CHEF UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
We meet Mark Alston, Executive Chef on The Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh.
As Executive Chef on The Royal Yacht Britannia, Her Majesty The Queen’s former floating palace, Mark Alston is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of Scotland's most talented chefs. Training at the Mandarin Oriental in London and latterly at Dalmahoy, he joined Britannia in 2008 as Executive Sous Chef. Quiet and unassuming with a hands-on approach to cooking, Mark describes himself as ambitious, and dedicated to producing unfaltering perfection in this most iconic of five-star luxury venues.
What made you decide to become a chef? Originally I studied Hospitality Management at Napier University in Edinburgh but whilst working at Dalmahoy I discovered my love for cooking. Although I completed my degree, I knew from my first day in the kitchen I wanted to be a chef. From Dalmahoy, you spent two years at the five-star Mandarin Oriental hotel in Kensington, London, how would you describe your time there? The Mandarin Oriental London is arguably one of the best hotels in the world. I revelled in the experience, it was a baptism of fire - you sank or swam! What is your favourite food memory? One of my fondest food memories is eating Italian ice-cream with my father in Largs on the west coast of Scotland. Another is eating raw langoustines, straight from the shell, after they’d been freshly plucked from Galway Bay. And foraging for chanterelles in the woods of Perthshire and cooking them there on a small camping stove. What's been the highlight of your career so far? Taking on the Executive Chef's position at The Royal Yacht Britannia after working here for four years. It's a dream job. An exciting project that’s in the pipeline is Britannia’s sister ship, Fingal, Scotland’s first floating hotel, opening late 2018. We’ve just finished designing the custom-built galleys on board which will service the 80-seat ballroom. And now we’re working on creating the various bespoke menus for the restaurant.
How would you describe your food?
Classic British cuisine with a light touch, using Scottish ingredients whenever possible. Whether I'm cooking with Scottish beef, fish or shellfish, I like to keep things simple. If you have fantastic ingredients to work with, you'll never go wrong if you let the food and flavours do the talking. Presentation is important too, and on Britannia, standards are as high today as when the ship was in Royal service.
How do you hone your skills?
It’s an ongoing process. I keep my knife skills sharp by routinely doing butchery and fishmongery.
What do you think is so special about Britannia?
The ship, which this year celebrated 65 years since being launched in Clydebank, is so steeped in history that it’s hard not to feel the magic. Savouring a candlelit dinner in the State Dining Room, where Her Majesty The Queen once entertained kings, queens and heads of state, is a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience for our guests. It's also an honour cooking in the ship’s original Royal Galleys, although challenging at times. The galleys are relatively small with low ceilings and portholes for windows!
What are your favourite Scottish ingredients?
I love Scottish lamb, venison from the Highlands and beef from Orkney. Quality is top priority, closely followed by provenance. Scotland has some of the best produce the world has to offer, and we work closely with local suppliers to source the finest-quality seasonal ingredients.
If you could cook a meal for anyone, who would it be and what would you cook?
It would be a pleasure to design a menu for The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan. It might include delicate canapés finished with edible gold leaf, delicious Scottish scallops and fillet of Orcadian beef. Back in 2011, The Royal Yacht Britannia hosted a pre-wedding cocktail party for Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall which was attended by Prince Harry, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Anne, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie. We made an exquisite selection of canapés for them to enjoy whilst sipping champagne and mingling on the Verandah Deck at sunset. It was a beautiful evening.
Who has influenced you and your cooking?
I have my own style which is influenced by the people and places around me, but when working on board Britannia the ambience of the yacht is an additional influence. We take pride in the dishes we create for our exclusive events and always exceed the expectations of our guests by treating them like Royalty, with the finest of food and wines.