Sushi may rank among his favourite foods, but there's no wasabi to be found in Willie Little's kitchen. "The customers here would never go for raw meat," says Little, who instead contents himself with cooking the wealth of Scottish produce available on his Perthshire doorstep.
But while the majority of produce that finds its way into the kitchen at Cargills restaurant in Blairgowrie may be thoroughly Scottish, its treatment at the hands of chef-proprietor Little takes its influences from way beyond Highland borders.
Little, who opened his restaurant four years ago, describes his style of cuisine as having a "big Continental influence". And despite his locals' culinary conservatism, he has managed to sneak an Asian-influenced dish on to his menu. In fact, against all odds, nasi goreng - rice, chicken and prawns spiced with chillies - has become a best-selling starter.
It was Little's flair for using local produce in innovative ways that landed the restaurant last year's Scottish Thistle Award for Natural Cooking of Scotland. The Scottish Tourist Board's chairman, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, described Little as "an inspiration and example to everyone working in Scotland's most important industry".
His culinary influences may be international but, on the whole, Little is happy to be guided by the tastes of the locals and tourists he caters for: favourites such as deep-fried haddock fillets with peas, chips and tartare sauce, and a grilled sirloin steak with peas, carrots and chips, for instance, are included on a menu that changes every two to three months "or when I get bored".
However, the straightforward, traditional dishes are counterbalanced by those that display Little's passion for experimenting with flavours and many of those are centred around local game.
Situated in the heart of one of the biggest shoot areas in the country, a hefty proportion of the produce used by Little, particularly between August and December, is locally shot venison, rabbit, grouse and duck.
Culinary techniques from overseas
Little then applies culinary techniques garnered from working in places such as Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich, from holidays abroad (Portugal is a favourite destination) and from books. "I like to experiment and mix things up," he says, giving his recent pairing of venison with chorizo as an example. "Venison sometimes needs something to give it a kick and lots of chefs marinate it, but then it's not the flavour of venison. If you take venison out of a marinade stinking of rosemary, you've made the flavour and you might as well have used tofu," he says.
"If you buy Venison young enough and hang it for three weeks, the meat relaxes and becomes darker, more tender and has a stronger flavour," adds Little, who has a 6ft by 8ft chiller at his second eaterie, Hoy Tapas (formerly Exceed brasserie but recently turned by Little into a Spanish tapas restaurant) in Perth.
With venison being available locally all year round, Little is constantly looking for different ways to serve it, and a popular choice among game-loving customers is pan-fried venison with a pigeon roulade and a vegetable pavé.
Showing a distinct eastern influence on the menu is the free-range Glamis duck marinated in soy sauce. The ducks are supplied to the restaurant by a local resident. "She hand-feeds and plucks the ducks herself," says Little. "They have a lovely flavour, far better than anything coming from France." He uses the duck breasts for the dish, dipping them first in heather or clover honey before marinating the meat in the soy. Roasting then produces a sweet and crispy-skinned breast, which Little likens to Peking duck, served with red onion, port wine jelly and rosemary roast potatoes.
Local wild game birds
When it comes to game birds such as pigeon and partridge, Little buys from local shoots, as he prefers the wild variety from the hillside to hand-reared ones which he adjudges to taste more like chicken. He also strives to use wild salmon, available in July from the mouth of the River Tay, in preference to farmed fish - although it becomes necessary to use the farmed variety later in the year.
Salmon may appear on the menu simply roasted or poached with wilted spinach but also, somewhat against Little's mantra of "let the flavour speak for itself", marinated in coriander and coconut milk. "The coconut milk is very mild and I don't use piles of coriander so the flavour of the salmon still comes through," he explains.
Little attributes his love of game to an upbringing on a private estate in Angus on which his mother was cook and his father the resident chauffeur. "I wanted to be a gamekeeper but my mum wouldn't allow it," he recalls. However, she did hand on to Little a passion for cooking, which he took with him to Dundee College and a life in whites. Now at 47 years old, and having owned two hotels and a fish-and-chip shop, he divides his time between Cargills and Hoy Tapas but leaves the day-to-day running of the latter to head chef Craig Davidson.
Little's skill as a chef-restaurateur is to give his customers both the dishes they demand and those that extend their horizons. But despite being somewhat restricted by his market he has never harboured any desire to head south to the capital. "London will always be a little ahead but we've moved on a lot here," he admits. "And I'm a country bumpkin at heart."