This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture for Life (PfL)
Meet James Ferguson & Alethea Palmer, who together run the charming Kinneuchar Inn in Fife. The following hears from Chef James, who discusses setting up the restaurant, and the importance of using local ingredients, including Pasture for Life meat. Interview and photographs by Angus D. Birditt.
James and Alethea moved to Fife in early 2019, and opened the Kinneuchar Inn later in the year. Before moving up to Scotland, the two worked at Rochelle Canteen as Head Chef and Front of House, respectively. In little less than a year, the Kinneuchar Inn won ‘Best Newcomer & Best Restaurant in Fife 2020’ at the Courier Restaurant Awards and ‘Best Gastro Pub in 2020’ at the ITV Food & Drink Awards.
What made you make the 450-mile relocation from London to Fife?
In London, we had been looking for a site for a couple of years (mainly in East London) to open up a restaurant, which seemed like the next step for us in our careers.
We’d had a number of potential sites, but for various reasons didn’t seem to work out. By chance, I had met someone who was working for the Balcaskie Estate in the East Neuk, and they told me that the Estate was looking for someone to invest in and run the Kinneuchar Inn. They were very persistent in getting us to come up and see the area, so I thought at least we might as well have a nice weekend up in Scotland! I also should mention neither of us had ever been to Fife, so we had no prior connection or experience of it whatsoever.
The day we travelled up to Fife was a VERY rainy day to say the least, but we could immediately see the huge potential in the East Neuk. We were shown some of the livestock and farming methods they carried out on the estate, which, combined with the abundance of fresh local seafood and wonderful vegetables, made up our minds. We decided Kinneuchar Inn could be a place that brought all these elements together, and really showcase the wonderful produce that’s available in Fife.
"I want it to feel as though I am cooking for you as I would my own friends and family coming around my house..."
How would you describe your style of cooking?
My style of cooking is really produce-led. I like to think of my cooking as both familial and nostalgic. When I have sourced a good ingredient, I then try and treat it with respect and simplicity. My food is influenced from my own experiences, both in restaurants I’ve worked in and in my life in general. For example, I am influenced by Greek cuisine (my grandmother was Greek and cooked lots of traditional dishes), Italian cuisine (from my previous restaurants), plus English and Scottish cuisines, often taking their traditional dishes but treating every aspect of the dish with respect.
The way I work is more organic, in both senses of the word. When using meat, I use the whole animal, nose to tail, and have to have an understanding of everything. Take a proper pork pie, for example, a lot of people think it’s an easy dish to make, but it’s very complex and takes a lot of work; using the trotters, curing ham or bacon, using fresh garden herbs, and using the fat and lard to create the pastry – so much love goes into it!
Many restaurants give you a spectacle when you go out, but coming here to the Inn, I want it to feel as though I am cooking for you as I would my own friends and family coming around my house, not much theatre in that sense, but in a different way. There’s also something nice about a plate being all beige, pie and mash done perfectly, what’s more to love!
How important is it to use local ingredients, and meat that is Pasture for Life Certified?
A lot goes on in sourcing the ingredients before starting anything else. We are lucky enough here at Kinneuchar Inn to have fresh seafood, grass-fed meat, and fresh seasonal fruit and veg on our doorstep.
When buying meat, we almost always buy a whole carcass, so the menu will evolve to use all the different cuts. Sometimes, Jeremy [the environmentally-driven gamekeeper on the Balcaskie Estate] would give me venison or offal from a deer that they have recently culled. The next day it could be grey squirrel or pigeon we would serve.
The ‘field to fork’ ethos is everything. We have a constant dialogue with our local butcher, Sophie Cumber at Bowhouse Butchery, who lets us know exactly what is in season, and she also hangs and finishes the meat to an exceptional level. The meat comes from the local Balcaskie Farms, so we know exactly where and who has farmed them.
To know that their meat is Pasture for Life Certified is brilliant. The most important thing for us is that we know we are using meat that is ethical and sustainably reared, meat that the farmers are proud to give you. You can tell in the flavour you get from these types of meat, the flavour is hugely noticeable; the better the animal is raised, the better meat you’ll get.
It’s the same at the East Neuk Market Garden, where Tom and Connie grow seasonal fruit and veg we use on the menu. Using seasonal ingredients is exciting, it changes the menu and you are forced to be experimental, it furthers us as chefs. The menu can even change between lunch and dinner, but normally a few weeks at most. This gives us the flexibility to work with suppliers, and always have the capability to put something on the menu when it’s at its seasonal best.
The diversity of produce here in the East Neuk has made it the ideal place for us to open the Inn, and I’ve been pleased that it's attracted people from other parts of Scotland and the rest of the UK. It’s a rather beautiful area with a superb coastline and countryside that is becoming an increasingly popular part of Scotland.
What are you going to be cooking for us today?
Today, I am going to grill two large ribeye steaks that you’ve brought us from the Pasture for Life Certified farmer, Johnnie Balfour down the road at Balbirnie Farms in Fife. As I’ve said before, we use our local Balcaskie Farms’ Pasture for Life meat as well, so it’s really nice to have lots of local well-raised meat here in Fife.
Alongside the steaks, I am going to serve it with triple cooked chips, chargrilled local purple sprouting broccoli, kale, and bone marrow to make it that extra special! For pudding, there is a choice of the Seville orange marmalade treacle tart, using my homemade marmalade, and being from Yorkshire, I’m also going to serve my Yorkshire Parkin made with local oats, butterscotch sauce, and vanilla ice cream, as well!