WHEN James Ferguson first visited the site of what is now Scotland’s best local restaurant, he admits he didn’t even know if it was a project he’d take on.

“It had got into a state of disrepair and had been bought by this chap Toby Anstruther. He was doing it up to the beautiful state it’s in now and wanted people to run it as a business”, The Kinneuchar Inn’s head chef told The National.

He explained: “I was looking to open a restaurant in London but remember thinking what was the worst thing that could happen. I was getting to spend the week in Scotland.”

Following that visit, Ferguson and his partner Alethea Palmer have turned The Kinneuchar Inn around and were recently voted as Scotland’s number one local restaurant by the Good Food Guide.

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In an exclusive chat with The National, Ferguson explains the secret behind the team’s success, what it means to win the award and the important of sourcing produce from the local community.

Becoming a chef

Ferguson admits that he was initially reluctant to become a chef. Growing up in Halifax, west Yorkshire, he worked in his parent’s restaurant.

It mainly served Mediterranean food as Ferguson’s dad is half-Greek. Despite that influence though, he initially attended music college but upon discovering he didn’t want to be a teacher and that he wouldn’t quite make it as a performer, he rediscovered his passion for good cooking.

Prior to taking on The Kinneuchar Inn (below), he worked with Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett before a chance meeting let him to Scotland.

“I bumped into a young lady working on behalf of the inn looking for people to run it as a business”, Ferguson explained.

The National:

“We went up and had a look at it and although it was still in a bit of a state we had a nice vision for what it could be.”

Importance of local produce

The Kinneuchar Inn itself dates as far back as the 17th century. Ferguson first heard about it in 2018 and opened it with his partner Palmer the way it is now in September 2019 just a few months before Covid hit.

Ferguson admits that in the time in-between, it offered a chance to think about what the restaurant should be.

“We’ve just been quietly improving from when we opened. Restaurants are always better a year later.”

He says he believes that the meat in Scotland is “some of the best in the world” and that it simply makes sense to revolve his ever-changing menu around what’s on the doorstep.

The National:

He explained: “The produce around here is amazing. The local cucumbers for example are so sweet, the pressed shallots as well. There are so many lovely vegetables.

“It just makes sense to source locally because the less something travels then generally the better the quality. I can get stuff from Sicily which will taste stunning there but by the time it gets here it’s not as good.

“I don’t need to tell you about the seafood in Scotland. We’ve got Pittenweem on the east coast and you get cod and things from Shetland. It’s a dream when you want to change your menu.”

Ferguson likes to keep the menu small but varied, often complete with four starters and mains and sometimes a special depending on what’s available.

“It can change from lunch to dinner sometimes. At the beginning of the week, I’ll speak to local farmers and order everything in advance.

“I know what’s coming in when and then I’ll see what’s coming from the local growers. I’ll phone the fishmonger and he’ll let me know what’s good at the time. It might be squid and then I’ll decide if I want to grill or fry that.

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“I keep the menu’s short which I’m always happy to see because you know everything is thought through that way.”

Well-earned recognition

Ferguson admits that the team wasn’t expecting to receive the recognition from the Good Food Guide but that didn’t make it any less welcome.

“I think that we try to stay very honest in what we do. We don’t seek out recognition but I’m a very passionate cook and my other half is very passionate about front of house and the service”, he said.

“We were over the moon because anyone will tell you what hard work it is running a restaurant in a small, rural area working to get customers in.

“We’ve had a few bookings since being given the award. But there were so many good restaurants up for it and I imagine anyone could have won it so I’m just pleased it was us.”