THE SHORT STORY
-WHO IS THIS LADY?
Kj is a straight-talking award-winning chef from New Zealand living & working in the Cairngorm National Park Scotland.
With a love for cooking, writing & community, Kj will take you on a journey into her food obsessed world, she offers a glimpse into the actual real life of a female chef & what it takes to start from nothing.
Staunchly committed to supporting everything local Kj brings her high standards & ethics into her cookery, cafe & home life.
Since 2014 Kj has been the owner & head chef of The Mountain Cafe Aviemore, which has become an Aviemore institution.
Kj is a regular contributor to BBC Scotland’s Kitchen Cafe & Grow It shows, both promoting the sheer joy of growing/cooking your own food.
Kj's first book The Mountain Cafe Cookbook; A Kiwi in the Cairngorms was launched in February 2017. Selling out within the first month of publication it is now on the fifth print run & still selling strong.
Keep reading to learn more about Kj, her passion for sharing recipes, eating, life lessons & down to earth realism on what it takes to stay well in an often hectic life as an award winning café owner & head chef.
BACK IN THE DAY
I began life in the small rural town of Temuka, South Island New Zealand. Born to parents who were basically kids themselves. Early life was tough & my teens were rocky & turbulent.
But I had two loving, grounded & exceptional grandparents.
I spent a lot of weekends & school holidays with them on their lifestyle block. (The Kiwi version of a croft) I believe I wouldn't be here today if it hadn't been for them.
They had exceptionally high standards & old-fashioned views which I adopted from a very young age. I was determined to be my own person, grow wings of my own & not be a victim of my past.
Food brought us together as a family. I would help Nana & Grandad in the garden, the orchard, feeding the animals & then cooking our meals.
I would sit with Grandad under a cherry tree scraping the skins off the new potatoes or picking asparagus with Nana, I am not sure if I was very helpful, but these are the fondest & happiest moments of my childhood.
I found a way to become grounded with them, being surrounded by food & animals made the rubbish bits of life disappear.
To this day food & cooking still grounds me, as soon as I get my hands into food a light goes on within me, I begin to feel present, content & focused.
I will be forever grateful for the introduction to fresh ingredients made into simple no fuss dishes that helped me become the chef I am today.
Thanks Nana & Grandad- I wish every lost child could have grandparents like you!
Like so many chefs, school was a bloody disaster for me, I was a troubled teenager & after a teacher told me I was a miserable failure, I started to believe it. On turning 16 I left home, quit school & went on a little journey of self-destruction.
The local catering & hotel school were advertising an Introduction to Hospitality & Tourism course at the local Polytech. This was a 6-week foundation course looking at basic cookery, customer service skills & making coffee. It turns out that the minute I stepped into an industrial kitchen with all the bustle, smells & scary chefs I knew where I needed to be.
I started the Professional Cookery course with the next intake & I didn’t look back. For 2 years I studied non-stop, I was un-stoppable. I filled notebooks & diaries like a person obsessed. I took every book out of the library & I completed every module & course that the college had to offer.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t spell or write properly, because I had found my thing & now my brain was open to learning.
At this point we started to also realise I was actually dyslexic not stupid!
I represented our college at The New Zealand Culinary Fare twice. Having the opportunity to go to Auckland to compete in Toque Do'r competition within a team, it was an incredible opportunity. On winning it many doors opened for me & those doors led to coming to work in the UK.
I was 21 when I set off on my solo adventure to the UK. For the next two years I became a sponge, burying myself in the London cooking & food scene. Any time off I had I travelled, ate & again read books (not bad for a miserable failure).
I was incredibly lucky to work with Annie O’Carroll, an amazing chef who took me under her wing. She taught me about textures, flavours & foods I had never heard or let alone dreamt of cooking. On my first shift she had me out back of the bistro smacking octopus off the wall tenderising the tentacles like she had done in Tunisia, I thought it was a wind up, but no it wasn't. I will forever be grateful the lessons I learned in that tiny kitchen with her & Chris.
When she sold up & headed for Samoa, I hit the road heading north for Scotland. I came to Aviemore for a weekend skiing, stayed after falling in love with the place, then my hubby Al & then stumbled my way into taking on a run-down little Highland cafe.
THE CAFE STORY
-WORTH THE CLIMB
I never planned to open my own place, it all happened by chance. I was working part time in Cairngorm Mountain Sports (the shop below the cafe) as well as helping Al run his outdoor guiding company. I was his cook, driver & general dogs body while he did all the guiding & customer side. I loved it but it didn't pay us enough of a salary to survive, we were seriously broke.
Whenever I was working in the shop, I would say to my work mates, if I had that place upstairs, I would do this, this & this. They would all roll their eyes at me bored of my rants. Then one day someone said hey you should put your money where your mouth is, the cafe is up for lease!
So, I did, well it wasn't actually my money, Al's parents lent me enough money to get started, it was a huge gamble for them I had only been married to their son for 1 year.
I had never run a business, in-fact I had never run a kitchen, I was a chef de partie & I had certainly never been a boss.
It was one very steep learning curve that’s for sure!
We opened on an absolute shoestring, with 3 staff & me on my own in the kitchen. The kitchen was tiny, but it was mine & I loved it. I had no idea what I was doing apart from the cooking bit. The rest I made up as I went with the help of a few books I read late at night on how to be a boss & how to run a business.
I would start at 5am baking everything from scratch & work late through into the night. I made the decision from day one that I would not buy in any baking or pre-prepared foods. Everything would be baked fresh & meals cooked to order.
I wanted my own slice of NZ cafe culture in the Cairngorms with bloody good food, kick ass coffee & laid back friendly service.
As the years have gone by my cooking has continued to improve & develop as has the cafe. I have travelled whenever I can learning to make proper bread in San Francisco, Focaccia in Tuscany, Tagines in Morocco & Curries in Nepal to name a few. When I can’t travel I continue to learn from books & the chefs who join our team, every day is a school day at the Mountain cafe.
16 years on, the cafe has become a bit of an institution in Aviemore & Scotland. We have an awesome award-winning team of 21 folks who are super dedicated & hard working. They help me follow out my business ambitions. We feed up to 200 people a day on average.
I am really proud of what the cafe has become its totally been worth the climb.
No I am not planning on opening another one!
However, another cookbook is on the way & many more exciting things are on the horizon so watch this space...
After many years of customers asking for our recipes, I decided to write The Mountain Cafe Cookbook. I set out writing a small self-published booklet of our customers favourite dishes & in true Kj style it grew into an epic journey.
While writing the recipe descriptions I quickly realised I had a lot more of a story to tell than just giving folks recipes. I had found a love of writing that I did not know existed.
I wanted to celebrate what the cafe had become, tell stories of all the amazing folks I had worked with, share their & my recipes while trying to help people feel more relaxed in their own kitchens at home.
Off went the first rough draft to Emily from Kitchen Press publishing & straight away she said we had a book in the making. So began an epic journey of recipe testing, writing, proof reading & photographing.
Emily cooked every recipe & sent me feedback, helping me make sure the recipes worked for everyone in any kitchen. We had people all over Scotland testing recipes. In fact, our White chocolate, cranberry & almond cake was adjusted so many times I began to hate that bloody cake!
The book is everything I believe in & I am proud of it because it celebrates local artists, previous employees & awesome people I have met along the way...
It is published by an independent Scottish publisher.
Photographed by Paul Masson an Aviemore photographer.
Illustrated by Elizabeth Pirie a local lass who worked with us until she went off to University to study Art in Glasgow.
The book is a celebration of everything that is important to me including local produce & people.
Many of our recipes are based on fantastic Scottish produce with a Kiwi twist - just like our menus in the cafe.
We have had such amazing feedback about the recipes being really successful for everyone, from confident cooks to heroes who don't have a huge amount of confidence in the kitchen yet - but want to give it a go.
One of the best elements to come out of writing the book is all the photos we have received of kids making our pancakes, Anzac cookies, granola & many other recipes. I have been honoured to be given a glimpse into our customers cooking adventures & nothing gives me more pleasure.
The book has become way more successful than I had ever anticipated - thanks to you all.
Enjoy & remember... Keep it simple keep it sexy!
I am a straight talking, brutally honest Kiwi girl, who grabs life by the balls…
When my publisher Emily dropped the bombshell of me needing to speak at public events leading up to the Mountain café cookbook launch, I pretty much crawled up my own bum.
For years I had been the faceless chef & boss lady of the Mountain café & suddenly here I was about to tell my story publicly. I felt completely out of my comfort zone.
I will be forever in the debt of Dan Holland, Pennie Latin & Ghillie Basan for helping me believe in myself by giving endless top tips, feedback & interviewing me at the first few public events because I was too scared to fly solo.
A lightbulb moment came after giving a motivational talk to a group of 80 teenage girls at a RYLA camp, at the end two girls from the audience came to say thanks. One cried while saying how similar my story was to hers & it gave her hope for the future, we hugged & I left feeling content.
As I drove back to the café, I realised what a huge climb I had been through personally & professionally to become who I am now, I too was filled with hope, a hope of helping others see their own potential.
I got to where I am now by being a pig-headed, giant pain in the ass & never giving up on myself. It turns out there are actually lots of gems that I have discovered along the way & I'd love to share some with you all.
I hope to help others follow their dreams & believe in themselves, I’m pretty confident I can also offer you some light-hearted entertainment with some of the crazy situations I have found myself in over the years.
I offer talks to all walks of life so please get in touch for a chat about what we can do together.
Some of my previous talks have been for the following groups & events:
Rotary Youth Leadership Activity group, Abernethy Centre, Nethybridge
Waterstones bookshops - Glasgow, Dundee, Inverness, Sterling & Aviemore
Faclan: The Hebridean book festival
West over sea: Tobermory book festival
Forth Valley College - Sterling campus