Interview with Roberta Hall-McCarron representing Scotland on Great British Menu 2020 – Women In the Food Industry
Great British Menu (GBM) returned to our screens mid March for series 15. The BBC Two show puts the nation’s most talented chefs to the test. At Women in the Food Industry we are interviewing the strong female line-up of chefs from across Britain competing to serve their dish at the final banquet. To continue our series, our co-founder, Mecca Ibrahim, interviewed Roberta Hall-McCarron, Head Chef of The Little Chartroom in Edinburgh.
How did you start working in the hospitality world ?
When I was 15 and still at school I had to do a week’s work experience, which I decided to do in the kitchen of a restaurant in Edinburgh, from then I was hooked. The restaurant gave me a part- time job and when I finished school they gave me a full- time job.
You’ve worked for some amazing chefs like Tom Kitchin and also run a pub, when did you realise you wanted your own restaurant & when did you decide The Little Chartroom was the right place?
I think the real realisation that I wanted my own place came when I met my now husband, who is the other half of The Little Chartroom. His background is FOH, so combined with my experience it made perfect sense.
Whilst we were down in Cambridge running the pub, we had started looking for a site in Edinburgh, but nothing had come up. It wasn’t until we moved back that a friend sent us details of a small property on Leith Walk, more as a joke, as he thought we’d never want it. Both me and my husband had different meetings after the viewing, so we only had five minutes to race around the restaurant. As soon as we left, we started rushing up the road, both looked at each other and said, I think that’s it. It’s almost the same feeling as when you go looking for a house and think – Yes, this is the right place. It was ticking all the boxes for what we wanted.
Some people say the three most important things to get right with a restaurant are food, wine and service, how do you balance all three?
First impressions are really key and it’s important we stress that to our staff. We are a very small team and it’s a very open kitchen and we all have to gel well. It’s very important to me that we provide a relaxed friendly service, all the chefs are front of house staff as well, they will meet, greet and seat the diners so it is so important that from day one they get on board with this. Food, the kitchen team and I have this covered and my husband Shaun looks after the wine. The whole team will taste all of the dishes together and give feedback as to how we can improve it, we will regularly taste the wines on offer by the glass as well so we know what goes well with the current menu. I feel like all these things help us find a balance.
Who are some of the people you find most inspiring in business and in the food industry?
My two main mentors are Tom Kitchin and Dominic Jack, without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. They taught me so much, not even just in regard to cooking but the everyday running of business. They are always on the end of the phone if I have any questions. Every day I realise how much they’ve helped me. Also, my own team, I find them really inspiring, they’ve all come from different restaurants and have different experiences and I let them have input on the menu.
Angela Hartnett, is such an amazing woman and role model. She ate at the restaurant last year. I didn’t know she was booked and she just came in for dinner with some friends. I only spoke to her at the end and she’s very unassuming. Of all the people to have in the restaurant, she’d have been top of my list to come in, and there she was, that was a great boost for the whole team.
This is your first time on the show, how did you get onto Great British Menu?
The show got into touch me with last year around the time I was opening the restaurant to see if I would be interested in going on the show, but it didn’t feel like the right time as I was still very much finding my feet in my own kitchen and really wanted to focus on the restaurant. When they got back in touch this time around it was a no brainer as I had a strong team around me to look after the restaurant while I prepared for the show.
You’ve already won all kinds of accolades, Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards and Breakthrough Chef of the Year in the Food & Travel Reader Awards, – are you under a lot of pressure to get to the banquet of Great British Menu? How will it feel being judged on TV?
I don’t think the accolades put me under any pressure to get to the banquet, it is only the pressure I put on myself. I am a competitive person and I always want to cook to the best of my ability. If I can do that then I will be happy. Naturally, I am nervous about being judged on TV, I want everyone to like my food and especially as it is broadcasted to however many number of people nationally.
How did you prepare for the children’s literature theme at GBM?
I re-visited a lot of my favourite children’s books and tried to find ways to link them to my style of food. It was a great brief and I really enjoyed it, but it’s much harder than coming up with a dish for the restaurant.
There are two more courses on the show this year, which was the hardest course to prepare for?
Definitely the dessert, pastry is my weakest area. I spent so much time practicing the dessert and I am sure everyone at the restaurant was sick of eating it by the end.
GBM is very much known for its props, did you embrace the props on the show?
Yeah, I think I did. It was important to me that the props didn’t overshadow the food and that taste was still the most important thing. I really wanted to embrace the whole experience as much as possible and give myself the best possible chance of getting to the banquet.
You’re on a desert island and you have one ingredient you can’t live without – what would that be? Plus if there was one dish type you could live on forever what would that be?
I probably couldn’t live without butter, as bad as that might sound, I love it. That kind of moves on to the dish that I could live on forever. It’s so simple and one of my favourite go-to’s when I want a snack it is a white baguette, with some really yummy salted butter and some good ham. Good bread and salty butter is a wonderful lunch.
Have you found any particular advantages to being a woman in the food industry?
One thing I have noticed since I opened my own restaurant is that we stand out more, because there aren’t so many of us in head chef positions. Right now, there are four chefs in my team and three of us are female. I do wonder if because I am a female head chef that women feel more comfortable applying for a job, as they see me there and think the kitchen won’t be so tough and macho. If that’s the case then that’s great but it’s not the be all and end all for me. Ultimately, I just want to be surrounded by nice people who like to cook nice food.
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you could have told your younger self when you were starting out?
As a head chef, I would have like to have known that you don’t need to be at the restaurant 24/7 and that by delegating different jobs to the team, no matter how hard or simple will allow them to flourish and grow. Me taking a step back from time to time and letting them know that I trust them to do things the way we have worked on them together will allow the restaurant to continue moving forward, it is better for everyone. It makes us all perform better and is also good for me and my husband Shaun, it is not sustainable for us both to be there 24/7. Physically and mentally you need to be able to take a step back in order to move forward.
Roberta will be appearing on Great British Menu from Wednesday 1st April 2020 representing Scotland. Look out for more in our series of interviews with the great women chefs on Great British Menu 2020 soon.