We had the absolute pleasure and privilege to sit down with Graham Campbell, the youngest chef to receive a Michelin Star in Scotland at 25! A highly renowned, international chef, his cooking style and technique is innovative, combining traditional British ingredients with a modern Scottish twist.
Taking to the world of television and online streaming networks, in 2015, Campbell appeared on BBC2’s Great British Menu and has since taken part in the popular Netflix cooking show The Final Table in 2018. We dive headfirst into an array of fascinating & engaging topics, spanning his passion for cooking, his insights on the current position of the hospitality sector, the importance of caring for your wines once opened and, of course, his experience and take-home moments as a contestant on The Final Table.
Where did your love and passion for food come from?
GC: Strangely enough, I get a real buzz from prepping the food and seeing people enjoy what I have created. When I was younger, my family and I’s opinions on food differed dramatically. They preferred very simple food and I loved being more elaborate and creative.
I’ve been a chef since I was 15 years old, but I didn’t really get into fine dining until I was 22 and from there, my career spiraled and took off.
Did your interest in wine evolve naturally with your involvement with food or was it something you developed separately?
GC: It developed totally separately. When I was younger, my drink was whisky. I then really started to take an interest in wine and now it is my favorite drink. I think the more mature you get, the more you drink. That is what I tell myself anyway. Interestingly, I don’t even drink much whisky any more. If I do drink whisky at all, it is a single malt. Going back to wine though, it has been and is still a real growing passion of mine.
What is your favorite wine?
GC: I am actually very easy-going when it comes to my own personal choice(s). Wine is so vast and I do enjoy trying something new; some Mexican orCalifornian wines are a good shout in my books. I am really into my Rosé wines at the moment, they are incredibly refreshing after a long day at work! I also enjoy a heavy, deep red, from time to time. I will admit, I am not the biggest fan of white wine, red in my opinion is generally nicer! As for price points, don’t be fooled. Just because something is expensive doesn’t automatically mean it’s good or the absolute best. One of my current favorites is a $10 to $12 range bottle from Walmart. You don’t have to splash out an obscene amount of cash to experience greatness, people want to have nice things and they want to feel special; the same principle applies to wine. You can totally rejoice in the taste(s) of premium, without the premium price tag.
Switching from you.. to the industry and your venues. What are some core concepts you would advise to people who wish to open their own restaurant?
GC: So many chefs are fixated on what they wish to put on the menu, and they miss the whole point; it’s about what the customer wants to eat at the end of the day. It’s a simple formula really. If you give your customers what they want, the restaurant, in turn, will get busier, profit margins and revenue will start to increase, and everyone’s a winner.
We, as chefs, are always caught in the middle trying to please everybody. And the same could be said for entrepreneurs or those looking to open a business. We have to consider how to produce something that is different, something of value, we need to combat the customer’s argument of ‘well, I could make this at home for cheaper’…invest in making it a good customer experience first, food, drink, service and general atmosphere, and the rest will follow.
What about the general hospitality industry, do you think restaurant customers’ spending habits have changed?
GC: Absolutely. Covid destroyed much of the hospitality industry and the negative media coverage certainly didn’t help our case. Emerging back on to the dining scene, I notice more and more that people are much more perceptive of what they eat and how much they spend; consumers are very mindful of where their pocket money goes and are now looking for value for money. That doesn’t mean cheap or expensive, it means whatever you put in front of them, needs to be worth it.
Restaurants, food, drinks, and all things dining-related now need to be an experience, interesting, even fun! Customer spending is geared towards the ‘premium experience.’ There needs to be a great atmosphere and music; it needs to be lively and sociable. I feel people are now paying for an experience/atmosphere they cannot recreate in their homes.
Will these new attitudes and habits be reflected on your menu and wine list options?
GC: One hundred percent! How I approach my menu and my business ventures has entirely transformed. I used to exhaust so much time and energy on establishing myself [and my business] as a ‘fine dining’ restaurant with a small menu focused on specialized dishes and plates, but customer attitudes and behaviors have drastically changed! As I mentioned earlier, it’s now all about the experience for the customer. I get more of a buzz preparing and cooking food and I really want that same lively energy to come through on my menu and wine list. If it is an experience they want, it is an experience I am focused on delivering.
Are you involved in selecting wines in your restaurant(s)?
GC: Wine is very complex and it’s something I have really only gotten into seriously in the last five or six years, so I am quite new to it in the grand scheme of things. What I will say is wine and food tasting are two completely different worlds! Where I can taste my food, advise if it needs salt, or explain my choice of ingredients, wine is so contrastingly different; you use different taste buds, and each wine has its own unique profile. For now, the food side of hospitality is definitely more ‘me’ and I choose to work with sommeliers as they are trained in the art of wine selection. But, it is definitely something I look forward to getting more involved with as some of my current (and future) projects roll out. I do this as I appreciate the importance of a great wine list for success so I want to make sure experts can help me deliver that great experience.
What are some of the biggest challenges you believe the hospitality industry is facing at the moment?
GC: Getting everybody to come back out and feel comfortable. The majority of customers are still hesitant and nervous to leave the house, let alone return to a public space. Hospitality provides the opportunity to socialize – that’s what it’s all about. Sadly, the pandemic destroyed some of that allure and excitement, and we, in the hospitality industry, are left in its wake trying to pick up the pieces as we restart our engines.
A personal objection, might I add, is the rising usage of QR codes. I can’t stand them. When you have to start scrolling and making your selection(s) via a screen, you don’t get the whole experience as you would with a hardback menu. It’s little changes and adaptations such as these that make for a covid-friendly experience but, at the same time, can act as a deterrent for those who crave as much familiarity as they can get.
Do you think having a good wine list will aid the (returning) experience?
GC: Not necessarily a good wine list, but a wine list that offers a wide variation that people can try and sample. That’s why I love a Bermar [preservation] system. I initially came across them when I managed my first restaurant in Texas. It allowed us to offer every single bottle of wine by the glass. When I next opened a restaurant in Dundee, another [Bermar] system followed suit! The true beauty of it is that both the restaurant and its customers are given better and much more varied options to choose from.
You cannot expect every diner to go out and wilfully spend $100-200 on a bottle of wine they might have never tasted. They will, however, spend 20 bucks on a glass for the chance to try something new and, in some cases, more premium! And that’s the bottom line; people are money conscious as we emerge from lockdown and that’s why these machines work. People want to enjoy and indulge in a nice glass of wine. They want to have the more expensive wine or Champagne, but they don’t want to buy the whole bottle. Even with a tasting menu, for example, customers are given more choice, opening the door for them to try something different. So having a good wine list, available by the glass is the secret ingredient to bringing customers back out again and I am not just saying that as I am talking to you [Bermar].
How should the general public begin to think about matching food and wine if they are scared of wine as a category?
GC: The main thing is to just enjoy it! So many people are hesitant when it comes to trying something new…don’t be afraid to expand your horizons! The best way to warm up to food and wine pairings is via a tasting menu; even if you are a little timid or doubtful, following the guided suggestions of a restaurant’s tasting menu is a surefire way to get inspiration. Also, I think it’s quite easy for people to forget tastes are incredibly subjective. Just because the table next to you has turned down a bottle or a glass of wine does not automatically mean you should turn your nose to it as well. Just because it is something you have never tried before or never considered putting together…trust the pros and live outside your box a little!
What was your favorite moment on The Final Table?
GC: Honestly? The whole experience. It was my first time visiting the United States and I truly never imagined getting as far in the competition as I did. I never even envisioned myself as a contestant on the show; my participation in the series was just awesome. As to be expected, there were so many events and moments they didn’t air. In episode three, for example, I actually wanted to leave the show. I clearly stayed – and was glad I did – but for a show that required nearly 17+ hours of filming every day, so much of the footage remains unseen! Despite some of the stress and the tension, I will say that I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. I would probably still be in the UK, unaware of the vast wonders of the cooking world. Now, I have been all over the globe…it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity & accomplishment.
How did you get selected to be on the show?
GC: I was actually scouted on Instagram. Back then, I only had a small audience of 500 followers. Old School TV was the production company and they contacted me at two in the morning. It actually went into my spam folder…good thing I regularly check that! We made the show and it was sold to Netflix. There actually was no guarantee the show would even be shown so I am incredibly grateful for the take-off it had. The filming took place in Sony Studios and at the time, we were in the same studio lot that they filmed Spiderman in, so it really was the best experience! But through the means of Instagram and me just taking a chance on it all…the experience, as I said earlier, was so worth it.
If given the opportunity, would you do it all again?
GC: I get this question a lot and the truth is, I would do it again but as a judge. People always ask me if I would ever consider competing in shows like Master Chef, Iron Chef, or Top Chef…I can’t! Having been on the biggest culinary TV show in the world and competing against the top Michelin star chefs – you can’t really top that, can you?
Anything we should be looking out for in the future?
GC: There’s always something going on in the background! Coming out of Covid, I really am ready to cook some good food and enjoy myself again. There is nothing in the pipeline for TV work, however, I am opening another restaurant in Milwaukee which is starting to pick up the pace again. I am also working closely with another company about to set up their pizza truck; it will stand as a coffee shop in the morning and serve pizzas to-go at night.
To be honest, I won’t ever spread myself too thin; rather than say ‘yes’ to everything, I will only put my name to businesses and products that I truly believe in and support.