Behind the scenes of Kinloch’s Michelin magic

“Well, that’s not one of mine!”, Kinloch Lodge chef Marcello Tully laughs as a portion of roast quail is plated for lunch.

The giveaway is the slight teardrop shape to the spinach pancake encasing a chicken and vegetable mousse which cutting the bird has revealed to be hidden inside. This, you see, was prepared by amateurs – my friend Ngaire and myself – who had been invited to Kinloch to experience a new kitchen workshop at the hotel.

And what an experience it was. The last time I prepared anything in a professional kitchen was when I was about 15 and had a trial day at a local restaurant. I was terrified and quickly decided to stick to front of house from then on. With this in mind I approached the day with some trepidation, as well as excitement – just what would life in a Michelin-starred kitchen be like?

The day started in the best possible way, with breakfast. On arrival we were shown into the dining room, watched by the portraits of Macdonald ancestors, and presented with scones warm from the oven to enjoy while perusing the extensive menu. My choice of creamy pinhead oatmeal porridge with cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar was delicious, almost pudding-like, and the scrambled eggs with South Uist hot-smoked salmon on a toasted muffin equally good. With full bellies we were then taken into the kitchen to be introduced to Marcello and his staff, and to find out what was in store for us.

The kitchen was already a hive of activity, with the chef in charge of breakfast finishing off the last few orders while others started to prep for the upcoming lunch, afternoon tea and dinner services. Once breakfast has been cleared the chefs come together for their morning meeting, discussing menus for the day and what work needs done. When the page-long list is complete they comment that it’s a quiet day, much to our surprise, before Marcello explains that on a busy day the list would stretch to three or four pages.

Our contribution to the day’s work is to help with canapés and Marcello is soon showing us how to whip up a smoked salmon mousse. It is now that he decides to let us loose, directing us on how to cook the pancakes to accompany the mousse. It may seem an easy task, but when you’re being watched by an award-winning chef – even one as welcoming as Marcello – the pressure is on. We manage not to drop or burn anything, however, and our pancakes pass muster and join his for use later in the day.

After this we shadow Marcello as he prepares the mixture for chicken and parma ham bhajis — a fragrant mix of spices including garlic, chilli and ginger is added to onions and batter before we get our hands dirty to scoop the mixture into bite-sized portions ready for frying.

Throughout it all Marcello enthuses about food and cooking whilst keeping an eye on the other areas of the kitchen, tasting here and there as required and making sure everything is on track for the upcoming lunch service. It is, and in fact the atmosphere in the kitchen is surprisingly calm; there are no histronics as many reality TV shows would have us believe is par for the course for a working kitchen, but rather quiet concentration.

Behind us young chef Calum is busy on the pastry section, making shortbread, pastry cases, macaroons and more, including perfectly-formed — and perfectly delicious — minature toffee apples, while also taking the time to create a pumpkin pudding with white chocolate ganache and chocolate soil, which swiftly passes Marcello’s taste test.

Next up, we are tasked with preparing roast quail with a vegetable and Perthshire honey mousse. After he quickly butchers a quail and prepares the breasts, legs and fillet, we are shown how to lay out pancetta strips with the butterflied quail breasts laid on top. This is in turn topped by the mousse-filled pancake roll and fillets before rolling the parcel up and securing it for cooking. Once again we were only too aware that what we were preparing would be served to paying customers, but Marcello assured us we were doing well – thankfully – before we set about making our last dish of the day, kirsch-marinated cherries wrapped in black pudding and coated in Rice Krispies (yes, really) and fried.

This was another hands-in-and-get-mucky job, shaping the black pudding over the fruit and dipping it in egg before the cereal coating was added. It was a surprisingly soothing dish to prepare and the combination, if unusual, works — Marcello explained that sometimes you just have to try things to see what happens.

At this point lunch service had begun, and so we moved over to witness plating up at the pass – with some of the canapés and the quail we had helped prepare amongst the dishes on offer.

The air of cool competency continued as the chefs and front-of-house staff got on with service, while we watched dishes coming together – a fillet of fish, a smear of sauce and carefully-placed mussels combining on the plate to create a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

As the quail dish is prepared the parcel is sliced, revealing that teardrop-shaped mousse. But despite that I can only say I was very proud to see something which I had a tiny part in preparing made to look so beautiful and ready to be served.

To round off our Michelin experience we sat down to lunch, eagerly anticipating the treats to come.

We began with canapés – our black pudding rounds and bhajis as well as beautiful salmon and beetroot bites – before a soupçon of roast tomato and black olive. The incredible light foam disappeared on the tongue to leave a bright spark of flavour. That was followed by our starters of quail — of course — and scallops with peanut sauce were served. Both were beautifully presented and tasted wonderful, each flavour on the plate combining expertly.

Then it was on to a fillet of Fort Augustus venison with wilted leaf spinach and sautéed cabbage, parsnip and apple, before we shared the sweets of passion fruit parfait with banana ice cream and Kinloch’s bread and butter pudding with fruit cake ice cream. To say we were sated at that point would be an understatement.

THROUGHOUT THE DAY Marcello and his team made us feel welcome and involved, giving us a glimpse into life in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

While we witnessed a relatively quiet lunch, he explained that in the evening the pass would be covered with plates being prepared for service. Any delays – such as customers not being at their table when a meal is taken out – had a knock-on effect. My stepping away from a restaurant table will never be done so thoughtlessly again!

In this environment time matters and throughout the day this was underlined by Marcello, who explained that the ability to work quickly was crucial to the success of the kitchen. This is demonstrated by the few minutes which separate one course being cleared and another served, Marcello explaining that one of his own pet hates is being kept waiting for meals. Once a sauce is added to a plate he believes it is complete and from that point on it begins to lose its perfection, so a delay of more than a minute or two will see the dish consigned to the bin and restarted.

It is part of this drive for perfection, both in presentation and taste, that earned Kinloch a Michelin star in 2010. The award has been retained without fail since then and a recent refurbishment of the kitchen doubling its size — it is hard to imagine how they operated on such a small scale before – is likely to see Marcello and his team earn more accolades.

As part of the refurbishment the idea for these “workshops with Marcello” was born, taking the notion of the highly-successful chef’s table – which allows diners to see their meals being prepared in front of them – a step further, with more and more people eager to see just how a professional kitchen operates. Marcello adds that he is keen to allow people to learn about whatever they are interested in — be it pastry, meat and butchery, or a general day such as the one we enjoyed. Whatever you choose, I can assure you it will be a fascinating and hugely enjoyable day.

Isabella Macdonald, who runs Kinloch Lodge on a daily basis, said: “We are delighted to offer people the chance to come and see the workings of a professional kitchen.  Having invested heavily in our kitchen over the last winter, it is an excellent opportunity to have some hands-on tuition with Marcello and his team, starting the day with a delicious Kinloch-breakfast and finishing with a five-course lunch.”

The workshops cost £99 per person, for more information contact Kinloch Lodge on 01471 833333.