Award-winning chef Derek Johnstone relishing latest role
By Gillian McKenzie
IF Derek Johnstone was ever to hang up his chef’s whites, he could step into the role of historical guide with ease.
As he shows SLTN around Borthwick Castle in Midlothian – the luxury exclusive use venue at which he has been head chef since March 2017 – he talks passionately and enthusiastically about the property, sharing historical facts and anecdotes about the castle down the years.
And this 15th century keep is a building with plenty of stories to tell.
Built in 1430 by nobleman Sir William de Borthwick, who was granted a special licence to build a castle after volunteering to be a substitute hostage for James I of Scotland in 1425, the double-tower fortress has stood strong 12 miles south east of Edinburgh ever since and borne witness to many notable moments in history.
From offering refuge to Mary Queen of Scots in 1567 when she fled there with Lord Bothwell following the murder of her husband; to coming under cannon fire from Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1650, the scars of which are still visible on the eastern wall; to being utilised as a safe store for national treasures during the Second World War – Borthwick Castle has played many significant roles in the 600 years since it was built.
And it’s this rich history that has captured the imagination of Derek – and the castle’s owners, Jordan-based Roula Kamhawi and Robert Burtoft, who bought the property, which had been converted into a hotel in the 1970s, in 2013.
“The owners holidayed here,” said Derek.
“They said to the then owner that if he was ever selling to let them know and they would buy it… and he did, so they bought it.”
Roula and Robert subsequently embarked on a major two-year refurbishment project, working with Melanie Brown of Sunderland-based Design Direction and specialist historians on a carefully considered restoration of the historic property, which has married its medieval majesty with 21st century luxury.
The attention to detail throughout is exquisite.
Each of the 12 bedchambers – ten in the main castle, accessed via its two stone spiral staircases, as well as the adjacent Crookston Cottage and Gatehouse – tells a story. From the dark and moody decor of the Oliver Cromwell bedchamber beneath the Great Hall; to the Wizard’s Tower, thought to be where the ‘medicine man’ would have stayed, at the top; to the Mary Queen of Scots bedchamber – each has its own character, with hand-carved beds and sumptuous fabrics and wall-coverings – not to mention luxurious, quirky bathrooms, many of which take advantage of the castle’s various nooks and crannies – featured throughout.
The three main reception rooms – the Great Hall, which can seat 85 for dinner; the Garrison ceremony and events space; and the Stateroom with its roaring fire, sumptuous sofas and grand piano – are equally luxurious.
“It’s an incredible place, isn’t it?” said Derek as he shows SLTN around the castle.
“The history of it and the way the owners have refurbished it – it’s different; it’s luxurious but it’s a home. Everyone that works here loves the building. It is a special place.”
For Derek, the move to exclusive use Borthwick Castle is the next chapter in a career which has included winning the inaugural MasterChef: The Professionals back in 2008 and going on to work for Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche in London – personal milestones for the chef who has had a passion for food and cooking since he was a youngster.
“I am probably one of the few people who set out after school to be a chef,” said Derek.
“I don’t know why, I was just interested in food as a kid and I loved helping in the kitchen.
“There is still a problem with people who think being a chef is more of a stop-gap or not really a career and we have to shake that stigma.
It’s a more fluid way of working – we cook whatever the guests want.
“I think it’s one of the most rewarding careers, and great if you want to travel; there are so many different avenues you can go down.
“It’s a great industry and I don’t think the benefits of it are broadcast enough outwith the industry. I’ve had the chance to see and do things I’d never have done otherwise.
“But although I knew I wanted to be a chef from a young age, I wasn’t naiive enough to think it wouldn’t involve a lot of hard work.”
“It was a great start,” he said.
“John Hughes was there and also lectured at the college. He saw potential in me and I got to work with great chefs.
“I was there for three years and moved up to chef de partie, running a section.”
From there, Derek moved to Crutherland House hotel in East Kilbride, where he stayed for another three years, working his way up to junior sous chef. And it was during his time at Crutherland that its then group executive chef Joe Queen encouraged him to enter the inaugural MasterChef: The Professionals competition.
From the thousands of applications from across the UK, Derek was selected as one of 26 chefs in the running and, following a successful interview, took part in the inaugural contest, which he went on to win in September 2008.
“It was an incredible experience and I never thought for a minute I would win it,” said Derek.
“I have to thank Joe who encouraged me to do it. I was sure I wasn’t good enough. I was just looking at it for a different experience, no pressure.
“When I was much younger I used to watch the predecessor to MasterChef: The Professionals and I said to my gran: ‘One day I’m going to win that’. I guess I fulfilled that promise to my gran.”
With the MasterChef title under his belt, Derek was again encouraged to progress – this time to ask Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche in London – who had been one of the judges on MasterChef: The Professionals – if there was a job opportunity.
There was; and, in October 2008 – two weeks after the programme aired, Derek moved to London to work in the renowned two Michelin Star Mayfair restaurant.
“I did 15 months at Le Gavroche – it was tough but what an experience,” said Derek.
“It is so disciplined and structured.
“I did all sections and learned loads. I also got the chance to work abroad – a one-star restaurant in Italy for a few weeks for experience, a three-star in Belgium, and I went to École Lenôtre cook school near Paris. Every January Mr Roux would say – where are you going?
“You were working hard but they were always interested in the staff and in giving you experiences and allowing you to see different things.
I knew it would be hard work but I always wanted to be a chef.
“It was an incredible experience.”
From Le Gavroche, Derek went to the 150-seat Brasserie Roux at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 as sous chef before returning to Scotland for the launch of Chez Roux at Greywalls in Gullane in 2010 as number two in the kitchen, becoming head chef in 2011.
“It was great to still be able to work with the Roux family but in Scotland,” said Derek.
“It was perfect timing for me; it was so peaceful after London and it was another wonderful property.
“It was hard work – it was a new business launching from scratch. But it went on to be very successful.”
After six years at Greywalls, a spell helping a friend with a gastropub followed before Derek joined Borthwick Castle in March 2017 as head chef (the castle had previously used external caterers).
And he is relishing the role.
Catering for everything from family holidays to bespoke weddings (there are 21 booked for 2020) and corporate events not to mention the seasonal Dining Club and new Cookery Masterclass he has introduced, Derek and his brigade can be cooking everything from breakfasts and light lunches to six-course dinners – no two days are
the same. He does as much advance planning as he can and works closely with five or six long-time suppliers, including Belhaven Smokehouse and Henderson butchers in Glenrothes, to create bespoke menus for castle guests.
He is also relishing the challenges working in a 15th century castle, whose structure, has remained unchanged since 1430, can bring.
“The building wasn’t obviously designed for what we now use it for so we have to be practical about what we can offer where because there are so many floors – for example, we can do canapés up in the Garrison room but it’s not really practical to do a big dinner up there because that would mean staff going up and down the spiral staircase with plates of food,” Derek explained.
“This is more structured in the sense that I can see what’s coming – weddings, events, holidays. But it’s a more fluid way of working for me than a full restaurant because we cook whatever the guest wants. If it’s a week-long stay we ask what they want to eat in advance for the first day and then it’s an ongoing conversation. It can be anything from mince and potatoes to fine dining.
“That’s the challenge for me – and I love it.”