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Career gamble paid off for Michelin Star chef David Wilson who has died at 85

Patricia and David Wilson.
Patricia and David Wilson.

David Wilson, Scotland’s first restaurant Michelin Star chef, who has died aged 85, took a massive gamble to lay the foundations of his glittering career.

He turned his back on a management post with Rio Tinto in 1967 and took a job learning the restaurant trade from the ground up, earning just a half of what he did with the multinational.

Within five years, however, he had taken over The Peat Inn, in Fife and had begun to revolutionise Scottish cuisine.

David Wilson with Peter Reilly in the Peat Inn kitchen in 2000.

His wife Patricia said they spent what little money they had renovating the restaurant before introducing a radical new menu.

His classical French-inspired style using the best of Scottish produce soon had The Peat Inn full six nights a week.

Then industry accolades followed: two Egon Ronay stars, three AA rosettes,  Master Chef of Great Britain title and being named one of Britain’s three Chefs Laureate by the British Academy of Gastronomes.

David Wilson after being awarded one of the AA’s top wine list accolades in 2002.

In 1986 he was awarded a Michelin Star.

David was also unusual among chefs because he became a self-taught wine  expert; in essence, he was his own sommelier, and an award-winning one. He was awarded the Egon Ronay Wine Cellar of the year in 1984 and the Hotel and Caterer Restaurateur of the year 1989.

His first job was selling industrial tools and hardware with merchants Fyfe and McGrouther in his native Glasgow.

In 1964 he met his future wife, Patricia, an art teacher at Bellshill Academy at a dinner party, held by mutual friends.

The couple married in Wellington Church, Glasgow, a year later.

After a spell in Stirling, the couple moved to Sheffield when David took up a job as a marketing manager with Rio Tinto Zinc.

The Peat Inn.

Patricia said they had always taken an interest in food and eating out but were almost always disappointed by what was on offer.

“In Scotland when we went to restaurants when we were dating, the food was abysmal. We would be served the kind of food you could make at home. Some of it was really shocking and we always thought we could do better as amateurs,” she said.

“David had a very good job but we noticed a small advert in a newspaper for someone to learn the restaurant business at the Pheasant Inn at Keyston, Northamptonshire. It was a delightful thatched country  inn. Looking back, I think we were meant to see that advert.”

David travelled to see the owner, Somerset Moore, who had been expecting someone much younger than 31 but took him on.

Mr and Mrs Wilson with daughter Saskia and son Byron.

He was put to work learning front-of-house skills and kitchen supplies before finally getting a chance to work in the kitchen.

Within six months, Somerset Moore, who went on to become a giant of England’s restaurant trade, felt confident to leave David to run the Pheasant Inn.

After a short spell running a restaurant in Derbyshire, David and Patricia began looking for their own place.

They wanted to come back to Scotland but were looking for something like the pub/restaurants they had seen in England.

Mrs Wilson said: “Eventually we came across The Peat Inn. The unique address was The Peat Inn, at Peat Inn and the telephone number was Peat Inn 206. David said what an address, we need to buy it.”

The Peat Inn as it is today under the ownership of Geoffrey Smeddle.

They sunk what money they had into renovations before launching a bar snacks menu.

Some of the early dishes were chicken liver pate and an onion quiche which David had encountered in a Three Michelin star restaurant in Alsace.

Next the couple introduced set and an a la carte menus in the restaurant featuring dishes such as Arbroath Smokie mousse, salmon and avocado terrine, game terrine, grouse, partridge, and lobster

End of silver service

Another first for David was a move away from silver service of vegetables to integral pairing of vegetables with specific dishes. It was more time consuming but soon restaurants across Scotland were following his lead.

He also banned smoking in the dining areas years before the government smoking ban was introduced in 2006.

“We lost customers but we also gained customers,” said Patricia.

A restaurant with rooms

The Peat Inn prided itself on being a restaurant with rooms (eight) rather than a hotel.
David, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by Dundee University, had a team of four chefs but he kept working himself until his retiral in 2006.

The family had always travelled to France during quiet spells and took inspiration from the cuisine.

In retirement, David and Patricia spent part of their year in southern France enjoying the food and wine.

David Wilson is survived by his wife, daughter Saskia and son Byron.

Geoffrey Smeddle, chef and current owner of the Peat Inn spoke of his sadness at David’s death and said the couple had dined there just last week, while Nick Nairn said David was instrumental in his becoming a chef.