The Atrium has now closed. You can find Neil Forbes cooking at Café St Honoré.
Many restaurants proclaim they use local, seasonal ingredients. I think I have found the most seasonal restaurant in Edinburgh.
Picture this. I am standing in the Atrium kitchen salivating as dish after dish of prime seasonal food is lovingly prepared: Organic chicken with cep and tarragon cream, Borders roe deer with red cabbage, plum and cinnamon; beef with a sticky unctuous gravy, roasted roots and buttery mash: Isle of Lewis Scallops, Stornoway black pudding and puree of Lewis’ apples (he’s the Maitre D). The atmosphere is calm. Staff coming on shift have checked out the ingredients and cooking methods for tonight’s dishes in case the diners quiz them. The pot washer is rattling into an alarmingly high pile of dishes. A huge stock pot is being fed with roasted bones, trimmings and vegetables and set on to cook for about 12 hours.
Neil Forbes, executive head chef at the Atrium, is describing the dishes to me as he prepares them. He’s cooking the main course dishes tonight, and is also checking on how the diners are doing “some people take an hour over their starters” to gauge when they are ready for their next course. He’s also ensuring that the young chef preparing the starters has everything she needs and glances over to Joe who is lovingly plating small fish cakes with a caper mayonnaise, the amuses bouche for the night.
The mise en place has been done earlier in the day. All the components needed to create dishes from any of the 3 menus are to hand. With just 3 people cooking, it is like a well-choreographed ballet. Roe deer is cooked and set to rest. The chicken from Hugh Grierson has its skin browned on the top of the stove, turned over and the whole pan goes into the oven to cook through. It’s not like using the cooker at home where you’d choose the temperature for the dish, here it’s simply a matter of how long you put your dish in there.
All the elements are brought to the pass. A dash of elderberry juice is added at the last moment to one dish, a drizzle of rapeseed oil to another. A quick whisk round the plate to ensure it is clean and “Service” calls Neil.
The ingredients are a celebration of what’s in season. The Atrium forager has gathered tiny wild sorrel leaves which go with the amuse bouches, sweet cicely is added to the crab salad that goes with the crab soup. There are seasonal roots: beetroot, carrots, Jerusalem artichokes* and parsnips, wild mushrooms and something you might not have come across before, sea buckthorn. This is used in a sorbet and tastes rather tropical, a little mango-ish. Middle White belly pork had been roasted for 6 hours at a low gas, and now is soft and yielding, the crackling (always my favourite) crunchy and delicious.
The roe deer comes in as a whole carcass. Neil explains “As refrigeration space is so tight, any carcass is broken down immediately into its component parts”.
Neil explains that he thinks it essential that all his young chefs know how to butcher, something that few have any knowledge of when they arrive. Every last piece is used – some cuts might be destined for Atrium others for Blue or the latest addition the Kiosk, located in the office building next door. No skimping on ingredients here, the same organic chicken is used in the sandwiches. They also make their own bacon and a ham rather like Parma ham.
It’s a filthy night out and the fish pie seems to be really hitting the spot with the dinners. Herbs are added to a bechamel sauce and hunks of fish are poached lightly before being topped with buttery mash potato (Neil loves cooking with butter) beautifully shaped into quenelles, then topped with sautéed clams. Later I watch Joe manipulate Rooster potatoes through the mouli to make a smooth, smooth mash to which butter and a little cream is added. He carefully adjusts the seasoning before piling it up for use.
Neil looks after 3 restaurants, the Atrium, Blue and more recently Cafe St Honoré. “It’s a tough time for restaurants” he explains, “but we are doing well. We keep a close eye on the financials, it is all transparent all my chefs know exactly what everything costs and how what profit we make. I learnt how to run the business side of a restaurant early in my career. I still use many of the tips today”.
Neil explains that he always wanted to be a chef. It is definitely in his blood, his father, mother and grandmother were all chefs. When he talks his love of the Scottish countryside and its produce you can feel not only his passion for the food but also the outdoor life, freedom to fish and hunt. At every stage of his career, he has found inspiration from the chefs he’s worked for, from his first job at Casa de Cesari in Yateley, Hampshire onwards. At Ballathie House Hotel in Perthshire he got his first real taste of prime Scottish Game. At the Strathmore Arms in Glamis he learnt how to run a business. At the Peat Inn in Cupar, he experienced David Wilson’s passion born of a different experience not having started in cooking at an early age.
On the Royal Scotsman train his passion for seasonal, local produce really took off. With no storage or refrigeration, they had to buy what was available close to where they stopped and the budget was generous! In the winters when the train didn’t run, he worked unpaid at Manoir aux Quat’ Saison and for Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn. He also travelled to Australia revelling in the different ingredients and style of cooking.
I ask Neil who currently inspires him. He says “ Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, I really get what he’s trying to do and René Redzepi of noma. Could you imagine a restaurant like that here in Scotland?” he enthuses. “We’ve got the ingredients!” (We later drool over the noma cookbook which has just arrived). And what next? We’re exploring British wine to serve with our dishes, we’ve got some great local beers we’re adding too.
I’ve you’ve not been to the Atrium for a while, or are yet to visit. Do go along to experience the passion and what Scottish cooking should taste like.
10 Cambridge Street
Edinburgh EH1 2ED