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Roberta Hall-McCarron interview: "You can run a kitchen and have a kid"

The chef and owner of Edinburgh's The Little Chartroom and Eleanore talks to Molly Codyre about growing the business, the joy of teaching, and how having a child doesn't have to impact your work as a chef

When we speak via Zoom, Roberta Hall McCarron is 37 weeks pregnant. “Sorry, I’m a little out of breath,” she says, gesturing at her stomach. The chef and owner of The Little Chartroom and wine bar Eleanore opened the latter in December in what used to be the home of the former, having moved The Little Chartroom to a larger space in late 2021. It’s no small undertaking – an expansion, a new opening, and a baby all in one go – but it’s not exactly something Hall-McCarron is unfamiliar with.

“Just to add fuel to the fire of opening a business, we decided to get married ten days before opening The Little Chartroom,” she tells me. Hall-McCarron owns her business with her husband Shaun. The two met working for The Kitchin Group, at Castle Terrace, where she worked her way up to head chef and Shaun became restaurant manager.

Hall-McCarron tells me that it was important to them to start the business with their own money. “We really wanted it all to be on our own terms and not pass or have to pander to anybody else,” she says.”Obviously you worry about figures and you have to be making money, otherwise, what's the point? And also it's not a good business model. But we didn't want to be under the thumb of anyone else. We had money saved, and we were like ‘We’re nuts! Who is going to come?’ But we also felt confident in what we thought we could bring to them."

We wanted to keep it really small, and have a really intimate atmosphere, like you're coming round to our house for dinner 

“We just wanted to keep it really small,” she continues, “the team, the restaurant, and to have a really intimate atmosphere and ambience, like you’re coming round to our house for dinner. Food that’s really approachable, but well executed. There’s knowledge behind everything, but it’s fun, it’s casual, it’s not pretentious.”

It didn’t take long for the restaurant to garner some attention. They opened in the middle of 2018, and had a review from Grace Dent in the Guardian by the end of the year. Now, just four years on and one pandemic in tow, the business has grown. In late 2021 The Little Chartroom moved from its original location to a larger space elsewhere in Leith. Their original site on Bonnington Road now houses the slightly more informal Eleanore, a wine bar and small plates restaurant headed up by Hamish McNeil and Moray Lamb who were at the helm of the now-closed, pandemic product Little Chartroom on the Prom, which successfully fed hungry dog walkers and beachgoers takeaway coffees and impressive on the go street food that perfectly suited the changing landscape of eating out. Its closure and the subsequent opening of Eleanore made sense as the world opened up and restaurant dining came back with a vengeance.

“It was just me, my husband and one other member of the team when we started up the restaurant four years ago. Two in the kitchen and just him over in front-of-house,” Hall-McCarron tells me. “We’ve now got, I think, 18 employees including ourselves. It’s been quite the journey. Last year we opened our second restaurant and moved the older restaurant to a bigger site, and that was when the team suddenly grew. So it was a very organic move, but it has still been quite a jump for us to go from, say about six employees up to 18.”

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When we talk about the experience of being a woman in kitchens, Hall-McCarron discusses being sidelined a little bit early on in her career, but is quick to attribute this to inexperience and the norm for new kitchen staff rather than a gender issue. “I’m sure it’s just also down to me being a student,” she says, “you would go in and you would get put on the pastry section, or you get put on cold starters, but that’s the same as anybody when you’re starting out in a job and you don’t have any experience. Because they’re not going to immediately put you on cooking the meat or the fish because it requires more guidance and there’s more risk.” She talks about working in a lot of male-dominated kitchens, and genuinely believing she was treated equally regardless.

For much of her career, and in a very defining way, Hall-McCarron worked for the Kitchin Group, both at Castle Terrace and elsewhere. It is an experience that she describes as wholly positive, and in some ways entirely impactful on her time as a business owner herself. “It was the first restaurant I’d worked in where the owner was the chef,” she continues. “And I really saw a difference in the running of it and the ethos behind everything. It was really powerful. I guess that’s part of what made me want to open up my own restaurant as well and be able to teach people coming up through the industry.”

It is obvious this isn’t just a spiel, because when I ask her about her favourite part of working in the industry, she brightens, and immediately starts talking about how wonderful it is to pass that knowledge onto other people coming up in the industry. “I love showing them something, like a skill that they’ve never done before and might take them a few attempts to kind of get, even if it’s just making bread or it’s breaking down a whole animal. Seeing the satisfaction on their faces of knowing that they’ve really come into work today and they’ve achieved something.”

I love showing them something, and seeing the satisfaction on their faces of knowing they've come into work today and achieved something

But, I think for Hall-McCarron, the thing that drives her through this at times relentless industry is food, and a deep appreciation for it. “I love food.” she says. “I love going out, I love the whole experience that you get when you go out from the moment you step in the door.” And while both the business and their family might be growing, it doesn’t seem Hall-McCarron is going to have any issue juggling both.

“Hopefully I’ll go on to show that you can be pregnant, you can have a child, you can have a family, and you can go back to work. I had a girl that used to work for me come and visit, and I told her I was pregnant, and she said, it’s so great because it was showing her that you can have it all, that you can do this job, you can have your business and you can run kitchens and have a kid.” She pauses and laughs, “I’ve not done it yet, but I’ve got competence, and I really hope I can inspire people on that side of things as well.”

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