Alex Henderson is the new Resort Head Chef at The Torridon, where he oversees the running of fine-dining restaurant 1887 as well as the Bo & Muc brasserie. It is very much a “coming home” for him and represents the next step in his career. A career which was started, as with many chefs, by his mum. Dave MacKay reports.
Born and raised in Inverness, Alex wasn’t a lover of school and originally thought of joining the army, but the turning point came when his mum – who was a housekeeper at the Waterside Hotel in Inverness – found out that the kitchen was short of a porter.
“When I was 14 years old my mother rang me one night and said, ‘You’re coming to work’. So, I went in and I stayed there for three years. Within four or five months, I decided I loved the kitchen and the atmosphere,” said Alex.
When the time came to do work experience through school going into the kitchen was his first choice.
“They loved my enthusiasm. I was always interested in asking multiple questions about the food. There were so many ingredients and things I’d never seen before. I fell in love with the kitchen.”
It was quite a change for the young man who realised that he enjoyed himself too much to join the army and that the kitchen lifestyle was just the sort of focus he needed.
“It got me away from the usual playing football on weekdays and getting drunk at the weekend. When I was in school, I sort of left when I shouldn’t have and I started working. Yeah, the school got in touch with my parents and my work and said, ‘We need to have a chat’. They’d heard I’d been working and was not ill. So, we came to an agreement that I was never really going to do my exams, so I went to school three days a week and worked two days a week.”
Although his mum started him on the path towards the kitchen and his grandmother was a big influence, too, it was a change of head chef at the hotel that was the catalyst for his cooking career.
“I worked one day with the new head chef in the kitchen and she had no idea that I was a kitchen porter (KP). She came in the following week, and I was ready to start washing the dishes when she said, ‘What are you doing? Get prepping the carrots. You’re not a KP anymore. I like what I’ve seen’.”
His career took him all over the UK working in leading hotels and restaurants, including Newcastle’s Michelin-starred House of Tides, Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck, in Bray and Alain Roux’s The Waterside Inn, also in Bray, in Berkshire
“It was very different. Working at The Fat Duck I knew what I was going into every day. I would peel 50 turnips. I would slice 10 kilos of carrots and then I would scale six salmon. It just got a bit repetitive because they never changed the menu. So that’s what made me decide to go to The Waterside instead. They have a massive menu where you’re always going to see different things,” explained Alex.
Having worked with many elite chefs, Alex says his biggest inspiration is Kenny Atkinson.
“He’s the nicest guy and no one else has done more for me over the years. He’s been really supportive and it’s the only restaurant where I’ve been able to basically do what I’ve wanted.
There were no restrictions and 90 per cent of the stuff wouldn’t go on the menu but I was always developing and progressing.”
Now Resort Head Chef at The Torridon, Alex has big ambitions. “We have our sights set on a Michelin Green Star, which recognises restaurants at the forefront when it comes to sustainability. We’ve got a rocket food waste composter and all our bread, eggshells, coffee grounds, veg peelings, all those sort of things, get turned into compost which we use for the garden.”
The Torridon also rears pigs and Highland Cattle which are used on the menu, too. Working with the butchers, sometimes the meat arrives back as a whole carcass so the younger members of the kitchen team can learn the art of butchery.
Another massive plus is the two-acre Kitchen Garden, which Alex visits each day working with the gardener on what’s ready to be used on the menus.
“I try to develop my menus with what comes from the garden, but it doesn’t always work out like that. We had celeriac that was too small, so we had to figure out other ways to utilise the produce. Sometimes we’ll have a load of one thing and sometimes there’ll be just a couple. It can be quite difficult to plan ahead with what we’re going to be using.”
While Alex uses The Torridon’s own larder as a vital source of his ingredients, he also loves working with new suppliers and unearthing the best ingredients he can find.
“I love the seafood up here and I work with a supplier that provides me with hand-dived scallops from Skye,” said Alex.
A big plus for working at The Torridon is that there is not only a focus on sustainability when it comes to food, but the sustainability of staff, too.
Alex said: “I only work five days a week. This is the first place I’ve ever worked which is so strict with the staff only working a certain amount of hours. I’ve been in more hours than most but I’m always getting hauled into the office and being told to get my hours down.
“I’ve got two young kids and when I’m on my days off, I take them and the dog for a walk. My daughter’s obsessed with foraging and loves picking wild garlic!”
If, by any chance, there is any spare time after kids, his dog, and being a die-hard Glasgow Rangers fan, Alex loves dining out. Having worked and eaten in some of the UK’s best restaurants, if he could have any dish by any other chef on his menu what would it be?
“Snail Porridge at The Fat Duck,” Alex said without a moment’s hesitation, but the best restaurant experience he’s ever had was at Mark Birchall’s two Michelin-starred and one Green Michelin-starred Moor Hall in Aughton, Lancashire.
“It was a leaving present from Kenny Atkinson. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like it. It feels like you’re going to a hotel, but it was just a nice relaxed restaurant. We got to see the garden. We got to have a dish in the kitchen and I also got chatting to Mark. It was amazing, nothing was over-complicated.”
For more information about The Torridon, visit thetorridon.com