Cate Devine finds out what drives Unalome’s Michelin-starred chef and how he learned his trade. Photographs by Martin Shields
It’s 10am on a Sunday morning, and the streets around Kelvingrove and Finnieston are quiet. Behind the plate glass doors of Unalome, however, it’s all systems go.
Pots are steaming on the central hob of the open-plan kitchen, tables are being set for lunch, Veronica is at the laptop taking bookings, and the kitchen brigade - in mandatory black Birkenstocks - are prepping top quality Scottish produce while general managers Stuart and Callum MacCann deliver updates from front-of-house.
The 50-cover restaurant, which recently won a Michelin Star, is fully booked for lunch and for dinner tonight. “It’s been non-stop since we got the star in February and last night we had 60 for dinner,”Â says chef-director Graeme Cheevers with a somewhat weary grin.
“We were always busy but on the day we got the star, we took 1200 bookings overnight. It went wild and has stayed that way.”
He takes a seat at the table closest to the kitchen and beams a radiant smile - “ a rare sight that’s all the more joyful to witness, given the pressure the 34-year-old has been under for the last few years.
Unalome is the Paisley-born, Erskine-raised chef’s first solo venture and it was awarded the Michelin Star only eight months after it opened in June 2021.
He’d wanted to open earlier last year (he took over the building in December 2020 and told me then that he wanted a Michelin Star in the first year of opening) but was frustrated by delays brought on by the pandemic and by unforeseen problems with the graceful, listed 19th-century building previously occupied by the Sisters restaurant.
Sound- and fire-proofing, wiring, plumbing and the installation of a new state-of-the-art all-electric kitchen involved gutting the original interior and the endurance of several planning headaches for chef and his silent partner and co-director Michael Payne of Instock Group.
It cost around £750,000 to get it in working order - and that’s before any food and drink was ordered - but chef says: “It’s not about the money. Neither of us embarked on this project to get rich. We both just wanted to open a restaurant.”
Cheevers, who now employs 17 staff, knows what it takes to gain and maintain a coveted Michelin Star. He did so at Restaurant Martin Wishart at Cameron House, Loch Lomond, retaining it for seven consecutive years before it was destroyed by fire in December 2017. He went on to regain the Star at the Isle of Eriska hotel near Oban before leaving during lockdown.
He started honing his cooking skills even before leaving Park Mains school in Erskine at the age of 15 and going on to study hospitality at Glasgow College of Technology.
“I worked with Keith and Nicola at Braidwoods in Dalry when I was 14 and used to help Keith make their famous Parmesan tarts,” he recalls. “My mum used to drive me there after school. Keith Braidwood was really my first mentor.”
We were always busy but on the day we got the star, we took 1200 bookings overnight. It went wild and has stayed that way.
Braidwoods had held a Michelin Star for over 20 years before the couple retired last year and they remain friends.
Geoffrey Smeddle of the Michelin star Peat Inn in Fife is another former mentor: Cheevers worked with him when he was head chef at Etain, the Terence Conran-owned restaurant in Glasgow. Prior to that he worked with executive head chef Willie Deans at The Buttery in Glasgow.
“But it was Martin Wishart who really put me on the right track,” he says between sips of strong black Espresso. “He gave me the chance to run my own kitchen when I was just 23, and helped build my confidence,”Â he says. “The eight years I worked with Martin [at Cameron House] were the best of my life.”
When he found himself without a job after the fire, he feared his stellar career was at an end.
“To go from working up to 16-hour days to zero had a bad effect on me,”Â he told me at the time. “I couldn’t sleep or eat. I was very upset and at my lowest point I thought I was done.”
Finding it difficult to get work picking fruit on Scottish farms last summer only made matters worse.
Wishart was the first to support Cheevers when he embarked on his first solo venture and has stayed in close contact. “Martin called me on the day we got the star,” he says.
I ask for his early culinary memories. “My mum is very arty and into design but wasn’t the best cook, so on Sundays, when she was at work [first in Habitat, now at Farrow & Ball in Glasgow], dad and I would make Cullen Skink from Gary Rhodes’ cookbook.
“I also remember buying a bunch of asparagus from Safeway in Erskine on my way home from school aged 13 just because I was curious about it. It was around that time that I realised this is what I wanted to do in life.”
Does he regret announcing that he wanted a Michelin Star so early on? He did attract some criticism that he was too ambitious, too arrogant, too cocky.
“I wanted to put it out there, to give myself the fear, the drive to keep going,”Â he replies. “I was the black sheep of my family, the one who didn’t do well at school and who didn’t take life too seriously. Now the one thing I’m serious about is cooking.”
The Buddhist Unalome symbol suggested in his restaurant’s stylised logo represents the twists and turns and struggles in life on the path to contentment.
Cheevers isn’t a Buddhist but chose it because it reflected his own attitude. “I have a drive that comes with my passion for what I do, whatever the odds. It’s all I’ve ever done and all I want to do.”Â
He springs from his seat to rejoin his colleagues in the kitchen, and adds simply: “I love this.”Â And his smile, the second of the day, conveys the contentment of having found his happy place.