild is a landmark concept in the Edinburgh dining scene, albeit one that has antecedents in major gastronomical centres, such as London andj New York. While the food in those international, high-concept food halls is often of a high standard, sometimes the dining areas themselves can be underwhelming. Not here, where the commitment is to build something lasting and meaningful for anyone who orders a plate of food.

“It’s a special place and it really is a special concept. What Bonnie & Wild has done is to look upon this as a high-end restaurant, in terms of furniture, package, drinks, offers, uniforms, standards of service… Those kitchens are decked out with the absolute best you can buy, because this is a long-term project."

Reflecting back, four years on from that MasterChef win, Maclean is able to have a little perspective on events. “I’ll be honest, from then till now, it’s been a blur… it’s truly life-changing.” A life-changing event for someone who was ready to take on the challenge – something that he had arguably been gearing up to ever since he first started working in a kitchen back in the 1980s. “There were no restaurants where I grew up, on the rough side of Glasgow. The only food you ever ate was in your own house or your pal’s house. You never saw a chef. There were no chefs on TV."

One subject he excelled at in school, however, was home economics and that lit the spark. “I skipped school at 15 and got a job in a country house hotel in the Trossachs. I went from the street corners of Glasgow to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Within a day, I was standing there, boning out a red deer, and I quite literally never looked back."

Memories of those early days have obviously remained with him and, for someone who left school with few qualifications, education is a cornerstone of his life’s work – passing on all that acquired knowledge – not just about food prep but on all the minutiae you need to be a top chef. “That’s the pinnacle of my career – working in education and bringing young chefs through, and that was never, ever going to change. Even with everything else that I’m doing, I’m still lecturing full time at City of Glasgow College.” He wants the young chefs he meets to go on a similar journey to himself. “I want them out and about. I want them to see where the food comes from. I want them to learn about food. I want them to fall in love with Scottish produce."

Also important is the rich and abundant resources to be found in Scotland’s fishing waters, and Creel Caught is built around sustainable, traceable fishing, where the scallops are hand-dived, the langoustines are caught in ‘a creel’ and industrial fishing processes such as dredging are definitely not on the menu. Maclean is a chef who likes to see every part of the process. “I’ve been lucky to get out onto fishing boats... to mussel farms and aquaculture and things like that… I’ve got a real respect for the boys and girls from these rural communities that are out there doing a pretty dangerous job. And it always frustrates me that it’s really hard to access… Supermarkets don’t do fish well. Where do you buy langoustines? How can you pick up a lobster? What I wanted to do [in Creel Caught], is to have the very best Scottish seafood in that casual dining, fun environment."

Judging from the early reviews, he’s succeeded. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, however; so next time you’re at The Quarter, treat yourself to a smokie, fish and chips or something else from the Creel Caught bill of fare and find out for yourself.