Ask restaurateur and whisky aficanado Wullie Macmorland how it is that a Scot is successfully running a restaurant in the Netherlands and the short answer is that he stopped there on the way to Switzerland more than 30 years ago and never quite left.
The full story is of course far more complex than that. But two pretty much unscheduled visits to The Netherlands were what led to the foundation of the successful business he now runs.
Wullie, now aged 49, trained as a chef in Scotland in the early 70s, learning French cuisine before heading over to France.When he finally returned to Scotland, though, he found it hard to settle back in.
“So I set out to Switzerland to work but stopped in Amsterdam for a few weeks and never really left,”he says.
So lost to a life of wacky baccy and loose women then? Not quite. After another spell of travelling and working he returned to The Netherlands to try his hand at running a business.
“I opened a bistro in 1989 and it was unqualified disaster,”he recalls. “There were too many restaurants doing the same sort of thing.”
But Wullie was to have a turn of luck, and although he almost certainly doesn’t see it this way, it came courtesy of the English.The town he was living in, Alkmarr, held an English week to acknowledge its twinning with the English city
“And people kept saying to me ‘you’re English, what are you doing?’ That of course is like a red rag to a bull and I got so fed up with it that I made our restaurant a Scottish restaurant for the week.We put a sign up saying ‘no dogs or Englishmen’ and it was the best week we’d ever had. So in 1990 we closed the doors for a few days, applied to change our name and became a Scottish restaurant permanently.”
And so Hielander was born. But what exactly did a Scottish restaurant serve in 1990? After all Scottish cuisine back then was hardly anything to shout out about.
“I was very fortunate to have trained under Billy Costley, who had been captain of Scotland’s culinary team before going on to get involved with Kilmarnock football team. He was ahead of his time. He believed Scotland had so much wonderful produce so why did the Scots make so much fish and chips?
“I learnt from him and in the whole time I’ve run restaurants I have never served a single chip or made anything with mince.”
Hielander offers a different menu every day but tends to have a high proportion of fish meals available and serves game all the year round. So serious is the restaurant about what it is offering that it has avoided restrictions on Scottish meat exports by sourcing its own supply of Highland cattle and St Kilda sheep “So we’re offering Scottish meat from the Netherlands,”he says.
Whisky has obviously had a central role in the restaurant. From the outset Wullie started presenting meals with whisky, and recalls a time when people thought he was slightly unhinged.
“I remember 10 years ago having a Diageo event with Charlie MacLean and (former Royal Lochnagar distillery manager and whisky tutor extraordinaire) Mike Nicolson and they hosted a dinner here,” he says.
“There were wine glasses on the table and I put whisky in them. People were amazed but it went down really well.
“I’ve paired the two for as long as I can remember.”
He continues to experiment by always offering something new with his three, four, five and six course whisky dinners.When he gets the chance to try a special bottling of something he uses his guests as a sounding board by seeking their opinions.
“Feedback is important,”he says.“We tend generally to have tried something before we serve it to a guest.
“But it might be that a combination doesn’t work as part of the meal because it clashes with the dish that was served immediately before it.We’re always looking to improve what we do. If one person out of 50 doesn’t like something then we flag that away as personal taste, but if 45 don’t like something then we learn from it.”
With about 500 malts to choose from, Wullie says they have had some excellent pairings over the years. He mentions two in particular: Ardbeg with strong chocolate cake, and Talisker with smoked fish or white meat.
So popular have the whisky evenings become that Wullie reckons about three fifths of his business is as a result of such pairings. He dismisses the whole suggestion that food and whisky don’t match, and argues that in his experience more people are prepared to try it.
“Of course it’s not for everyone but you don’t know until you try,” he says.“And more people are willing to do so.When we started in the Netherlands the idea of whisky drinking was very elitist but that has changed.We have surgeons, policemen and street cleaners among the clientele now. And we’ve seen a large increase in 25 to 35 year olds and women. Some of the best tasting evenings we’ve had have been women only because they don’t come with any preconceptions.”
Settled in the Netherlands with a Greek wife, three children and a grandchild and with the restaurant celebrating all things Scottish to a primarily local clientele,Wullie believes these are healthy days for whisky in general, and for whisky and food in particular.
“It’s a fun thing to do and a bit different,”he says.“That’s what people are looking for – coming together for a fun night out.”