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Issue 10 - A touch of theatre

Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003


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A touch of theatre


Hold on to your haggis, but Juliet Lawrence Wilson, owner of the Stockbridge Restaurant, is aiming to put some glamour into Scottish gastronomy.

Originally from Stirling but raised in Edinburgh, Juliet is the first to admit that popular Scottish food does not enjoy the best of reputations, but that its classic cuisine deservedly does. Those who enjoy food will delight in her home-cured salmon, game terrine with onion marmalade, venison en croûte and “posh fish and chips with a summer pea salad”.

While Nigella exults in her Domestic Goddess role south of the border, Juliet’s role model is the late, great Fanny Cradock, the Barbara Cartland of cookery. Tellingly, her other inspiration is Keith Floyd.

It is certainly obvious from the cover of her recent cookbook, Dinner with Juliet, that she’s not about to “do a Delia”.

As camp as Christmas in a white satin evening gown, Juliet is posing beside a candlelit table set with lobster, champagne and a single red rose, while appearing to be juggling three magic stars in the palm of her hand.

Like Samantha, the housewife with supernatural powers from the cult television show Bewitched, it looks as though she has merely to wiggle her nose for her Grand Marnier soufflés to rise with ease.

A self-taught chef, inspired at a very early age by her grandmother’s “Saturday morning baking extravaganzas”, Juliet is driven to succeed. She currently writes two columns in The Edinburgh Evening News and her forays into television are beginning to reach beyond cable and into the terrestrial.

She is also coming to terms with being voted Scotland’s 46th Sexiest Woman by the Scottish News of the World, only one place behind television presenter Carol Smillie.

Before the vision to open a restaurant came to her in a pub, Juliet attended drama school and worked with the Edinburgh Shakespeare company. Judging by her front-of-house performances, the training was not wasted.

When she finishes her nightly stint in the kitchen, she glams herself up to mingle with her guests, dispensing coffee and fairy dust in equal measure.

And she has a uniquely theatrical method for dealing with difficult customers.

“I would advise anyone who works in this field to buy themselves a glove puppet as it makes life so much easier,” she explains.

On a number of occasions, such as when her Spanish waitress was reduced to tears by a troublesome table, Juliet has resorted to her donkey mitt to defuse the situation.

She asks the disagreeable diners, “donkey would like to know if you are having a nice time?” and they usually reply in unison “Yes, donkey, we are.”

“It’s really funny the way it works,” says Juliet. “Not once, after I’ve left the table, have they ever said, ‘What is she doing with that donkey?’ They never mention it! They just pretend that it didn’t happen. It really is odd.”

To support her brief acting career, Juliet ran an outside catering company, organising dinner parties for other people.

But, as Juliet puts it, “it was a bit of a Cinderella lifestyle and I have always been the kind of girl that wanted to go to the ball.”

It would have been nice, she explains, to have watched her customers enjoy their food.

Still only 27 years old, Juliet opened the Stockbridge Restaurant in December 2002, intending it to be the kind of place she would want to go to herself.

It’s a fairly plush basement set-up, quite intimate and dimly lit with year-round, white fairy lights.

Visitors to her gastronomic grotto can tuck into hearty comfort food such as fillet of Scottish beef with a whisky, cream and grain mustard sauce or lamb noisettes in marsala with roast peaches to the accompaniment of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Julio Iglesias.

“I think glamour is very much back in fashion, really,” says Juliet. “And I get a lot of calls – from women especially – booking tables for two. I think they’re taking more control of where they want to go.

“They don’t necessarily want to spend their once a month Saturday night out somewhere special in a bistro anymore. They want to go somewhere that’s got a bit of character and a bit of pizzazz where they can get dressed up. There’s a market for it.”

Last Valentine’s Day Juliet had the idea of selling tickets for a single people’s evening. The idea was to get 25 women and 25 men, with the men moving places between courses. She wrote about it in her column and soon a couple of other newspapers picked up on it.

“I got calls from about 500 women. And two guys. Seriously,” she says. “In the end I had to cancel the whole thing, but I got tons of publicity for cancelling. More than I think I would have got if it had been a success.”

Juliet says she won’t be starting her own family until she has achieved a very comfortable lifestyle through her cooking endeavours, though she stresses she won’t be putting this off indefinitely.

Unlike her role model Fanny, she has a Danny, not a Johnny.

Danny Granger is a 24-year-old management consultant who is kind enough to help out in the restaurant when things get scary.

Juliet insists that high fashion dates very quickly, both in terms of the décor of a restaurant and the food it serves. Braised shank of lamb, bread and butter pudding and tiramisu would have been laughed off any menu 10 years ago, she argues, but now they’re considered cool.

And she reckons the food and drink editors in most style magazines only feature highfalutin fusion food, to the exclusion of more down to earth food, because it’s pretty to photograph.

“My cooking is home-style cooking with a luxurious twist,” explains Juliet.

She says she would call it ‘modern Scottish’, if only she knew what ‘modern Scottish’ meant.

Her current definition is “using the best Scottish produce, locally sourced and prepared in a sympathetic manner without lots of superfluous flavourings.”

What is the best of Scotland for Juliet?

“Probably Scottish beef, lamb and also the way we cure fish. Scottish smoked salmon, trout and haddock are all very good,” says Juliet.

“Customers are not very impressed by a tiny little portion of foie gras on their plate. They want to have something substantial and good quality.

“You should want to taste the deliciousness of what you’re eating. And, yeah, you can compliment that flavour but I don’t believe in taking over from it.”

Juliet clearly understands that in Scotland, warm, comforting puddings are not so much a seasonal treat as a treasured national pastime.

“I would say nine out of 10 restaurants let themselves down on the fact that their puddings are rubbish. It’s the bit people are going to remember most, so why not make them fantastic?

“And do you know why they’re often rubbish?” she asks. “Because most male chefs hate them. Men love eating puddings , but I’ve had men working in my kitchen who have said ‘When we were doing our training they put all the gay boys on the pastry section.’

“That’s what they say, but the real reason is they’re frightened of doing desserts because they’re too difficult.

“I have to put up with this macho stuff in the kitchen all the time. Men love tossing things in, chopping things up and setting things on fire.

“To make good puddings they have to measure and be precise, keep it in the oven for the right time and not blame anyone else when it goes wrong.

“Most people think that owning a restaurant is a real hoot and a thoroughly glamorous lifestyle. I won’t say what I think of this but the word begins in ‘b’ and ends in ‘t’.

“It’s like being a swan. Elegant on top,but underneath it’s flap, flap, flap.”