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Rice Here, Right Now

Lorna McNee on Krug x Rice, Scottish food and her career

The trailblazing Scottish chef talks to us about her involvement in this year's Krug Single Ingredient initiative, as well as her start in cooking

Lorna McNee, Krug Ambassade

It's safe to say that since starting her still relatively short career in cooking, chef Lorna McNee has achieved a great deal. Having worked with Krug Ambassade Andrew Fairlie at the Gleneagles hotel, she was introduced to Krug Grande Cuvée as a young chef, and it became a partnership that would endure: 2022 marks her second year of participation in the Krug Single Ingredient initiative, and this year saw her serve a Krug x Rice menu at her Michelin-starred restaurant Cail Bruich in Glasgow.

We talk to her about what makes Krug such a source of creativity and a special wine to work with, her memories of Andrew Fairlie, and her thoughts from the epicentre of a new type of Scottish cuisine.

How did you get into food and what was your journey from there to here?

Really, I guess just kind of fell into it. I was working in a restaurant when I was at school as a KP, then I ended up deciding to go to catering school instead because I couldn't do anything else and I wasn't very academic, and it went from there.

When I got a job at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, that was the first highlight. And then, from there went on to win Game Chef of the Year, and then Scottish Chef of the Year throughout competitions. And then, obviously, I did The Great British Menu, which was great, and I managed to win it. After that came on to doing my own thing in Cail Bruich and I was able to win a Michelin star there, which was pretty phenomenal in such a short space in time.

What was it like to work for and learn from someone like Andrew Fairlie?

He was amazing because he was such a humble guy. So, there was no pretension or anything like that. He was humble, he was well disciplined and instilled in you that it's not just about cooking. Of course, the cooking's massive, but it's about your personality, and about being humble, about how you approach people, about how you talk to people, about how you respect ingredients. Your main thing is your ingredient, and once you've got a perfect ingredient, then you don't do too much to it to make it a very special thing on a plate. And I think that really matches back to Krug as well –  as long as the ingredients are good, then you're going to get something special at the end. And that's kind of what he instilled into me. Working with someone like that that's just so generous, so humble, so nice, and really takes the core of things importantly, was massive.

How's it been really running your own restaurant and being able to put your own ideas into practise?

Yeah, it's amazing. It's something very different. I can't say it's not been a challenge because it has been, but it's nice to see the way that you visualise food on a plate. It's taken a long time to get to where I can actually want to see my own food, but now, being able to actually produce that and find out my own style – that's really, really good. I get to feel very creative because of it.

How did you first discover Krug?

When I worked at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, we worked alongside Krug and we'd done a big dinner for them. So the first time I tried it was before this dinner, we'd done a tasting and we had four or five different Krug Éditions in front of us. And I sat and tasted them and remember it being a very special moment – to taste something that was like no other champagne had ever tasted before and then trying to marry food with Krug was really exciting. So that's the first partnership that I had had any experience in doing with them. And you see to what a high standard we worked to at Andrew Fairlie – Krug mimics that in the high standards of calibre that they work too.

What does Krug offer to chefs in that gastronomical property that it's got?

It's great because when you get different Éditions, the wine slightly changes, and it's really exciting to pair with food because it always kind of has these slight buttery notes – it could be a richness of the butter, or you could turn it into a nuttiness of the butter, and it does stand up to all these really great flavours. It makes it really fun, because with Krug Single Ingredient, there's always something very humble, so it's what you can pair that with to then make it really exciting, and Krug seems able to handle all these really exciting flavours that you want to use.

How did you become an Ambassade for Krug?

After Andrew Fairlie passed away. I'd heard from Krug about maybe starting up a partnership. And it was something that was very special to me because the only other Ambassade in Scotland had been chef Andrew, so for me, to come and do my own thing and win a Michelin star, and then be approached by Krug not long after to start this relationships, it's like, 'Wow, this is amazing. I'm going to get to work with one of the best champagne makers in the world, and it's something very special.' So, for me it was 'Of course I want to join this, and of course I want to be able to help with the kind of creation of new dishes, and promote the champagne, and all that sort of stuff.' So, when I was approached or when I was asked to do it, I was like, 'Yes, 100%.' There was no doubt or whatever in mind, it's something I'd want to do.

What's it like as a chef to kind of envisage a whole menu through one ingredient?

I did that last year, we had done the onion dish, but we didn't do a whole menu across it. This year is really exciting, because there are so many different variations of rice. So, you've got long grain rice, arborio, carnarole pudding rice, sushi rice – there are so many rice products are from different countries, from Italy to Japan and India. There are tonnes of places where rice comes from that you can really interpret that through a whole menu doing slightly different things, which I think is exciting because it is such a humble ingredient. It's a piece of rice, what can you do with it? It's about giving you this humble ingredient, and really making you think about it.

What are your thoughts on Scottish cuisine at the moment?

I always thought that Scottish cuisine is great, but it is coming through more and more now. You see more chefs coming back to their home cities or their home towns in Scotland and doing special things with it. But what people I think, tend to miss out on in Scotland is the fact that we have some of the best ingredients going. If you look at all the shellfish we have, London take half of our shellfish, it gets transported to China and stuff like that. So our produce is amazing, and we are right in the centre of being able to get all that – we've got great beef, and great lamb, and there's all these products that people don't really think about, and we've got lots of foraging around us – forests for mushrooms, and in the spring, the team and I go out and pick wild garlic, and wild leeks, and then you get wild cherries and raspberries, and they're everywhere. I live up in Perthshire, and you go out for a walk with the dogs in the morning and there's so much around you. So, I don't see why people wouldn't get excited by that.

Chef Lorna McNee of Cail Bruich
Chef Lorna McNee of Cail Bruich

And I think that the more Scottish people are going out and maybe seeing other parts of the world and seeing other cuisines and that they're coming back home and realising that actually what we have here is very good. So, why wouldn't I want to come open something here? And I think that more people should come back to Scotland and open up more places just because the produce is amazing, it really is once you get down to it. And then, this morning, had mangosteens come in the back door and they're absolutely massive, and there's no way you'd get it anywhere else. You just wouldn't get that kind of produce and it is very special.

I think more people are coming back realising that and saying 'You know what, I'm going to open somewhere in Scotland.' You've got some really great places open up now. Mark Donald from The Glenturret Lalique worked in Andrew Fairlie with me a long time ago. I live maybe about ten minutes away from his restaurant – and it's an amazing restaurant, and he's an amazing chef. Where he is you can walk up the woods, and I know for a fact that Mark is foraging there for things. So, there's places like that and people like Mark – who's been to Australia and he's been to London – all these places coming back to Scotland because he wants to make his mark on Scotland because he's very Scottish, very proud to be Scottish, and wants to showcase what he can do here. And I'd love to see more people doing that.

Do you feel like you're flying the flag for Scottish producing cuisine?

I could never just come to work, do my work and go home; it's something that I continuously think about all the time. And if I'm not at work, I'm out walking the dogs and think, 'Oh, wow. I could pick that or I could pick that.' My wife's always saying 'Why can't we just go walk, and you don't see something you want to pick, or think about, or a dish?' So it's always on your mind, and whenever I come into work, I'm always trying to push myself to make things better, or push the guys around me, or try and grow their interest more and more in food to show how special it can be.

I think, you always need to be looking at other people's things, looking at where the world's going with food, thinking about what you could be doing next, and keeping yourself interested. I think if you stop, then that's when it becomes boring. You want to keep on pushing and finding new ways of new techniques, or new styles, or whether it'd be new wines, you might taste the wine and said, "Actually, that would be really nice with this." And you come up with a new dish that way, however it might be.

Obviously it's Krug x Rice this year, it was Krug x Onion last year. Are there any Single Ingredients that would get you excited in the future?

I guess maybe a fruit, let's say an apple or something like that, because it's something that's quite versatile. The fact you can do something savoury with it or something sweet with it, like how would you work with it? And there's lots of things you do with barley as well, because again, it doesn't just have to be the grain itself; you can infuse it into things, too. It's a good one for Scotland, actually.

Find out more about Krug Single Ingredient at krug.com

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