My West London Life

Amy Nairn, Personal Chef

January
5

Personal Chef Amy Nairn on her favourite restaurants, high-profile clients, & cooking to impress!

Where do you live and why?

Having grown up between Islington and Scotland, I’ve lived in Parson’s Green most of my adult life. I love village atmosphere, the mix of ‘country’ pubs, young families, and its proximity to the King’s Road.

How did you get into cooking, is it something you’ve always been passionate about?

As far back as I can remember I’ve shared my late mother’s passion for cooking and creativity. I spent my childhood watching her in the kitchen and begging her to let me help chop & stir things at every opportunity. My mum loved to cook and entertain, as well as make delicious food and canapes for charity events she hosted.

What might you have done if you hadn’t trained as a chef?

I’ve always had a passion for creativity and detail, but interior design was my other love. I temporarily put cooking on hold to train at the Inchbald School of Interior Design. I went on to work for Rene Dekker Design for a couple of years, followed by Helen Green Design and then Colefax & Fowler.

I trained as a chef when I left school at 18, instead of going to university. An opportunity came up to study at Leith’s, which led me to cook for a catering company, so I threw myself into it!

Tell us about where your career has taken you; any particularly interesting characters, glamourous locations, or exciting assignments?

I decided to focus on being a personal chef, rather than go down the restaurant route. My first Big Job was when I was around 20, working at the House of Commons, serving canapes I’d made in advance. This led me to meet a lot of um, ‘colourful’ characters. One notable chap saw fit to ash his cigar at me when asked if he’d mind extinguishing it. It was a non-smoking venue and I’d been tasked with communicating this to an assembly of extremely well-oiled gentlemen.

I also had a client who held frequent Masonic black-tie dinners, for which I would design a six-course food and wine pairing menu, buy the produce, and cook and serve on-site.

I wasn’t allowed to enter the dining room to clear or serve the next course until I heard a bell, meaning their discussions were paused. Naturally, I used to press my ear up against the door and see what I could pick up, which of course was nothing, other than the occasional muffled clattering of swords and a very unfamiliar dialogue! In the end, my hard work and effort was usually rewarded with a glass of vintage Krug and a Cuban cigar at the end of the night.

I regularly worked for a very high-profile family in St Johns Wood where I would spend three days a week sourcing their produce and pre-preparing and cooking dinners for them and their guests. Although they were lovely to work for, they were incredibly private and wanted me in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible! This suited me just fine.

I grew up in the Highlands in Scotland, so had connections with local estate owners who held shooting lodge weekends. I still own a house there so would often travel up to Scotland when I could, and spend long 18-hour days preparing breakfasts, lunches and dinners for large groups, from shooting lodges to family dinner parties. This was fun but also long hours spent on my feet and very little sleep!

Where’s the most prestigious or exciting place you’ve had the honour to cook?

Over the years I’ve had the honour and excitement of working at some of the most incredible private homes; from castles and vast estates to London mansions and secret locations I would only be given a few hours in advance (which made things exciting, if nerve-wracking).

Have you ever had any disastrous jobs? Can you tell us about the worst?

One comes to mind! I had a last-minute one-off job for a high-profile client whom I hadn’t met before. They wanted me to source produce and prepare the dishes in advance for a dinner party in her London mansion, while she and her husband were out for the day.

After she approved the menu, she had a courier deliver the house keys to me (this is not a normal situation!). She then called to explain that the house was alarmed and I must enter a code.

You can probably see where this is going… after a full day of running around sourcing and buying food to prepare and cook, I arrived at the house, and lo and behold the code I had didn’t work. I remember desperately texting and calling the client with the alarm blaring in the background. But as she was in meetings she didn’t answer, the police turned up, and I ended up being held in a police car and questioned!

Of course, this all happened in front of multiple bystanders, making it all the more mortifying.

Suffice to say, the dinner party did not go ahead. By the time the police left and we managed to turn the alarm off, it was far too late to start cooking – naturally, I never heard from the client again!

We hear you’re compiling a recipe book – can you tell us more about what gave rise to this, and the ideas behind it?

Since I started cooking, I’ve been writing recipes and shoving them into multiple Black and Red notebooks. I realised a concept I return to time and again is how to impress without stress! I’m compiling a shortlist of recipes for absolute showstoppers, which are deceptively simple to prepare, and failsafe for even the amateur home cook. Incidentally, Impress without Stress is its working title!

The book is aimed at people who want to feel capable and confident in the kitchen, whilst delivering an impressive outcome every time! From dinner parties to date nights, to canapes, to lunchtime family favourites, I’m planning to include a chapter for each eventuality, or scenario you could find yourself in.

What are your all-time favourite dishes to cook at home?

Dishes that both my daughter & fiancé are the biggest fans of are;

  1. Spaghetti with fresh roast vine tomatoes, chilli and garlic confit sauce, sprinkled with homemade pesto
  2. Peppered pork tenderloin with black grape & tarragon cream sauce, with a side of griddled courgette & chimichurri sauce
  3. Chorizo, seafood & saffron risotto
  4. Crispy, tender & spicy salmon fillets with sauteed garlic green beans
  5. Creamy gnocchi with smoked trout, grated courgette, garlic & dill
  6. Steak with chimichurri, roast vine tomatoes and garlic confit

It’s early days dating, and you really want to impress – what do you cook?

Depending on the season, I would go with something that looks harder to cook than it is, so you can play around, adding attention to detail on your presentation with, for example, a starter of either:

  1. Crispy octopus with asparagus & broad bean puree
  2. Smoked salmon bombe, filled with salmon mousse, avocado & mascarpone cheese, with a shallot, crème fraiche & white wine sauce & asparagus to garnish
  3. Fresh Cornish crab on a bed of avocado, with pomegranate and chilli puree served with melba toast

Followed by a main course of either:

  1. Steak with chimichurri, roast vine tomatoes and garlic confit
  2. Grilled Lamb rump & roasted vine tomatoes with white onion puree & griddled green beans
  3. Seared duck breast with celeriac puree & pomegranate molasses.
  4. Seared sesame-crusted Ahi or Yellowfin tuna, with a chilli and lemon grass sauce, with a side of mashed sweet potatoes with ginger, and Asian cucumber salad

For desert, I’d go to my failsafe Moelleux Chocolate, topped with fresh whipped cream, sliced strawberries and toasted hazelnuts.

What’s your all-time favourite restaurant? And pub?

A difficult choice, but I have to say my all-time favourite restaurant is the one and only Langan’s! Not only for the exquisite menu and faultless food but the fun yet elegant atmosphere, impeccable service and an excuse to end the evening with a cocktail at the members’ club upstairs!

Pub-wise, I would have to say The Flying Stag bar in the Fife Arms Hotel near my home in Scotland, as it is too special to not be! Then in London, I would have to go with The Cross Keys in Chelsea, or Brook House, in Fulham.

Where did you train, and what can you tell us about this time?

I trained as a chef at Leith’s School of Food and Wine. It was an amazing place to learn. Everything from how to manage time, wine pairing, how to peel & finely chop an onion in under 15 seconds, to plucking and gutting pheasants, to cooking and serving a timed three-course meal on the clock before judges and plating up under pressure. There was no room for error, so I learnt quickly. To this day it’s served me well with discipline, time management, and the confidence to deliver.

There was definitely a mix amongst my peers, some were there because their parents had shoved them in, in the hope it would serve them well for general life, some because they thought it would be a fun hobby, and some, like myself, who genuinely wanted a career in the food industry.

Which chefs/cuisine do you most admire?

I am a huge fan of modern European cuisine as well as traditional. The chefs that come to mind are Tom Aikens, Pierre Koffman, the Roux Brothers and Jason Atherton.

Where is your favourite place in the world, and why?

I feel most serene at my home in the Scottish Highlands. I feel my shoulders drop the moment I step out of the car, smell the air, and open the front door to a roaring wood fire. Followed up promptly with a good book, good tunes in the background, and an exquisite bottle of wine!

You can find out more about Amy and her recipes via her Instagram

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