Laura and Scott Smith first opened the doors of Fhior in June of 2018. With a focus on the local, and the strictly seasonal, they offer vibrant, honest food, with wines to match. Fhior has quickly become a talked-about restaurant, a part of the lively and eclectic Edinburgh scene. The food reflects and translates the seasons and the weather of the day, an expression of Scottish terroir on a plate.
Locavore caught up with head chef Scott, who spoke of beremeal, the importance of people in sustainability, and the joys of challenging days in the kitchen.
What were you doing prior to opening Fhior?
My wife Laura and I had a restaurant before this, called Norn. It was based in Edinburgh as well, down in the Leith area. We were there for two years, and it did very well, we were very successful. We had great reviews, were in the Sunday Times Top 100 in our first year, and we worked very hard to build this reputation. But we wanted to focus more on the creative and development side rather than the business side. It was a bit of a messy break up from Norn – we essentially walked away. We started all over again, and Fhior is the result of that.
We were very fortunate in that all the staff came with us. I sent everyone a very clear message that I would respect them 100% if they decided to stay at Norn. We said “if you want to come we’ll be at the new site on Tuesday morning”, and on Tuesday morning every member of staff was there. It was quite humbling to see that they’d all decided to come with me and Laura, to follow the passion of what we do rather than just the pay packet at the end of the month.
Where does the name Fhior come from?
Fhior is an adaptation of a Gaelic word, which means ‘true’ or ‘honest’. Traditionally it’s not got the ‘h’ in there, but if you take the ‘h’ away it could be confused with fior di latte, which is an Italian cheese and not really what we’re all about. So we adapted the word. We knew what we wanted the name to mean, and we wanted it to have a nod to Scottish and Celtic heritage. It’s an amalgamation of all those things. It’s a representation of what we wanted this place to be; owned by us, with no investors, no outside influence. We can be true to our staff, our customers, and the produce.
You recently won the Open Right Award at the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Food Made Good Awards which recognises new openings with sustainability built-in. How is sustainability part of what you do?
Well, we do get nominated for awards – which is lovely – and we always travel to them and always walk away disappointed. So this time we thought “we’re not spending money to get down to London just to get disappointed again”. But we won! And we weren’t there…
In terms of sustainability, it’s always been about the product, being hyper-seasonal, and working with local producers. It’s nothing new in restaurants, but we opened with it very solidly built-in. You want to open a restaurant that’s as sustainable as possible, because in my head that’s the only way to operate a business sensibly. Sustainability is so important.
You get chefs and restaurateurs pointing their fingers at supermarkets and saying how bad they all are, but if you look at the hundreds of thousands of restaurants we have up and down the UK, they’re just as bad in some ways. Although we’re smaller than the big companies, if we’re not all behaving in a sustainable and ethical way then the cumulative effect can be huge.
So with us, water use and energy use are restricted. We have reusable tubs instead of clingfilm. All the food waste we ferment or preserve – vegetable peelings we’ll dry and make a salt from, using it to enhance the flavour of the vegetable itself. And on top of physical sustainability, and animal welfare, there’s staff welfare. We put a lot of time and energy into that. We’re a serious restaurant that does high-end food, high-end wine, but at the same time our staff rarely work more than 45 hours a week. They have a work/life balance. They all get three consecutive days off a week, and so although they work hard when they’re here, they also have time to enjoy their lives. And this is part of sustainability. If you don’t have happy staff, they maybe won’t follow your green policies. And you’ll have a high staff turnover, which costs money, which isn’t sustainable. When I was doing my training, you’d brag about how many hours you did, and when you look back on it, it’s completely stupid because you’re working for free! It’s one of the few industries that hasn’t stood up and gone “hang on a minute, what’s going on?” And I think there’ll be a backlash against places that think it’s OK to exploit people. If they had to pay everyone a proper wage maybe some of those restaurants wouldn’t exist.
Why are you so strict on seasonality?
Creatively it’s fun, because you have to be reactive rather than proactive. You can have ideas for dishes in your mind but, for example, the weather can change very quickly and the produce available might change accordingly. So you have to work with what there is, not necessarily what you want. It restricts us which forces us to be creative. It’s a fun aspect which I really enjoy.
I want to know where my produce is from and be able to communicate that to the customer. It gives a bit of a story to the food, but it also creates a trust. That we know what we’re doing, we know what we’re selling you, we know the face of the person who’s grown this vegetable. We work very closely with our suppliers, so you get consistency and you get honesty. A producer might phone me and say “sorry the worms have got it today” or “the birds have eaten it”. Which is fine, it’s nice to work that way. We don’t have a set menu so we can react very quickly, and customers understand that, I think. We’re supporting local business, as well. It’s peace of mind.
How would you describe your food?
Modern Scottish is probably the closest, if you have to give it a label. For me the food has to have an identity, and a clarity of taste. I hate the term ingredient-led because all food is ingredient-led, but we’re more reactive than most to the ingredients. I want people in the restaurant to know they’re in Fhior. I mean, they know they’re here because they’ve walked through the door, but I want them to look at the plate, not their surroundings, and know they’re in Fhior. To eat the food and know what the weather’s like outside, to know what season it is.
You make everything in house, including bread made with bere, a heritage barley. These ‘ancient grains’ seem to be gaining in popularity, with produce like Orkney Malt Vinegar. Why do you use this grain? And to what do you attribute the growing use of grains such as this?
We use it for our sourdough bread. I think bread’s very important in a restaurant. You shouldn’t charge for it, it’s part of a staple of the meal, and it has got to be right. It’s an offering, a welcome to our house, so it can’t be terrible, it has to be “wow”. Then the customer knows that they’re somewhere that cares.
Using the bere is difficult, as it’s very low in gluten, and it’s a very slow process. We get most of the flavour from the the bere by making a starter with it. We have a 100% beremeal starter, which is about five years old now and has a really good flavour. We use some malted bere grain through the dough, as well. A loaf is probably about 30% bere; any more than that and it probably wouldn’t hold up. It’s a slow prove of 72 hours in the fridge, to develop the flavour and not let it come to fruition too quickly.
We decided to use it as it’s part of our heritage. I found it through a lot of research, but didn’t set out to find an ‘ancient grain’. I wanted a grain unique to Scotland. With most modern grains, we’ve spent so much time manipulating them to make them high-yield and low-flavour and low in nutrients. Now I think some people would rather spend a little more and have more flavour and more nutrients than in the tasteless flour you tend to get in the supermarkets. It’s not necessarily due to it being an ‘ancient grain’. The veil over food has been lifted a bit, the public’s awareness has grown.
You say you want to do serious food and serious wine, but you don’t want the place to be serious. What do you mean by this?
A lot of high-end places feel very high-end. You don’t feel you can talk at a normal volume, you have to whisper. There’s always some soft jazz or similar. We want Fhior to be about the food, the wine, and the company you’re with. It’s not about us. We wanted to put hospitality back into things. To be hospitable, but not to rush over every five minutes to top up your wine and talk about how great we are. I think that style of service is outdated. I mean, there is a place for it, but less and less.
We’ve tried to create somewhere that we’d want to go. Somewhere to enjoy the food, enjoy the company, and just feel comfortable and not be scared to talk at a normal level or terrified of breaking a glass or something. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have serious food and wine, but it needs to be accessible, without all the faff. And by not having to pay a waiter to top up your wine, we can bring the prices down which makes it even more accessible. At the same time, we still take care of the details, those things you might not notice, for a seamless experience. Just without interrupting you every two minutes.
The Scottish food scene has been championed across the globe in recent years. What is it about Scotland that brings out innovation and excellence in food?
Scotland has always had a good reputation for its produce. I think the growth of the dining scene is driving itself, to some extent. You have a lot of fantastic Scottish chefs, but traditionally they’d go abroad to do their training, and then probably find jobs where they’d stay abroad or stay down in London. So Scotland didn’t have a chance to have that space for innovation. But because the dining scene’s grown, and there’s a demand for it in Scotland now, and the produce is here, it all ties in together. It makes sense that chefs are now starting to set up shop in Scotland, and a lot of these people are young, creative, helping to grow the amazing food scene we have here. Thankfully that’s getting recognised across the world.
The Scottish government has had a big push recently to eat locally, to eat more Scottish produce. They’ve been trying to reduce exports, which, although important for our economy, can stop people from Scotland eating their own produce because it drives prices up so much. That’s made it, financially, easier to set up restaurants here as prices have come down a bit.
A lot of Scottish chefs, like me, we’re very proud of our produce and our food, and we’ve done this quietly for a number of years but now we’re starting to shout about it more, and a bit louder. I think the media is starting to take more notice of it. In the past five to eight years there’s been a huge push with the Nordic food scene, made big by Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson and all the fantastic restaurants over there. When you compare the climate, the produce, all those things tie very well into Scotland, and a lot of Scottish chefs have taken inspiration from that. Because this has become quite zeitgeist-y, very stylish, it’s become more prominent in the media. Historically, there have been many restaurants here who have done fantastic food, using Scottish produce, but cooking in a very French way. Heavy sauces, very classical cooking. Which is delicious and lovely and there’s a place for it, but when the Nordic thing happened it was an inspiration to a lot of Scottish chefs to be a bit more pure with the produce.
What are your plans for 2019?
Really just to build on and strengthen what we’ve already started. We’ve got a one-year plan, to get the business to a point where Laura and I can potentially focus on a few other projects in late 2019. We’ve got a few ideas, but until we get Fhior strong and sustaining itself, we’ll be here every day.
How do you think the coming political changes in the UK will affect the food industry, and your business?
They already have. The change in exchange rate – so the price of wine – has really dented a lot of businesses. You either put your prices up and people complain, or you take the hit. That’s affected us quite badly. I’ve no idea what might happen when Brexit takes effect. Ease of travel for tourism might be a big thing. Edinburgh really relies on Christmas, on Hogmanay. That’s when Edinburgh explodes and when businesses thrive, and we need that to continue, to cushion the quieter months of the year. If it costs people more money to come here, are they still going to come?
Sustainability seems to be key for many food businesses these days. Do you think there has been meaningful change?
I think there definitely has been meaningful change, and I think there have been a lot of incentives to make that happen. If I’m honest, I don’t think there’s any restaurant that doesn’t want to be sustainable. Things like food waste cost the businesses money. Until recently I think the knowledge was lacking, to a degree, but now there are things we can do, whether it’s bio-digestion or composting or food banks. I think people would have done that before, had there been more knowledge. It’s the same with energy and water consumption – no business wants to be pissing away money on these things. It’s good business sense, it’s ethical, it’s the way business needs to be in the future. Is it a genuine change or is it greenwash? I think the ones that aren’t making a genuine change won’t last, they won’t be here in ten years.
When it comes to food, it’s still cheaper to buy frozen beef from Botswana than to buy good Scotch beef from a farm 30 miles away, and I still don’t understand the logistics of that. If I’m honest with myself, I should probably look into it to understand it more, but we already use only local, and we charge accordingly for the produce we get. I do think that now customers care more about where produce is from, and not just food.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
I love working with food. I love working with people, I love hospitality, I love seeing customers enjoy our creations. And to be creative, to be challenged. I don’t really know anything else, it’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always wanted to do something in the arts, though I know food isn’t 100% in the arts. And running a business really isn’t – but I enjoy that challenge, too, juggling the daily stresses and everything that comes up. It’s exciting. It makes me get out of bed. If I ever wake up and I don’t want to go into work, I’d probably close the restaurant. It’s a job you have to love. We’re not a high-volume, high-profit place, so you have to love it to want to do it.
Sign up to Locavore’s Newsletter here.
To subscribe to Locavore, or buy single issues, visit our shop.