Meet NCOTY finalist Derek Johnstone, Head Chef at Borthwick Castle, East Lothian

Derek Johnstone

Derek started his career at 16-years-old by enrolling on a catering course at Glasgow’s College of Food Technology. He went on to work in some of Scotland’s finest country house hotels before moving to London in 2008 to work under Michel Roux Jnr at Le Gavroche in Mayfair. Six years were spent working for the Roux family in which time he also gained experience working in other Michelin starred restaurants in Italy and Belgium. In 2017, Derek was appointed head chef at Borthwick Castle, a luxury exclusive hire venue near Edinburgh.

When it comes to being a chef, he really loves the change in the seasons and is extremely passionate about Scottish produce, working with local suppliers and producers to source the best quality, seasonal ingredients. He also appreciates being able to showcase the very best of Scotland’s larder to guests from all over the world. Working as part of a team is another part of the job he enjoys, and he takes great pride in training and developing young chefs and seeing the progress they make within their own careers.

From as young as he can remember, he was always going to be a chef. He has a natural attraction to food, and he knew as soon as he was old enough to leave school that he would pursue a career in the hospitality industry.

When it comes to his career, he describes his time spent working for both Michel Roux Jnr and Albert Roux as hugely inspirational! He learnt and developed enormously during his six years working for them both. Derek describes what they have achieved within the industry as remarkable and finds their dedication and commitment to excellence as truly inspirational. He likes how they believe in using classic country cooking styles yet keep them relevant by tweaking tastes to a modern palate and thinks this is why the Roux family are at the top of the profession. The skills and knowledge that he gained from them has really shaped him as a chef.

Derek has had many memorable days within his career but has fond memories of the day he was promoted to head chef by Albert Roux at Greywalls Hotel. He saw this as a huge privilege and responsibility to take control of such a prestigious establishment with such a talented team.

Even in these hardest of times, with all the uncertainty surrounding our industry, Derek knew he would make every effort to submit his entry for the National Chef of the Year competition. He has had the privilege of being involved in the previous two finals and has enjoyed the experience immensely. It has become a focal point in his calendar that he looks forward to and he embraces the challenge that comes along with it. His confidence has grown because of the progress he has made within the competitions and it has inspired him to push himself even further. Derek told us how he has met so many amazing people as a result and has become more aware of the fantastic suppliers and producers that sponsor and support the competition. He knows by entering again this year, that he is doing it for the right reasons as he is hugely passionate, loves competing at a high level and is determined to lead by example and inspire his young team. He is also not the kind of person who will give up if he is not successful at his first or even the second attempt. By entering for a third time, with the belief he can be successful, he sets a good standard for himself and his team to follow.

Derek often looks at the list of names that have been successful within the competition and has followed the progress that they have made in their careers. He would really love to have his name on this elite list of winners and would relish the responsibility and opportunities that comes with being crowned the Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year.

This year’s entry was more challenging due to lockdown. Accessing produce for the initial menu was very difficult, with most suppliers being closed. Just leaving the house was a risk and venturing out of your local area was obviously not allowed. Not having access to his commercial kitchen created a few additional challenges when he realised he didn’t have all the necessary equipment so this required some improvisation. Admitting he’s not the most technologically savvy, he also had to learn lots of new skills in uploading videos, taking Zoom calls and completing the application process online. His home internet going down a few weeks into lockdown for a month didn’t help either. He was also worried as to whether all of his efforts in making an application would be in vain due to the uncertainty of whether the competition could go ahead. However, he had set his heart on applying and always remained positive and he’s very glad he did!

The first few weeks of lockdown were difficult as he really did not know what to do with himself. He was missing work and as his wife is a key worker, she had to continue to work, which was obviously worrying. This meant Derek was at home alone for much of the time and after completing all his odd jobs around the house, typing up all his old recipe books and painting everything he could think of, he decided to search social media for groups in his local community that were offering to support the community during the pandemic. He found a community group called Pennypit Development Trust, which had been in operation for six years, supporting and educating young people on the importance of nutrition and exercise. During the pandemic, Pennypit has offered help to people who were isolating or shielding due to health problems, providing them with food and resources. Derek reached out to them and offered to help in any way he could. They were desperate for a chef to help produce aid meals for vulnerable people and he was more than happy to lend a hand. They had done an amazing job of sourcing an abundance of food and had a great distribution setup but had no chefs to cook the meals. He managed to get another chef to volunteer and they both started cooking at their local bowling club, producing hundreds of ready meals per week. Derek took so much positivity from producing the meals and the impact it was having that he decided to reach out to another two Edinburgh based charities. FoodShare is a charity organisation which fights against hunger and tackles food waste within the UK. The Cyrenians is a charity he has worked with previously, which offers support to people that suffer from the causes and consequences of homelessness. These offers of help were gladly accepted and he rounded up a team of furloughed chefs to volunteer. Working with these two groups has been inspiring and rewarding but has also helped his own state of mind to stay positive and focused. Throughout the pandemic, FoodShare has redistributed over 360,000 tons of food and the Cyrenians have prepared and delivered over 60,000 meals for the most vulnerable people. Derek has tried to have a positive impact on people who have been badly affected by the pandemic.

His dish for the second stage of the competition was a stuffed courgette flower with a scallop & spinach subric, butter poached langoustine, courgette & spinach puree with a Sauce Nantua. The main inspiration for this dish was the wonderful seasonal ingredients that they have been growing in the walled garden at Borthwick Castle. The courgette flowers and spinach were at their peak and were ready to be picked. Derek is hugely passionate about the quality of Scottish shellfish, so he really wanted to showcase the scallops and langoustine in this dish. Growing up in the West of Scotland, he remembers going on holiday to the Isle of Mull and watching the fisherman land the amazing crustaceans and shellfish. He believes Scottish Shellfish is the best in the world and will never tire of using them on his menus. Derek said: “This dish has influences of my classical cooking style without being over complicated and allows the quality of the wonderful Scottish ingredients to shine through.”
Derek told us that it would be an unbelievable feeling to win National Chef of the Year this year. It has been a challenging year for everyone and there have been so many obstacles that chefs have had to overcome to even apply for the competition. This year he has used the event to remain focused, positive and motivated during uncertain and worrying times. To win would be an outstanding achievement that would bring so much more hope into 2020 for him.

To be successful as a chef, Derek believes you must be dedicated and put a lot of effort into your learning and development. He feels you should never be shy of asking questions and always look for ways to improve. There are no short cuts to becoming successful and you really must be willing to work hard, be hugely passionate and continually try to improve. Possibly most importantly, Derek thinks you should surround yourself with a good team that care about your future. Classical, dynamic and flavourful are the words that most describe his style of cooking.

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