My life as a GP and a chef

Dr Chris Duckham explains how he combines working as a GP and chef in the far north of Scotland.

Dr Duckham: as much at home with a kitchen knife as a stethoscope (Photograph: Brian Pickering)
Dr Duckham: as much at home with a kitchen knife as a stethoscope (Photograph: Brian Pickering)

You moved from Lincolnshire to Sutherland in 2003. What was the attraction?

Curiously, the move was nothing to do with food at all: it was more about a better life/work balance.

I basically swapped seeing 60 patients a day for seeing 16, and seeing nothing of my wife and young children for being able to spend some time with them. The cooking was still there, of course, but submerged for a while; in due course, it resurfaced.

How do you fit your life as a GP together with your life as a chef?

The two run side by side in many ways. Practising as a GP in such a remote area, I still have to be on call for evenings and nights – I obviously can't open the restaurant on those nights, because I am the only chef in my kitchen.

But otherwise I can forage for my wild ingredients and meet and talk to local suppliers in between surgeries and house calls.

The restaurant is kept manageable, because it is small (just eight seats) and only open three evenings a week; also, I do a set menu.

Would you ever like to become a full-time chef?

I don't think so; I think it might become a job then. The great thing about the current arrangement is that the chef bit never feels like work.

What more can you tell us about the restaurant?

Well, we're probably unique in some ways. We're in a very isolated area and get absolutely no passing trade – our customers really have to make a long journey to come to us.

My cuisine is also very local. We use only produce from the far north of Scotland, and a lot of wild ingredients, such as reindeer moss, silver birch leaves and bog myrtle, to name just a few.

We make our own sea salt from seawater collected from Kirtomy Bay, and some of our serving pieces from rocks and driftwood collected from the beach.

We don't give the customers a menu (except for a souvenir menu, which we give them at the end of the evening), so that each course will be a surprise. At the end of the evening what I hope I have shared with our guests is not just a sequence of carefully constructed dishes, but also a real sense of place.

You're in the Michelin Guide 2013 and have great reviews. What does it mean to you?

I'm delighted we're now in the Michelin Guide. It's a real feather in our cap, as it's the most professional and widely respected guide of all. Getting such good reviews on Trip Advisor is great as well, particularly because many of our customers have taken the trouble to post such favourable comments.

I don't worry about negative feedback; we're bound to get a bad review eventually, because there will always be someone who finds fault with something sometimes, whatever the standard. As long as I continue to make sure anything that is less than perfect is not sent out from the kitchen, though, I can be happy that I've done the best I can.

What are the main influences on your style of cooking?

I suppose the landscape and the seasons. I often come up with new ideas for dishes while out walking and stamping across the hills or hauling up my creel in the bay at low tide. Some of the wild ingredients I use have only a very short season, so everything can end up revolving around that.

What are your own favourite types of food or dishes – and what food do you hate?

Over the past few years, I have begun to make an effort to try to better understand ingredients and foodstuffs that I was really having trouble liking - even sprouts!

My wife really loves pickled beetroot and I initially found that very challenging - I thought I wouldn't like any preparation of beetroot at all. However, once I had decided to tackle a freshly harvested, earthy beetroot head on, I found that I could roast it, and then puree it with a little butter and port to make a fabulous accompaniment to loin of venison with a hint of cocoa and served with local kale.

What advice would you give to a GP who dreams of being a chef in their own restaurant?

Go for it! In the final analysis, you will not regret what you did in life but you will regret what it was that you never did do. Just don't expect to make any money at it, though.


Dr Duckham's restaurant, Côte Du Nord, is in Kirtomy, Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland.

The restaurant, which is featured in the latest Michelin Guide, is open on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings between early April and the end of September.

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