If the name Colin McTaggart is not a household one by now, it can hardly be for want of trying on the part of its owner. Although not from these parts, Chef Colin (better known to his friends as "Tag") was an enormous culinary influence on me and on many of my contemporaries, and his contribution to Eastern Scottish cuisine will doubtless reverberate through gastronomic circles for many years to come. While details of his death are still sketchy, it is known that he struck a tree last week while driving through Nebraska on a book tour to promote More Whisky in My Beer, a sequel to 1984"s highly successful and controversial Whisky in My Beer: A Guide to Cooking with the Water of Life. McTaggart first sprang to some sort of fame when he took over ownership of the tiny Grandma"s Closet restaurant on Edinburgh"s bustling Rose Street. Renaming the establishment "The Jaggie Bunnet," McTaggart threw himself full tilt into what he believed to be the cuisine of the future: cedar plank cookery. Undeterred by the absence of really good cedar planks in Scotland, Tag contented himself initially with birch twigs. A subsequent attempt to pioneer the use of shingles made from the Douglas fir led to an unfortunate outbreak of lower intestinal poisoning and the prompt closure, for all time, of The Jaggie Bunnet.
His resolve barely dented, McTaggart almost immediately rounded up a handful of investors, and in the summer of 1983 opened Bistro Tag in the still-to-be developed wasteland of the port of Leith. It was here that I, like so many others, was to perform a lengthy stage, beginning as chief dishwasher, before graduating to substitute pastry chef and occasional front of house manager. It was at around this time that Tag"s intimacy with the subject of whisky persuaded him to write a book on the subject, and thus a legend was born.
It was also, sadly, McTaggart"s intimacy with the subject of whisky that caused him to abandon traditional French cuisine in favor of a highly experimental, not to say controversial, menu based around seafood fondue. Food critics praised the concept as "radical" and "daring" but Tag"s formerly loyal clientele just didn"t agree. Leaving the country under a cloud of bankruptcy and culinary indifference, my friend was at one point heard to be researching the finer points of offal in the Bavarian town of Trounstein, but until his triumphant return to the restaurant scene in the winter of 1999, he was seldom heard from.
This year"s book tour marked the second anniversary of Bistro Tag Redux in the heart of Edinburgh"s bustling Antiques District. A man on the rebound, McTaggart had finally found his niche: lamb pies, heavy on the white pepper, served with a "secret" sauce. The sauce, sadly, will go to his grave in the wilderness of Nebraska. Colin McTaggart would have been 52 years old in February.