Amy Elles tells Caroline Lindsay about her passion for local food, working with her husband, and why opening the Harbour Cafe in Elie was meant to be.
The path to becoming a chef became crystal clear for Amy Elles when she worked as a party planner at Harrods.
“I was liaising with the chefs and, after a year of prepping vegetables in my lunch hour they offered me a ‘day release’ apprenticeship at Westminster Catering College and training me in-house – in two years I would be a chef!” says Amy, who lives in Elie with her husband Jack and their three children, two springer spaniels and a black cat.
“I had to check with my then boyfriend as we had a mortgage and my pay would be sliced in half.
“The answer was ‘Yes, go for it’ and the rest is history – and that was around 20 years ago.”
Growing up in north London, Amy loved cooking as a child and was always encouraged.
“I have so many vivid food memories,” she smiles. “One of my first is of being in Portugal when I was three and opening up huge prawns that were covered in garlic and olive oil and lemon juice and licking my fingers and tasting nothing like I had ever smelled before.”
She explains the inspiration behind opening The Harbour Cafe in Elie.
“As we were putting our roots down in Elie, going deeper than just our house and kids, I knew that it was a sort of destiny to have the cafe.
“Isabella was only four months when we went for it and then six months when we opened.
“I wanted our own place where there would be no compromise on the food, no matter what it was going to be. Somewhere where you would want to go on your precious ‘day off’.
“I love that it all intrinsically feels good and the balance is right, as I can see the cafe from the house.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. “There are always challenges when you have your own business. Not only whether the boats are going out due to rough seas but staff turning up, children being sick and the whole place being shut for Covid,” says Amy.
“The menu is small and based around what we get from the boats. Local lobster and langoustine and organic vegetables from a few minutes down the road. There’s probably quite a strong Mediterranean influence as we have spent time working and travelling abroad.
“All of our fresh produce is very local. It is vital to our ethos.”
On a typical day, Amy will be up early, and “get the body going with a cup of lemon and hot water”.
“Then we’ll sort the kids out with their breakfast, walk to school (when schools go back) and then jump in the car to go and collect the day’s fish,” she says.
“We buy most of our fish from the small market at Pittenweem Harbour from a lovely man called Billy. Then it’s back to the restaurant to drop it off, chat to the chefs and the manager. Next, it’s helping with prep and making sure we’re all set for service.
“Depending on the day, I’ll either be at the cafe or back with the kids for the afternoon.”
Like many businesses, the cafe has had to adapt during lockdown.
“During lockdown part one my only focus was to make sure my children were safe, fed and educated,” says Amy.
“I looked after my immediate neighbours by doing their weekly shopping. Working life as I knew it had to stop and I had to go with it.
“Lockdown part two was different because we’d had a chance to open up, and ironically it was a very successful albeit short season. During this time, we built our resilience by diversifying to selling three different sized ‘Lobster Boxes’ online, nationwide.
“With clever adaptations, these have picked up tremendously and at that time we had no idea we would still be selling them in February 2021.
“It’s been challenging thinking of how to encapsulate the Harbour Cafe experience in a box, but we have put a lot of thought and effort into the packaging and our customers even get rocks from Elie beach to help crack the lobster shells.”
Spring and summer
Amy is looking forward to cooking with the freshest ingredients over spring and summer.
“I love it when the young wild garlic leaves sprout up and for me it goes into everything,” she smiles.
“Nettle tops for teas and soups, foraging for seaweed – catching the end of the pepper dulse. But my favourite time of the year is early autumn as September is the culmination of the year with tonnes of fruits and seeds available and of course some of my favourite mushrooms.
Amy feels blessed to work with her husband Jack because “we can endlessly talk, eat, drink and scrutinise.
“We also live in the most incredible part of Scotland with its abundance of fish, organic pastures and hardworking, creative food suppliers and producers.
“We are nothing without them.”
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