SOME people like nothing more than a good debate and Malcolm Duck, restaurateur and hotelier, is definitely one of those.
The former Royal Marine (55) who runs Ducks Inn at Aberlady in East Lothian with his wife Fiona, may not be afraid to ruffle a few feathers with his views on things like the recent changes to drink drive laws and the state of the rural economy – but it is only because he cares enough to.
Born in Pakistan to Missionary doctors, Malcolm grew up in Mallaig, in the Highlands after the family returned to Scotland when he was a youngster. He joined the Royal Marines at 19, serving in the Falklands and Northern Ireland before leaving the Corps 11 years later to go into the restaurant trade. He started out with the acclaimed Duck’s at Le Marche Noir in Edinburgh’s New Town, which opened in 1991.
Malcolm explains, “My intention had always been to be in business by the time I was 30. I’d also decided that, for me, it wasn’t possible to be married and to be a Royal Marines officer. You are very likely to be in active service where your responsibility is to the task and to your guys and not to your family. I’ve seen people try to deal with that conflict and I respect them for doing it but it was not for me.
“I was looking around for something and I love food and wine so I thought being in the restaurant business was something I would enjoy. I found a great business partner and we opened a restaurant together. We had it for two years before I left the Corps and I went in twice a week to learn and understand the trade. When I started out I barely knew the difference between an invoice and a statement so I had a lot to do.”
The restaurant soon earned a fantastic reputation for food and even won a coveted Michelin “Bib Gourmand” – one step below a Michelin star.
In 2004, Malcolm and Fiona, who have a grown-up daughter and son, decided to expand their business and bought what was then the Kilspindie House Hotel in Aberlady. Four years later they leased out the Edinburgh restaurant in order to focus on what is now known as Ducks Inn. The venue, which dates back to 1638, was originally an eight-bedroom family home. Today it has 23 guest bedrooms and three more reserved for staff while the couple live in a cottage at the back of the property, effectively as resident duty managers.
Malcolm says, “When we had both places I was spending more time on the road than anything else so it made sense to concentrate on one place, although we still own the freehold on the New Town venue.
“We’ve always been known for very good food and I think that comes from my time in the Royal Marines and trying to employ the right people. It can be difficult to get the right guy in the kitchen and the right guy on the floor.
“There are lots of transferable skills from my time in the Corps – you’re trying to keep people going, to motivate them. You have to believe in yourself as a leader, but that doesn’t mean you are always going to be right. The difficult thing about running your own business for a long time is that you can get sucked in and then you can’t see the wood for the trees.
“The other thing that the Corps teaches you is to take the opposite side. It’s a great way to challenge your own views and to really get to grips with a different way of looking at something. When you listen, you learn.”
Malcolm’s stance may have its roots in his childhood. His father, Donald Duck – named ten years before the Disney cartoon character of the same name came into being – was a conscientious objector during World War II.
He says, “My father was a very principled man and I am also very principled. I enjoy a good debate or discussion and I think we should be allowed to express an opinion but I also believe that we should respect other people’s views, and the fact that they may not coincide with our own.”
Like the majority of licensees, Malcolm is wary of the reduction in drink drive limits and the wider obsession with the perils of alcohol.
He says, “I don’t think alcohol in itself is a bad thing.There’s no doubt in a busy life that it does have an unwinding effect, in reasonable usage.
“Most things in excess are not good for you and most things in moderation, if they lead to happiness, are good. If you have problems at the edges of society and you try to solve those problems by bringing the edges into the clear middle ground you end up with a very narrow stream. “When people talk about seeing friends down the pub for a drink in the evening, that’s healthy, it’s social – it’s nothing to do with a publican making money. That socialising is a bit like the decompression phase in the military when you come back from an active war zone.”
Malcolm, who was founding chairman of the Edinburgh Restaurateurs Association and is a member of the British Hospitality Association Scottish Committee, is also unimpressed by how the new drink driving laws have been implemented.
He says, “The new rules have terrified people – they don’t know what they can drink and what they can’t. It’s zero tolerance basically. You can’t just lower the drink drive limit and to hell with everybody without damaging lots of things. Unless they can provide some sort of transport fix there are going to be massive issues in rural economies. It’s not just the cost of taxis out here it’s also the practical issue of whether or not you can actually get one and the bus system is pretty limited.
“If you look at the statistics, the drink driving changes have absolutely crucified country pubs, golf courses and other rural businesses. It’s difficult to make the argument as a purveyor of alcohol because people just say we are worried about our profit – okay, well we are. Places like this – small village pub/hotels – will not be here in ten years time. They are going bust on a pretty regular basis.”
“Drinking to excess and driving is dangerous. But what’s more dangerous – a glass of wine and going to pick someone up from the station at Longniddry or the person coming back off the train and having to walk home from there along an unlit coastal path because they can’t drive their car back home? I would suggest that’s not safe on a dark night either.
“The government needs to either put the drink drive limit back up to where it was or they need to change the penalty.”
Malcolm himself is nothing if not adaptable, having recently decided to concentrate more on the a la carte side of the business as well as an innovative tasting menu created by head chef Michal Mozdzen. Ducks Inn is also a partner bar with the Scottish Malt Whisky Society and they run regular whisky tasting sessions.
He explains, “More and more nowadays if you don’t have a margin you are not going to have a business. There has been a massive drive to the bottom, with pressure from taxation, pensions and all sorts of things.
“We are now looking at being open when there’s business, not just being open for the sake of being open. That’s one of the ways businesses are going to have to go.” Another bold move is the decision to close one day a week – Monday – for food even during the summer in order to give key members of his 12-strong team one guaranteed day off.
Malcolm says, “You have to stay up to date with what’s happening and you also have to let change happen. How you market yourself is an interesting and ever-evolving exercise.
“If we can do 30 a la carte covers every night we will be happy bunnies. We are trying to switch to that because having come out here, we’ve maybe chased too many markets, tried to be too many things to too many people so now we are trying to push back to a la carte.
“Michal takes great pride in what he does and his combination of flavours and textures are just divine. This whole thing about locally sourced food is not a new concept – cavemen were doing it. That said if the local suppliers were not good we wouldn’t use them.”
What does the future hold? Malcolm is keen to concentrate his energies on getting Ducks right before taking on anything else.
He says, “It’s important to do one thing well at the moment. Youth and inexperience bring drive, vigour and energy. Experience brings wisdom, safety and sometimes lack of energy. When you combine the experience with youth, I think you begin to get something. It’s inspiring to work with the team that we have. I still love the business – the best aspect of it is definitely my staff and our customers.” Clearly he will not be looking to Duck and run any time soon.