Danni Barry, Ireland's only female Michelin-starred chef
Jenny Lee chats to Northern Ireland's only Michelin-starred chef Danni Barry about fine dining, foraging and eating out of your comfort zones, ahead of next weekend's first BBC Good Food Show Northern Ireland
AS I wait to speak to Ireland's only female Michelin-starred chef in the plush surroundings of Eipic restaurant in Belfast's Howard Street, a rosy-cheeked, fresh-faced Danni Barry, comes bouncing in saying "Sorry I'm late, but I was collecting seaweed in Dundrum."
A 7am start for a working day where service doesn't end until 11pm is a sign of dedication and passion for her craft. And Danni is brimming with passion – for her job as head chef of Eipic (Irish for epic), for creating innovative flavours, for using local produce and for pleasing her customers.
"The best part about my job is a noisy restaurant, clean plates and happy diners," says the 31-year-old from Mayobridge, Co Down.
She is one of an elite group of female Michelin-starred chefs in the UK and only the second female chef ever in Ireland to gain a star – the last being in the 1970s. Just last week she heard that she had retained the coveted Michelin star for a second year.
"I'm delighted to contribute to our strong dining scene in the north at the moment. The Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink has been fantastic and we need to keep that momentum going. In Eipic 30 per cent of our customers are international visitors and they are coming for food. Belfast and Northern Ireland has become a food destination," she says.
Eipic is the most sophisticated in the Deanes restaurant portfolio. With an emphasis on innovative cooking, their tasting menus aim to take diners on a culinary journey of fresh, seasonal and local produce.
"Sometimes it starts to read like a map," says Danni about their menu, which changes weekly.
Experimenting with new dishes and being creative is something she describes as "the fun part".
"I love this time of year when the seasons are changing and I can now play with game," says Danni, who describes her cooking style as progressive, visual and produce and flavour-driven.
She sees foraging as part of her role as a chef.
"When we pick herbs from the landscape around us it gives our dishes a sense of place," says Danni who forages blackberries and wood sorel form Belvoir Park and sea herbs from Dundrum.
She believes the north's diners are becoming more sophisticated and demanding, though she would still like to see them experiment further with their palate.
During this week's inaugural Good Food Show Northern Ireland Danni will be cooking smoked and grilled Lough Neagh eel.
"Eel is globally recognised as fantastic but locally we go 'Oh no'. It's a bit meatier and earthy in flavour than most fish. The Japanese eat a lot of eel and we have taken inspiration from them – we marinate it with ginger, soy and lemon. We cook it slowly in a water bath and then we use a blow torch which gives it a barbecue flavour."
Research shows that in the UK women make up just under 20 per cent of chefs; the number is even lower in fine dining. While Danni's own kitchen is 50-50 in terms of gender divide, she acknowledges "it will never be an even playing field – but I don't think it has to be".
Her advice to young chefs, male and female, is: "Work hard, listen loads and take your time. First you need to learn the trade, then hone your craft and then you can have the space to get creative."
Danni's career has gone full circle. As an 18-year-old ambitious young woman, fresh from catering college in Newry, knocked at Michael Deane's door and audaciously asked for a job.
She worked under Deane's tutelage for four years before embarking on a global food adventure in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, garnering knowledge from the high-end restaurants in which she worked along the way, including a private yacht in Valencia and Simon Rogan's L'Enclume restaurant in Cumbria.
She admits that travelling has been a major influence on the way she cooks.
"Experiencing different cuisines and cooking cultures hands-on has expanded my palate and repertoire."
While she has dabbled in the world of television as a contest on last year's The Great British Menu, Danni prefers to cook off camera and admits that she would like to own her own restaurant.
"I would like to work for myself one day – I think everyone in this industry would. Though I wouldn't say no to Saturday Kitchen," she laughs.
:: Danni Berry will be cooking at the Supertheatre at the BBC Good Food Show Northern Ireland on Sunday October 16 at 2.30pm.
BBC GOOD FOOD SHOW ARRIVES IN BELFAST
THE very first BBC Good Food Show Northern Ireland comes to Belfast's Waterfront Hall on October 14-16. Celebrity chefs Paul Hollywood, The Hairy Bikers, John Torode and James Martin will be joined by top Northern Ireland chefs Paul Rankin, Ian Orr, Danny Millar, Niall McKenna and Danni Barry in hosting live cookery demonstrations.
Visitors have the opportunity to find out more from their cooking heroes and producers on the Interivew Stage, including their top tips and go-to ingredients.
The Tasting Theatre is the place to taste and learn about an amazing line-up of food and drink producers. Visitors can join a session led by expert host Paula McIntyre and discover different flavours from all around Northern Ireland. From Armagh's cider and breads to Down's Gin and macaroons, each session is a treat for the senses.
There will of course be the opportunity to browse a great selection of stands selling top-quality food, drink and accessories, while The Producers' Village will be packed with local artisan producers who pride themselves on the quality and provenance of their produce.
:: See bbcgoodfoodshownorthernireland.com for more information and tickets.
RECIPE: Danni Barry's Smoked and Grilled Lough Neagh Eel, Beetroot, Lovage and Comber potato Salad
1 smoked Lough Neagh eel
chopped dill and chives, to garnish
For the marinade
100ml Broighter Fold rapseed oil
8 drops Tabasco
2 garlic cloves, crushed
8 tbsp soy sauce
4 tbsp honey
1 tbsp lemon juice
For the lovage mayonnaise
2 egg yolks
1 tsp mustard
1tsp white wine vinegar
125ml lovage flavoured oil (fresh lovage blended with oil)
For the salt baked beetroot
200g plain flour
100g rye flour
100g coarse sea salt
4 small red beetroot
For the potatoes
8 Comber potatoes
1. For the marinade, mix the ingredients in a bowl. Add the smoked eel fillets and coat in the marinate. Leave for 15 minutes.
2. For the mayonnaise, place ingredients in bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Using an electric whisk or stick blender, add the lovage oil very slowly until the mixture thickens. Remove the pan from the heat.
3. For the beetroot, heat the oven to 220C/fan 200C/gas8. Mix the plain flour, rye flour and salt together in a bowl. Add enough water to make a dough then wrap the beetroot in the dough so it's fully encased.
4. Bake the beetroot for 10 minutes then reduce the oven to 190C/fan 170C/ gas 5 and cook for a further 20 minutes.
5. Remove from the oven and crack open the dough. Rinse the beetroot under cold water and peel off the skins. Cut into slices.
6. Cook the Comber potatoes in a pan of boiling salted water for 15 minutes. Drain, then leave to cool and peel off the skins.
7. Cut the eel into four portions and blowtorch each fillet.
8. To serve, arrange the beetroot and potatoes on serving plates and drizzle with lovage oil. Top with the smoked eel and finish with the warm mayonnaise. Garnish with chopped dill and chives.