Mountain Café: Where Kiwi Cuisine Lives in the Heart of the Scottish Highlands
Chef Kirsten Gilmour grew up on her Hungarian grandfather's farm in New Zealand, where her passion for food first began. Since then, she's lived in London – where she trained in a Michelin starred restaurant – and traveled through England and Scotland before settling in Aviemore, a small ski town in the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands. There, she launched the hugely successful Mountain Café, dishing out unique flavours inspired by her Kiwi upbringing. Due to popular demand, The Mountain Café Cookbook was released in 2017. I spoke to Kirsten about her cookbook, her café and her influences.
How do you think your travels have influenced your tastes and cooking?
I spent my early life on my grandparent's farm in rural New Zealand, and that's where my journey into food – and what I liked about food – began. My grandfather was Hungarian and was always mixing Kiwi flavors and ingredients (that we grew ourselves) with European styles of cooking. So I think it comes naturally to me. I love to travel; I always have a notebook in hand, and I'm always lapping up new ideas and styles. I love fresh food that isn't overly tampered with. Making a good salad is an art in itself, and combining opposing textures and flavors is key. That's something I picked up from an amazing chef that I worked with in London.
Recently, I've been learning to cook Middle Eastern food with Ghillie Basan. It's been incredibly inspiring to learn about new cultures and food that I haven't really cooked before. We're now adding blended spices and dressings made with Harissa to our menu – ingredients I was unsure of before. The thing about food is that you never stop learning. You travel through food, even if you haven't moved an inch at all.
We offer Kiwi food made with Scottish ingredients. I call it Skiwi – Scottish Kiwi!
How does Mountain Café reflect that?
We offer Kiwi food made with Scottish ingredients. I call it Skiwi – Scottish Kiwi! It's a fusion of really healthy, no-fuss food, using a homely style of cooking, set against café backdrop. This is also reflected in our cookbook, as the recipes are available and manageable to people in all walks of life. There's no need to order in specialty ingredients. There are always dishes on the menu that relate to home, travels, and inspirations from my chef's travels and my own. For example, my pastry chef Kieran has just returned from Turkey, and he's already trying to perfect Revani – a semolina and lemon syrup cake – that he loved out there. So I think we're pretty dynamic; we're always educating ourselves and trying to bring new ideas into the café and its dishes.
What are the challenges of running a restaurant in the Scottish highlands?
Hiring professional staff is probably our biggest challenge. We're in quite a remote area, and it attracts a lot of tourists and people who enjoy the outdoors, but there's a lack of trained hospitality staff. We work really hard at staff training to get the most out of our team, but also to make it an enjoyable job for them. Another challenge, especially in my early days at Mountain Café, was creating a menu with only seasonal fruits and vegetables. In New Zealand, we're spoiled with an abundance of fruits and vegetables that last for a long season. Here in the Highlands of Scotland, we have incredible meats, dairy products, and fish, but we lack salad ingredients and fruits for any length of time. Our berry season can be as short as two months. I've since learned to adapt our menus using local ingredients in different ways – freezing the berries, making jars, relishes, jams, or simply using more root vegetables. I think this has made me a better chef and has helped me think outside the box to create a more interesting menu.
What drove you to write this cookbook?
In 2008, the café’s reputation had started to grow and we began to receive and endless stream of requests from people begging for our recipes. I was amazed by the amount of people wanting to recreate our dishes at home. I love sharing my passion for cooking. I would sit up late in the evenings after a long day in the kitchen to try to scale down commercial recipes to email back to customers. One day, I bought a notebook and put it out in the café with a sign that read, "Would you be interested in a Mountain Café cookbook? If so, write you name and email in this book!"
Within a year, we had 3,500 names in the book and then, there was no going back.
Which cuisine do you feel best represents you?
New Zealand for sure! Big portions of healthy, fresh food that combine exciting fresh flavors with minimal fuss. It's something that is ingrained in me and something that I am really proud of. I just use really sexy Scottish ingredients and produce to create these dishes. Can I start my own cuisine and call it Skiwi?
Will you share Lindsay Bennett’s secret carrot cake recipe with us?
I could but I might have to kill you… I have been asked this question so many times since the book came out. It's very likely that it will be in the second cookbook, which I hope to release late next year.