Stuart Ralston, Chef and Owner of LYLA - “It feels like my home kitchen”

The Staff Canteen

In this The Staff Canteen Meets edition, we sat down with Stuart Ralston, Chef and Owner of LYLA, Aizle, Noto and Tipo—all kitchens away from home in the heart of Edinburgh—to talk career-defining moments, the power of taking a chance and creating a legacy.

As you can imagine, Stuart has a packed and varied role across his family of four restaurants. But it’s his fine-dining eatery LYLA where Stuart spends his days, bringing a taste of Scotland to its capital as its head chef.

Stuart takes on more of a top-level but still nurturing position at his three other Edinburgh-based venues, Aizle, Noto and Tipo, guiding their hospitality teams and supporting them with services when possible. “I’m still very involved with all the food, designing all the menus, developing products, approving all the dishes, and helping staff,” confirms Stuart.

Making culinary history

LYLA is nestled in the centre of Scotland’s bustling capital, below the luxurious rooms of 21212 “there’s a real special energy in this building, the ambition of the place got me,” says Stuart. The venue is one of the locations Stuart had always looked at in the city. “I wondered, if I had that site, could I be as successful as the late Paul Kitching’s Michelin-starred 21212?” Stuart continues.

When Michelin-starred 21212, full of the finest culinary memories created by the celebrated late Paul Kitching, became available, it stirred Stuart’s ambition. “I’ve got something left to do in cooking and upgrading and pushing myself to develop a little bit further than we have been,” Stuart said, leading to him opening LYLA.

A beautiful space is just one aspect of setting the fine-dining venue up for success. The head chef sees conceptualising and realising his vision for the restaurant as “trying to push myself as hard as possible creatively”. Stuart’s goal at LYLA remains to develop a new business and establish the group's brand.

photo by Murray Orr

Pushing creative cuisine without compromise

After working for 25 years and running his own business for ten years, at LYLA, Stuart was able to design his kitchen for the first time. “It was like a dream,” says Stuart. “Having that chance at least once has been refreshing and reinvigorated my interest and enthusiasm for cooking a bit more,” Stuart details.

“The standards I can create and see what I can do with the restaurant without compromise are the biggest thing because we’ve got everything we need here,” Stuart adds. Having everything has meant Stuart can put everything into LYLA, and has seen him design the restaurant, the kitchen, and everything how he wants.

To say it was refreshing for Stuart as an owner to go into the venue, completely redesign and put his mark on something instead of going into a fully formed site, is an understatement. The freedom to say, “this is mine; this is home” was a pinch-me moment for Stuart.

At the centre of his passion, Stuart wants to create the spaces he wants to live in in Edinburgh. “The ability to design everything you want from the ground up and finally being in a position where I could have the budget to do that—we’ve been saving up a long time and have been in business for ten years—is liberating,” says Stuart.

“Having things where you want them and your desired materials makes for a more comfortable headspace,” adds Stuart. Choosing materials, like purposely not having any stainless steel or white plastic in the kitchen, contribute to creating a calm and relaxing atmosphere. “It feels like my home kitchen,” says Stuart. “It makes you more attuned to what you’re doing - fluid, with more flow.”

photo by Murray Orr

Simplicity at its finest

Describing the food culture at LYLA, Stuart reminisces with nostalgia and fondness about some of the classical cooking he’d done earlier in his career. “Simplicity, for sure. I’m at that stage where, all my life, I’ve been told simplicity is crucial and that I should let the ingredients speak for themselves,” says Stuart. “I’ve never truly understood that until I’ve matured and got a little older, and now I feel like that,” Stuart reveals.

So there are only two things on a plate at the moment. “They’re very simply done, but that is more effective,” says Stuart. The food’s style is clean, focused on sharp details, honing in, and letting the ingredients speak for themselves, which is the true menu highlight.

LYLA has two menus. There is its six-course lunch menu, which Stuart describes as “a little bit simpler, a little bit quicker, but a little bit lighter” and its ten-course tasting dinner menu. The menu’s components and concepts changes less frequently than its seasonal produce does. The team cooks a limited amount of dietary requirements to focus on what LYLA specialises in, which is predominantly a fish and seafood restaurant, with a lot of raw fish on the menu along with organic meats and vegetables.

photo by Justin Rodrigues

Personalising the dining experience

LYLA is very different from what the team has done before, creating a more personal experience because fewer people are served. “We get to personalise the menus more, the food experience, how we interact with people, a lot more service at the table, and finishing dishes at the table, which we don’t get to do in other restaurants,” says Stuart.

The restaurant’s kitchen team produces “a lot fewer covers,” Stuart shares. It serves between 20 and 26 covers across ten tables over one sitting, which is a manageable number for the team. The team has an open kitchen, which is a big thing when connecting the kitchen to its diners. “The kitchen is really calm and very focused; it’s quite a quiet space,” says Stuart.

The team creates an experience over two floors, open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner services and lunch on Friday and Saturday, which is generally fully booked. Never turning over the tables at LYLA means that if guests book a table, it’s theirs for the evening. “It’s setting up the perfect scenario for both the people who work here and the guests who dine with us,” says Stuart. “And it’s just a very personal experience; it feels very intimate and very special to me,” Stuart notes.

photo by Murray Orr

Success for the chef who owns a restaurant

With four restaurants in Edinburgh today, many may call Stuart a restaurateur and ask how he has developed and adapted to becoming one, but that’s not how Stuart sees himself. “I don’t think of myself as a restaurateur, but I do love restaurants and filling the city with things I don’t think are there,” says Stuart. “Because I still work in a kitchen, I feel very much like a chef who owns a restaurant,” adds Stuart.

Organic growth has always been the key. “We are not forcing anything,” Stuart says. LYLA and Stuart’s restaurant family has not been developed in a haphazard way, they’ve been thought through over time. “That’s probably crucial to their success,” Stuart adds.

“Having genuine care and consideration for anybody who works with us is vital and a genuine effort,” says Stuart. “We’re not always perfect, but we always strive to be better than we were yesterday—and the staff’s wellbeing is important to me.”

While the team does have personal ambitions for awards, above all else, “I want the team around me to be successful, and I want to watch them develop,” says Stuart. Acknowledging that his role will change in five to ten years, Stuart says he’ll take a big step back and get out of the kitchen a bit more. “I want the restaurants to have a legacy: when I’m gone, for people to look back, remember them and for them to potentially still be open,” adds Stuart.

Written by: Natasha Spencer-Jolliffe

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Editor 23rd May 2024

Stuart Ralston, Chef and Owner of LYLA - “It feels like my home kitchen”