Having won the approval of Michelin judges within 18 months of taking over The Cellar in the East Neuk town of Anstruther, local man Billy Boyter explains why his move back to Fife was inevitable after learning from top chefs across the country.

Cellardyke is a collection of winding lanes, white-washed buildings and stone cottages that hug the coastline of the East Neuk of Fife. The modern name of the village is thought to have evolved from Sillerdykes, meaning silver walls – a reference to the sun glinting off shiny fish scales on nets left out to dry on the dykes around the harbour.

It was once the home port for a substantial fishing fleet but after a storm in 1898, most of the creels relocated to the more sheltered position of Anstruther, just a short distance down the coast, and the two neighbouring communities became entwined.

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Chef Billy Boyter grew up overlooking the harbour in Cellardyke. After setting out on his culinary education he returned to Fife to take over The Cellar and in doing so brought a one Michelin star rated dining room to Anstruther. “The actual house I grew up in is a five-minute walk from where the restaurant is, so my career has been one big circle all the way back to where I came from, which feels nice” he says.

“Both sides of my family were fishermen, my mum and my dad’s, so we were really lucky, we’d always get good seafood when we were wee” Billy explains. He thought at first that he might go to sea like his dad but then he discovered cooking. “I worked for Craig Millar at The Seafood Restaurant in St Monans when I was going to college. For a young chef, to work in a restaurant like that, as your first real experience, it was amazing. Craig would bring in fresh langoustines, oysters, lobsters and crab.

“From very early in my career, I was already working with the best produce” he says.

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Being close to farms and the sea, seeing ingredients being prepared start to finish in the kitchen is something that came naturally: “I thought that was the norm, it’s not until you start moving around the country that you realise you were lucky to have access to that produce. I certainly don’t take it for granted now, but I probably did back then”.

Stretching his wings, Billy worked under Kevin MacGillivray at Ballathie House Hotel in Perthshire where he cooked with Scottish game: “That was a great learning experience for me, Kevin was a great mentor, a real father figure in the kitchen.”

He moved to Edinburgh, starting in the kitchen with Michelin-starred Martin Wishart, then moving on to Number One at the Balmoral Hotel where he worked with Craig Sandle.

He was eventually appointed head chef at Number One, but Billy’s thoughts were drifting back towards Fife. He had met his wife in Edinburgh, who was originally from Cupar. The Cellar in Anstruther was on the market. “At that point, I really wanted to go and do my own thing, and it all fell into place” he says.

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“I’m a bit of a home bird. I’d always wanted to eventually go back. I loved working in Edinburgh, but I really missed the sea. Which sounds silly because Edinburgh is pretty much right beside the sea there was this draw, this desire to come back. The Cellar was an iconic restaurant in the area. I spoke to my parents about it and we went in as joint partners, a wee family business. That was nearly eight years ago now.”

“I really couldn’t have done it without their help. My mum has a good eye for design so she will help in the front of the restaurant in terms of décor. They keep the place ticking over and leave me to run the day-to-day, take care of all the things I don’t have time for when I’m cooking. If we are short of a kitchen porter they will come in and help us out. They’re absolutely brilliant.”

Within 18 months of opening the restaurant had its first Michelin star. Billy says that chasing accolades wasn’t the plan, he wanted to open somewhere he could create his own style, “everything has happened really organically at the restaurant, which I love, the food is evolving and continuing to change, as it should”. 

The menu at The Cellar draws on produce from across Scotland: dry aged Balcaskie mutton, smoked Pittenween langoustine, Arbroath smokies, roe deer, sea buckthorn, poached North Sea cod, then crowdie mousse and rhubarb for dessert. 

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“With my family background and with where the restaurant is, seafood’s always going to be on the menu, and as much local stuff as we can get” Billy says. “But I think from my time working in Perthshire and in Edinburgh, I’ve got a real love for all the produce in Scotland, not just what comes from the sea.”

“At the moment, we’ve got venison from Penicuik. We use local lamb and beef from Balcaskie Estate and they are beside the East Neuk Market Garden, who we use for some of our vegetables. They keep me in the loop with what they are growing, and I work my menu around what they have. It’s a small-scale, community thing they have but what they are producing is fantastic. Everything we put on the plate has come from its own place and it has a purpose.”

Hospitality has been through a protracted period of introspection and self-examination over the last two years. It has given restaurant owners a chance to think about what they do and why they do it.

Billy made the decision to move his staff to a four-day week in January last year, closing on a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. “I think lockdown brought a big realisation for me” he says. “Spending more time with family and your kids, I had to make the business more sustainable for the staff and for me to keep it going.

“My wee boy’s 10 now, and my daughter’s six, and looking back, apart from holidays when the restaurant’s been shut, I had never spent a full day with them. I would see them after school, and then they would be in bed by 8pm, and that was kind of my life with them.

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I just thought, “well, what am I doing?” I’m missing out on so much. And the team as well, they’re missing out on their family time. I took a hard look at the business and how I can still achieve what I want to achieve and still make sure the business is making money, but give us all of a better balance in life. So that has been my main focus, since we started back in May last year. It has been a great move.”

As someone who grew up surrounded by the natural beauty in this part of the world, I wonder where Billy recommends for the best local view this spring? “I take the coastal path, walking from Cellardyke to Crail. About halfway along there’s the Caiplie Caves. We used to go on our bikes when I was a kid and play there. When the sun is shining, it’s absolutely beautiful.”