Marcello Tully might be the only chef in the world who went to work for Macdonalds and ended up winning a Michelin Star, so it’s little wonder he wanted to write a book about it.
A decade has now passed since he arrived to take up the position as head chef at Kinloch Lodge, the Skye culinary institution owned and made famous by Lady Claire and her husband Lord Godfrey Macdonald, “high chief” of the clan.
Since Tully’s arrival in 2007, Kinloch’s reputation has burgeoned to the extent that the much sought-after Michelin accolade has been retained for seven consecutive years. Having been asked by customers “hundreds of times” about a cook book, the award-winning chef has now published ‘The Key Ingredient’ — a collection of his favourite recipes, combined with an autobiographical account of the influences which shaped them.
And what a journey it has been for the boy from Brazil, who trained with the Roux brothers in London and forged a successful career in the food business in England before he and his family made the bold leap of faith and uprooted to the north-west Highlands.
Although his heritage includes Scottish and German grandparents, early life for Marcello and his three brothers was spent in the north-east of Brazil.
After his parents separated when he was six he moved to England, but father Guilleme’s job as PR manager for an airline firm allowed for frequent trans-Atlantic return trips to visit mother Graça and eldest brother Ronaldo who remained in Brazil.
He considers the UK as home, but Tully is fluent in Portuguese and the cross-continental influence has helped steer his life and his cooking.
His culinary creations are rightly revered — yet he hints that the simplicity of the ingredients which capture the imagination of a chef should never be underestimated.
“I remember when I first discovered Marie Rose sauce,” he laughs, during a break from work in the busy Kinloch kitchen. “It’s not something you’d ever get in Brazil but it tasted great — and I thought to myself, ‘how did they make that?’ I was blown away when I found out it was just ketchup and mayonnaise!”
When it came to the book, Tully was clear on one thing — he wanted it to be easy to follow, with recipes that people will not be afraid to try themselves.
He says a few simple maxims continue to underpin his efforts at Kinloch.
Asked what the secret is to continued success, his short answers are hard work, a good team and an aspiration to acieve quality at every turn.
Says Tully: “I wouldn’t use anything in my cooking I don’t like. Take, for example, stout. I don’t like it. It’s not nice, so I don’t put it in.
“I always say start out with something that tastes nice. Don’t waste time in trying to make something that’s not nice, nice!
“I come from a food manufacturing background and question every single ingredient. I strip dishes back to basics. I set the bar high and question very single ingredient.
“A salmon mousse has four or five ingredients. But I’d always ask: can you taste every one of them? If you can’t taste it, then why put it in? Then again, an ingredient might not be there for taste, it could be for texture or colour. The important thing is that you know the reason.
“And quality is always the most important word.”
Tully’s cook book contains a nod to straightforward Brazilian street food — like the cheesy bread puffs called ‘Pao de Queijo’ — while there are main courses like his duck breast with whisky and passion fruit sauce, which weaves the link between Scotland and South America.
There are breakfast dishes, light bites and a baking section — while the fillet of sea bass, with vanilla and coriander, is a Kinloch staple and the only dish to have stayed on the menu for the whole decade.
His experience of the restaurant business goes back to Tully’s early teens, as he had decided to become a chef by the age of just 14.
His first job was as a waiter in a French restaurant near his home in Buckinghamshire, and after school he progressed to catering college in nearby Ayslebury. It was there he and his wife Claire met. Both would go on to forge a career with the Roux brothers, but Marcello eventually moved into food development and manufacturing.
Instead of a conventional kitchen environment he worked with conveyor belts, dispensing and vacuum pack machines — with a client base which included airlines, caterers, golf courses, gastro-pubs and restaurants.
It was in this line of work that first brought him into contact with Claire Macdonald, and the two of them got involved in a Cambridge-based venture to adapt Claire’s fish dishes into high-end ready meals.
The venture didn’t prove a success, but the pair kept in contact and when the Macdonalds began their search for a figure who would “take Kinloch to the next level” Claire turned to Marcello for advice.
At this stage Marcello had secured a good position, heading a 40-strong team producing a food range for Tesco. But the idea of moving to Skye was a tempting one and, instead of recommending anyone else, he asked if he could be considered for the job.
It proved to be a life-changing decision. “I was in a good job which I had thought would see me through until retirement, but we came up and quickly fell in love with Skye,” he recalls of the decision in 2007 to relocate 549 miles with Claire and sons Max and Alex.
Marcello’s target was to revamp the menu at Kinloch and achieve a Michelin Star within three years — but the results came in ahead of schedule and the Michaelin accolade was secured in his second year.
Winning the award was special, but with success comes pressure to maintain the standards. Marcello and his team are hopeful that one day a second star may follow.
“That’s the Oscar of the industry. It’s the one you want to get — it takes everything up a notch,” he says, with an eye on continual improvement.
He now leads a team of eight chefs, and favours giving chances to younger employees who are “less likely to have picked up bad habits”.
A new kitchen and hotel extension were added in 2013, and — as the tourist season now stretches year-round, and Skye continues to experience a surge in popularity — further expansion is planned. Workshops and masterclasses, offering the public the chance to experience first-hand the work that goes on behind the scenes, remain integral to Tully’s work.
“Nothing is a secret, and I love teaching and sharing what I do,” he says. “It’s a great thing for a chef to see the same guests returning time and time again.”
Kinloch is also firmly a family affair for the Tullys, as wife Claire and sons Max (16) and Alex (15) all now work at the hotel alongside Marcello.
“Skye’s very much home to us — it’s a great place to work and bring children up,” he adds. “We are focused on the future, on reinvesting, developing, and to keep improving.”