Tom Lewis hated cooking. His parents owned a bed and breakfast (B&B) in Scotland but he had no interest in the goings on of the kitchen. That changed when young Lewis one day heard Nico Ladenis and David Wilson, both celebrated chefs in Britain, talk about their passion for food on radio. Two decades since, Lewis is one of Scotland’s most sought-after chefs. He has transformed their B&B, Monachyle Mhor, in the sleepy country of Perthshire into one of the UK’s most sought-after hotels. Its “destination restaurant” by the same name has won several awards for seasonal cuisine — made using locally-sourced ingredients — which shows off Scotland’s natural bounty. “They spoke so passionately about food and ingredients that the idea of cooking excited me,” says Lewis, who was in the city earlier this week to represent VisitScotland at the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel in Colaba.
Pulling out his iPad, Lewis shows an image of the view from his kitchen — a beautiful valley surrounded by hills, rivulets and trees. Another picture has farm animals grazing lazily as the sun shines over the 16th century property. “Hard to work here, isn’t it,” he says, winking. Set on a 2,000-acre farmland in Scotland’s Trossachs National Park, an hour’s drive from Edinburgh, the luxury boutique hotel has 15 rooms that command £ 200 a night in the peak season. Lewis’s guests arrive on seaplanes and helicopters. “Once, I had to piggyback some guests because the helicopter landed in our mucky farm,” he recounts, in his thick Scottish accent.
However, this success was not easy to come by. With little money to spare, Lewis , then in his 20s, took loans and upgraded the B&B. But just as the business started to look up, the UK witnessed a slowdown. But driven by his conviction, he continued renovations and added more rooms to the existing six. Simultaneously, he worked on his cooking skills and added more hands to his existing staff. After more than five years, he had managed to turn his humble B&B into one of the sought-after properties in the UK. Lewis recently added another property to the existing one and made it the now popular budget hotel, Mhor 84.
Although his astute business sense aided the turnaround, Lewis is still a chef at heart. He learnt the skill from his mother, who had lost her eyesight by the time he was four. “Yet, she made the best food,” he says. She taught him to see with his hands. “A steak may look well-cooked, but only if you touch it with your fingers you know whether its cooked inside.” One of his specialties is the Roast sirloin of Perthshire Highland beef with Ayrshire potatoes and asparagus. He uses the best of Scottish beef for the dish and lets it marinate overnight in a mix of freshly ground black pepper and a radish relish.
Lewis’s first cooking lesson, however, wasn’t in the kitchen, but on the family farm, which today is the chief source of ingredients in his food. Right from vegetables, chicken and eggs to pork, lamb and fish, they all are sourced from the nearby river. “I always ask my chefs to learn the basics such as charcuterie, baking bread and fishing. We need to know where our food comes from,” he says.
At Lewis’ restaurant, a regular day involves planning a new menu every day. “I often take my boys out for foraging. I love the pungency and the smell of grain in my hands when I am picking fresh mushrooms or the fresh citrusy herbs,” he says. Being close to nature, Lewis experiments with vegetarian food and loves using Indian black salt, or kala namak for “the great depth and richness it lends to vegetarian food,” he adds.