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Behind the pass: Meet the small team at Douneside House in Aberdeenshire where culinary boundaries are pushed

Victor Navarro, head chef of Douneside House heads to the pass to finish his plates off

All images: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson
Victor Navarro, head chef of Douneside House heads to the pass to finish his plates off All images: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson

This new monthly series, Behind the Pass, puts the hard-working chefs and kitchen teams of some of the north-east’s best venues at the forefront.

Because it can be easy for diners to forget about the talent that lies in the kitchens of the restaurants they dine in, we’re going behind the scenes and taking a closer, in-depth look at how these brigades operate.

We’ve spent time in the kitchen, shadowing the head, sous and pastry chefs working to bring you some of the highest quality dishes.

Douneside House’s Head chef Victor Navarro.

The first kitchen to be featured in this series is Douneside House in Tarland, Aberdeenshire, where head chef, Victor Navarro, leads a team of seven.

Victor started working at the four-star hotel in May 2021 and since then has been plating up some of the best food in the region.

From breakfast right the way through to his unique tasting menu and the Douneside supper clubs which are priced from £250 per head, the team work tirelessly to produce the best for their guests.

Sous chef Paul Crawford chatting with Victor in the kitchen.

At Douneside, the chefs are very much a team, with every member playing a vital role in ensuring quality produced meals are served in a timely fashion to their customers.

Even their latest recruits, apprentice Chloe Craik and another apprentice, both of whom are working on their SVQ in Professional Cookery through the Hospitality Apprenticeship North East programme, get involved.

A sweet course is finished off.

Some of the other team members include sous chef Paul Crawford, chef de partie Bethany Littlejohn and head pastry chef Michael Sinclair.

We spent some time with the team during a Friday lunch service and posed a few questions to head chef Victor Navarro on what got him into cooking and what gets him excited about food.

A conversation with Douneside House’s head chef

Victor Navarro in the kitchen where the team run breakfast, lunch and dinner service from.

Name and age

Victor Navarro, 30

Who or what inspired you to become a chef?

I have always loved food ever since I was young.  My mother was and still is an amazing cook. That is why every time I go home to the south to visit family, her home cooking is very much something I look forward to.

So I would say, the inspiration would be my mum because of how she has always made me feel whenever she would cook, simply bliss.

A portion of beef sizzles away as the chefs prepare to plate it.

Where and what was your first kitchen job?

I started off as an apprentice at a high-end gastro pub.  I’ve worked my way from the pot wash to where I am now, it is quite humbling and something I’m really proud of.

If I was asked to do something in the kitchen, I always embraced every opportunity and this is something I encourage our Douneside professional cookery apprentices in my kitchen to do – grab every opportunity to learn something new.

Service time at the pass is ready for the waiting team to carry the dishes to guests.

Have you worked anywhere else outside of cooking before becoming a chef?

I worked in I.T. for my father’s company just after university.

Who has influenced your cooking style the most?

The Roux Family for sure, my almost three years at The Waterside Inn in Bray (a three star Michelin restaurant which was the first outside of France to hold three stars for 25 years) will forever be an influence. That, complimented by my idols Simon Rogan, Jason Atherton and Marcus Wareing.

Meals ready for serving.

How would you describe your style of cooking in 5 words?

Smart, elegant, precise yet simple.

Over the course of your career so far, what do you feel has changed the most in cooking?

I think more and more cooking has become an expression and presentation of flavours from around the world.

The techniques, in my opinion, will always be the same whether modern or classic, but as the years go on, it is the combinations of flavours that always evolves.

I love working with my team in the kitchen to discover new flavour combinations for our menus.

Brussels sprouts being prepared for the evening service.

What one piece of kitchen equipment could you not live without, other than your knives?

I would have to say my sauce whisk.

This little tool is very important, especially during service. It’s something I picked up during my time with chef Alain Roux and to this day it is something I cannot operate without.

Chef de partie Bethany Littlejohn and apprentice, Chloe Craik, at the pass.

What would you say is your most versatile ingredient, and why?

Any ingredient, from spices to fruits, that can be used from the beginning of a meal to the very end will always be something I use on my menus.

My favourite and the most versatile, I would say is fennel. It can practically be used in everything, from its seeds to its pollen. It is an incredible ingredient.

Victor heads to the pass to finish his plates off.

Do you have any hobbies or interests outwith cooking?

The three things that I love doing the most outside of cooking are gaming, social dancing and stock/currency trading.

All three are what I do in my spare time and every now and then I will hit the Douneside gym.

Heading up the pass, Victor looks at the orders coming in.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given, and by whom?

Chef Michel Roux Sr. I will never forget when he said “You must go home and before you sleep, ask yourself if you are happy with what you have done? If you are not, then you must come back tomorrow and do better until you are happy. Work hard always and success will come.”

I have held this dear to me since that day and it is one of the quotes I will forever remember so long as I stand as a chef.

It’s something I feel the whole team here embraces, too.

Plating up mashed potato for one of the dinner dishes.

Do you have a favourite place you like to visit if you are eating out in Scotland?

In my time up here, I haven’t had the chance to explore too much just yet, however, the Manchurian in Aberdeen is probably my favourite place to eat right now.

The beef finally makes it onto the plate and is finished off at the pass for lunch service.

If you could cook for any four people, who would they be, and what would you cook them?

Not four, just one – my late father. All he wanted was for me to become like him in his profession and passion but before he passed, I progressed onto my first job at a one star Michelin.

I know he was proud but to cook for him now, to the level that I believe I can and the knowledge I hold would be the pinnacle for me.

I would cook his favourites but refined and with the finesse that I have been taught, it would be an absolute honour and pleasure to cook for my old man.

Chef de partie Bethany Littlejohn heads to the pass.