2023 is shaping up to be a big year for Stuart Ralston. The Aizle chef-patron launched his third Edinburgh restaurant, Tipo, earlier this year, and now he’s following it up with a fourth - Lyla - taking over the Royal Terrace site that previously housed the late Paul Kitching’s Michelin-starred 21212.
Ralston was offered the opportunity to open Lyla by Kitching’s wife and business partner Katie O’Brien, who will continue to operate the venue's four high-end bedrooms. He describes it as ‘bittersweet’ opportunity following the sudden death of Kitching last year, but nonetheless is determined to realise the restaurant in his own image in a move he thinks could be his ‘finest hour’.
On top of that, Ralston has just released his first cookbook. Called Catalogued Ideas and Random Thoughts, it offers an insight into the key milestones in his career – from moving to New York and working for Gordon Ramsay to cooking in Barbados, and finally launching Aizle in Edinburgh back in 2014 as a small, intimate fine dining restaurant on St Leonard’s Street [it subsequently relocated to a much larger site in the city’s Kimpton Charlotte Square Hotel in 2020]. Ralston’s career has been one of many significant moments, but he says he still has plenty more to give.
Lyla is very small restaurant, much like the first incarnation of Aizle. Is this something of a full circle moment in your career?
Definitely. When I originally came back from Barbados to Edinburgh about a decade ago, I didn’t want to do anything fine dining in the traditional sense, which is how we ended up with the more stripped back setting of Aizle. Now I’m almost 10 years older and my attitude has changed towards lots of things and that includes my job. Going back to a smaller, 10-table restaurant is something I’ve wanted to do. Covid made it difficult as I had to move Aizle to a larger site to make it survive. Lyla is about doing something similar to when I was training to be a chef in New York. It’s definitely the most high-end thing I’ve done. I don’t feel like I’m putting my reputation on the line, but I am showing I can do more and push myself as a chef if I have less covers. Aizle has become such a beast. It’s a brilliant restaurant and I don’t want to change it to suit me. I think I’ve outgrown it a little, and it’s time for other people to grow up inside it as I did.
So, will you be cooking at Lyla full time?
I’ll be based at Lyla, and I won’t be cooking at Aizle anymore. Lewis [Vimpany, Aizle’s head chef] is doing phenomenal things and will continue to lead the kitchen there.
What can we expect from the menu at Lyla?
It’s a tasting menu concept. When I was putting together the plan for it, I was thinking 'if this is the last thing I really want to do in Edinburgh, I want to cook the things I want to eat'. I love raw fish, and seafood is abundant in Scotland, so it was a no brainer to put it front and centre. It differentiates it from Aizle too, which has a very balanced menu.
Paul Kitching was such an inspiring figure, do you feel a pressure to ensure the new restaurant carries his legacy forward
Absolutely. I’m not taking it lightly. Paul was a Michelin-starred chef for a long time; I don’t have a Michelin background. Lyla could be my finest hour in terms of cooking, but it is a lot of pressure to take over from someone that everyone holds in such a high regard. I have three restaurants that have really good reputations, the fourth could be my undoing if don't pay attention.
Do you have your own Michelin aspirations?
I’ve always felt that you get these accolades when you deserve them. My focus in all my restaurants is to do the best we can. If these things come then obviously it’s a huge honour, but I still have three restaurants and I’m releasing a cookbook. Not having a Michelin star has never held me back.
Tell us about your book
At the start I wasn’t sure if it was a cookbook or a story about me and my career, and so it became a bit of both. But the biggest thing was to have something that could be inspirational to younger chefs - tell them about how they can get into restaurants and open their own thing and help them understand the business side of things. It also had to be very useable and work as a cookbook, and that had to be reflected both in the recipes and the ingredients required. I didn’t want it to just be my most affluent dishes from Aizle, which no one who wasn’t a professional chef could make.
When you think back over you career, what moment has had the greatest impact?
A lot of the press obviously want to talk about the time I worked for Ramsay, which I get as he is the most famous chef I’ve worked for. But across my life the most important thing was moving to NYC and being in that culture. Going to the restaurants I went to and meeting the people I met had a profound influence on my life. It opened up opportunities and changed the game. Meeting my wife; that’s what stayed with me.
Was that favourite section of book to write?
It’s hard to say, but I loved being able to write about Noto and talk about how the restaurant got its name after the guy I used to live with [New York eccentric Bob Noto]. It’s a genuine story that means a lot to me and no one would know that story if I didn’t include it. It captures a time when I was a young person in a foreign place and still learning. I didn’t know very much, and I wanted to talk in the book about how that can be difficult, and why it shouldn’t be embarrassing for chefs.
It's been a busy year for you, with Tipo opening back in March. How’s that going?
It’s been amazing. Everything went to plan and we’re trading at record levels week on week. It’s probably the least creative restaurant in terms of cooking; there’s lots of classic, approachable dishes on the menu, but they’re done well and people are really buying into that.
How's Edinburgh’s restaurant scene right now?
As a restaurant city, Edinburgh is on fire. There’s so many good places here, which makes you better because there’s lots of competition. It’s a hard market to crack, so if you’re doing well then you must be doing something right. But there’s also a lot of variety in this town: everyone’s doing something different, and I really like that. There’s a strong personality to all of these restaurants that doesn’t really crossover to other places, so there’s room for all of us. It has a massive independent vibe too, and I cherish that. The chains don’t make a big difference and we can compete against them even though they have more money and bigger sites.
Beyond Lyla, what's next?
There’s not a massive plan. All these restaurants come up organically and so we’ll see what else happens. For me, personally, cooking as a chef, Lyla will be the last place I want to do that. The group as a whole has so many talented people inside it, and the next step is bringing more people on and encouraging them to open their own place. If they’re determined and willing to put the work in then I can fund it - that’s where our future growth lies.
Are we talking about more openings in Edinburgh, or elsewhere?
In terms of Edinburgh, I think we’re done. Last year we were negotiating on a site in London for Noto. It fell through, but I still feel like that could be a possibility. We have wealth of experience across our team, and it’s limitless what we could do with the right options.
Stuart Ralston: Catalogued Ideas and Random Thoughts – a Cookbook will be available nationwide in bookshops and online at £35 by Kitchen Press from 6 October. Press titles are distributed by BookSource.