Home-grown food is a joy for chef Sami

For Sami Benammar, head chef at Gordon Castle Walled Garden Cafe, it is a joy to work with an abundance of home-grown produce.

He tells Scottish Field about his love of food and career.

How did your chef career begin?

I was very young when I started cooking. I started helping in the kitchen when I was about 9 or 10 years old because my dad was a classically trained chef. We were always helping him out in the kitchen back in Tunisia from an early age.

What’s your favourite September dish?

It depends on the year really. This year the sun hasn’t been out that much so a lot of the produce has been late. But mainly in September, I like game. I really enjoy working with a nice bit of venison. I’d say my favourite dish for September is a venison casserole. I put tomato paste, celery, carrots, red wine and really dark chocolate in mine. It’s all about good ingredients and treating them with respect.

What kind of food don’t you like?

To be honest, I’m really not a fan of pork. If it was something like wild boar, then I’d say yes, but reared pork is just too fatty. I cook with it of course – I’ll smoke it maybe – but even with lamb it’s the same. I know a lot of people say the fat gives it flavour, but for me it doesn’t work with pork and lamb.

What’s your star ingredient?

I’ll work with whatever is in season, to be honest. Being where we are in Scotland, we can get food from not far away; whether it’s straight from Buckie or Portsoy, the seafood is great. I think mackerel is probably my absolute favourite though. It has to be so fresh though – when you fillet it, it has to be really white. If it’s even two or three days old, it’s too far gone. You can eat mackerel cured with a little lemon juice.

Tell us about the produce at Gordon Castle.

We work closely with Ed Bollom, the head gardener, and the team. They plants loads of herbs and vegetables in the garden for us to use. We have loads of lettuce and heritage tomatoes for the salads, we have courgettes, plums… We’ve got so many ingredients to work with here. Because the sun hasn’t been out much, things are coming later this year. We’ll hopefully have lots of curly kale and potatoes later on. We even have artichokes in the garden. We get our meat from A J Jamieson, a local butcher in Fochabers. It is a dream for a chef.

Do you have a favourite celebrity chef?

Yes, I do. He’s working with me right now – Theo! He’s a great guy, he’s my hero. But to be honest, my favourite celebrity chef is Marco Pierre White. He’s fair and straight to the point. His food is delicious and he respects his ingredients. He’s not about chasing the Michelin starts, it’s about his customers. As a chef, your customers are your first critics; as long as they are happy, that’s what matters.

Biggest kitchen disaster?

Where can I start? As a chef, you’re always having disasters in the kitchen – it’s part of the job! There was one time I left to go and do some auditing or something. I’d asked the team to watch all the food for a big table of eight, and they said they would. When I came back it was all completely burned. We had to give them all these canapes for free to keep them going while we sorted it in the background. They still left happy. You have to laugh after a while. That’s just kitchens for you.