A Cottage for Stories: An Interview with the Owner of The Cottage Kitchen

Tidy. Bright. Bustling, filled with all manner of cakes, manned by staff in crisp white shirts. Tim came down the stairs to meet me, and after making coffee for himself and tea for me, we sat down for a chat.

Cottage Kitchen: Looks like you’re busy. Thanks so much for meeting up with me; this place is wonderful.

Tim: Ah, no problem. It’s a great job I have here; I get to call sitting down to coffee and a chat work. Most of the days here are strange mix of rushing around trying to get everything we need and bumping into all sorts of interesting people. It’s a strange place, St Andrews; you never know what kind of person’s going to walk through that door. I remember asking people what they’d gotten up to over the summer, and one guy told me he’d gone diving in Iceland and another group of people had apparently spent their time driving trucks all over Mongolia.

CK: And your place here feels so charming and local—just look at those cakes!

Tim: Ah, yes, our cakes. A year and a half ago, when we first started out, we were making just four cakes a day, and now we’re up to ten. Everything we make here’s really inspired by whatever comes in—it makes it so unpredictable, but that’s certainly what my wife loves. Helen’s the chef, and she loves to experiment in the kitchen. It’s a great way to put us more in touch with the local businesses and local people and what they have to offer. We have some old ladies who come in, read the newspaper together, moan at me, and swap veg for cake. Some might bring courgettes, some rhubarb or plum, and we’ll turn it round into new cake.

CK: A great way of doing it. Are you really keen on keeping food sustainable and local, then?

Tim: We do try our best. It’s better that way, you know, and you get more rich, unique flavours, more independence and experimentation here in the kitchen. There are of course some things we have to buy from bigger companies, but we still have about thirty suppliers within a twenty-eight mile radius.

CK: Thirty suppliers within a twenty-eight mile radius? That’s fantastic!

Tim: It’s fun. We get over 600 eggs a week from Kilduncan Eggs in Anstruther—rich, delicious eggs, they’re absolutely lovely—and we get a lot of our veg from Birrell’s Fruit and Veg here in town. They give us a lot of the extras, too, which again leads to some great experimentation. We get our rolls from Fischer and Donaldson. People even give us rabbits; we had a rabbit dish just the other day. Some of our coffee and tea comes from a 400-year-old family-run business in Dundee. I do love the days that I go to pick up the coffee! My car smells amazing for quite some time after that, so long as I don’t go pick up our free-range pork too soon after.

CK: It’s great to see local businesses supporting each other.

Tim: It’s fun, definitely. That’s another thing about St Andrews—a lot of chains have come in within the last ten years, but there’s still enough of a market within the town that there’s no need for the local shops to violently compete with each other. It’s much better if we support each other—the owner of Gorgeous, for instance, comes in here many mornings for his breakfast and to give Helen and me business advice. It’s quite nice of him, and it helps the spirit of it all. We’re still quite young in the business, Helen and I.

CK: I remember you saying that you and Helen have only had this place for about a year and a half? Can you tell me what was here in this building before hand, and how you ended up getting it?

Tim: That’s quite a question there. Well, I guess I’ll start with this place. It used to be Miss Marshall’s shop. For fifty years she sold really individual children’s clothes—really old and dainty, if you know the sort—and she only ever had one employee, and that employee was with her for forty years. When we finally got the place, the garden out back was full of rubble and overgrown, and upstairs hadn’t been touched since the 1960’s.

CK: Both the garden and upstairs are so beautiful now. You don’t happen to have pictures from before, do you?

Tim: I do, actually. Let me just figure out how to work this stupid phone—I hate it, you know. Much rather talk to people.

CK: I can’t seem to keep clever phones from rebelling.

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CK: Oh, wow! I can’t believe how much work you’ve done to the place.

Tim: It took some time, but it was definitely worth it.

CK: For sure. Now, your story—how did you wind up here?

Tim: Well, Helen trained to be a chef, you know, trained in Glenrothes, and always wanted to have her own place. She’d learnt to make Celiac-friendly cakes, which really expanded her ideas, but after interning in a fine-dining place in Edinburgh for five days she knew that exact fit wasn’t for her. They threw out almost fifty per cent of the food—potatoes had to be certain sizes, and all that rot—and a lot of the staff worked 100 hour plus weeks. Awful. It took Australia to really push us in the right direction.

CK: Wait, Australia? This sounds like quite a story! Back up and tell me from the beginning!

Tim: Well, I left London at 18 to work at Camp America in Milford, Pennsylvania.

CK: laughs That’s not far from where I’m from; I’m a country girl from Pennsylvania.

Tim: You’re joking! You know what I mean, then, when if I say the Milford earthquake, bears, and sneaking into redneck bars with crazy locals?

CK: That I certainly do.

Tim: laughs That’s grand. Well, I did that, then came here for uni, met Helen, and then lived around here—in Dundee or here in town—for a number of years. Helen studied to become a chef, and I went to furniture school and worked in pubs, and then we went to a business school in Australia together. There we were placed for work experience in this fantastic coffee shop slash restaurant slash cake shop sort of place near Melbourne, really contemporary and local and dedicated to making its own food. It was a fantastic place and we learned loads. Then, while we were working there, we found this place online and decided to come back and try to turn it into our own. So back we flew. Within the next few months we got married and tried to convince the council to let us change the building’s use from retail to food. The council was really stubborn, though, so we decided to go back to Australia and work in the shop on the rest of our visa. During that time, the council went our way. After another six more months in Australia we came back and opened up this place, and here we are. We’ve gone from making four cakes a day to ten. Helen’s six months pregnant and planning to write a cookbook once she has the baby. In the meantime, we’re trying to find a new chef and someone to come in and bake breads for us. We’ve been having loads of functions lately, and I’m massively disorganized and forget loads of things for the shop, like tea and toilet paper and napkins, silly things like that. I don’t know how this place works, but it does, and we’re very, very happy.

CK: That’s lovely. Good luck to you with all of that; I don’t doubt you’ll succeed.

Tim: laughs Well, I hope I’ll do alright! I usually just make the coffee so hopefully I don’t mess too much up.

After a few more minutes of chatting, I left with a jar of beautiful homemade black currant jam in my hand and pages full of stories. My initial impressions of Cottage Kitchen—tastes of wonderful cakes and smells of coffee—were deepened into a profound appreciation for the work that Tim and Helen are happily doing in their corner of St Andrews. There are many more stories to tell about this little shop, and I encourage anyone who doesn’t mind a slice of cake in the courtyard garden to explore the place.

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