Interview: Ivan Stein and Peter McKenna at The Gannet

Ivan Stein and Peter McKenna appear from the kitchen to take a seat in The Gannet’s dining room. Lunch service is finished and they have a short period of calm before guests start arriving for dinner. They are working chefs and owners, preparing dishes, organising ingredients, devising menus.

Ivan is from London, Peter is Irish. Both gravitated towards Glasgow. They created their own idea a restaurant in a vacant tenement building that had been derelict for almost a decade. Before Finnieston was revived. With the help of some architects and a significant amount of effort, a stylish bar and restaurant was fashioned from the space.

The menus are dictated by the rhythms of the seasons. They are driven by the ingredients. The relationships the chefs have with local producers, combined with their flair in the kitchen, is the basis for their success.

The Gannet’s Sweet Cicely Cured Herring recipe features in the Glasgow and West Coast Cook Book.

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Tell me a bit about the backstory, where did you both meet?

Peter: I was working for Michael Caines here in the city in ABode. I was sous chef. I spent a couple of years there working.

Ivan: And I had just arrived into the city I was looking for the best places to eat and work. I went in and there was an amazing £10 deal that was top notch so I asked to speak to someone about the kitchen.

Peter: The thing was, we didn’t have any jobs. It was a very small kitchen. A very tight team. But what struck me, even though there wasn’t a job there. Ivan still showed up with his knives and his uniform. He still wanted to get involved and when a job arose, he had a shoe in the door. It was that kind of mentality that stood out to me.

Did you find, then, that you both had a similar outlook when it came to cooking?

Ivan: Well, we were both really led by ingredients, what’s available, what’s in season.

Peter: We don’t let technique run the show. Yes we use modern techniques. Yes we use classical techniques, but it is all to do with what we can get in the kitchen.

If you come back in five years time, we’ll still be using duck, we’ll still be using venison. It’s not really going to change. We might tweak things a bit, keep them up to date with what’s happening. Get a few little twist and turns here and there.

Was it easy then to get those key ingredients when The Gannet opened then?

Peter: No. We spent years and years trying to develop those relationships. We came up with this idea of trying to get out and literally chap the doors at farms. We spent countless days travelling around in this wee car. Chasing after farmers [laughs].

That’s the way we were doing it. Sometimes it works. We met someone who knew a gamekeeper. He knew a farm for venison. Then we would get passed on to another guy. Comical when you think about it now. The problem was, they couldn’t really get it to market.

Ivan: For the first year, we were pretty conventional. We had a connection here and there. Now there isn’t one main ingredient that doesn’t come direct from the source. We use middlemen the odd time. But that was the breakthrough for us.

I remember being in here and chatting with you about the produce side of things. You were explaining how you have a direct relationship. Then all of a sudden, I was sitting on this same table, actually, somebody walked in with a pig’s head to sell to the kitchen. Right on cue.

Peter: But that’s the way it is here. There was a funny story with the Michelin guy [the reviewer]. The first time he came in. We are all chefs and were all like Michelin, you know, we’ve all worked in that environment but I think we were open only five months. I can’t remember correctly. But, anyway, he had his lunch and he loved it. Invited himself to have a chat. He goes, “did you know I was in?” We said “no”.

Our fish supplier came in with seven kilos of freshly landed fish. Straight in the front door, he didn’t have it in a box or anything. The guy thought it was a set up. It was too perfect.

Ivan: When you deal with these people, it can be a bit haphazard. We used to have a guy, a fisherman with a day-boat. He would drive down in a van. Sometimes it’d be brilliant because you get great value and you get this amazing fresh ingredient. And other times you’re in the middle of service and he arrives in his wellies with a huge catch. I can’t even fit it into the kitchen [laughs].

You mentioned Michelin earlier, what do you think about fine dining in the city?

Peter: Well, you have an abundance of places. Now you can and get a good venison dish or a beautiful deer dish or a scallop dish. There wasn’t before, now there is.

Now, the food in the city of Glasgow is amazing. But then, were talking seven years ago, it was pretty dismal.

Because all the big fine dining restaurants suddenly dropped off the radar. They all went under I suppose. People didn’t want fine dining in Glasgow. It didn’t work.

So for us, who came from fine dining backgrounds, it’s a case of – we like these products but it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to sit with white table cloth and having to always mind your ps and qs.

We wanted to open somewhere where folk could eat this beautiful food. And get these drinks in and have the craic and relax.

So its just making more of an appropriate local atmosphere…

Peter: This is a neighbourhood restaurant. That’s why we have a large bar. Its a break from formality. You know, we don’t want people to come in and feel out of place or awkward. We actually did a survey recently to ask what customers think we are. And a lot of people see us as a fine dining restaurant. Which makes us scratch our heads and go, well, this wasn’t the plan. And I still don’t see us as a fine dining restaurant. Yes the food is fine. It is good food.

Ivan: You want people talking about the fact the food is at a certain standard, but you want people to actually sit down and enjoy themselves.

Peter: In the end you can’t control how customers think of you. That’s what we found opening this. We put this big bar and we thought everyone knew that they could sit there in a crowd at the bar. But they think, “this is proper food and I want a table, I want proper service”. So you have to roll with it.

At the end of the day, though, we have a certain way we see our food and the products that we use.

You draw a line in the sand and say this is what we are, this is what we do, and we’ll live and die by that.

Ivan: In terms of the food, the ingredients really do take over. Your eyes light up when you see this produce coming into the kitchen. Mushrooms, asparagus, foraged herbs, lagoustines. You know what you are going to do with it.

There is a recipe from the Gannet in the Glasgow and West Coast Cook Book. How rigid are you with recipes, do you tend to return to the same ones, or do you sometimes play jazz with the ingredients?

Peter: When you start out as a chef, you are trained. You learn some disciplines and that’s the backbone. So when Ivan trained, and I trained, there’s a period when you absorb everything and replicate. Through the years, you find better ways to do things. I’m still using recipes I was using 20 years ago, but you adjust them and adapt them over the years. That’s the fun of it.