Work is a family affair for Wine & Brine chef Chris McGowan
Chef Chris McGowan is making a big noise in the food world with his restaurant Wine & Brine in Moira, Co Down. The former Great British Menu star tells Joanne Sweeney why he's not chasing a coveted Michelin star
WATCHING Chris McGowan butcher half a pig before making a delicious dish of pork chop with chorizo and feta-stuffed squid offers a small insight into the physical strength and skill it takes to become a top chef.
The Cullybackey-raised pig was aged for a week – at Chris's request to intensify the flavour – and came from a diner who was confident enough to approach the chef in the restaurant's open kitchen to extol the virtues of his produce.
Every morning, the 48-year-old Coleraine man and his young chefs go up to the top of their refurbished Victorian building, smack in the middle of Moira's Main Street, to check what herbs or young vegetables are in season in the rooftop garden.
The parsley is good at the moment, so Chris served it mixed with pickled shallot to make a dressed salad, while a parsley cream transformed the chop and squid into a plate of pure tastiness.
It's this combination of cooking great locally produced ingredients simply and at their freshest which has earned Chris serious plaudits since opening the restaurant 18 months ago with his wife and business partner, Davina.
Chris gets his beef from Kettyle Irish Foods in Lisnaskea, meat from Carnbrook Meats, Dromara, pheasant eggs from Randalstown, while two brothers regularly offer him the woodcock and partridge that they shoot.
Restaurant magazine recently voted Wine & Brine 'best restaurant' in the north and number 84 in the top 100 UK restaurants, with The Good Food Guide also naming it 'best local restaurant' of 2017
Next week, the Moira eatery is one of four restaurants shortlisted for the Menu of The Year award in the 'Cateys', run by industry heavyweight The Caterer magazine.
And that's not including the favourable exposure Chris attracted as a three-time entrant for Northern Ireland in the BBC's Great British Menu, having had judges Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton positively salivating over his Ox tongue 'n' Cheek pie.
"It was a massive undertaking for us and a big gamble," says Chris of Wine & Brine's half-a-million pound refurbishment from derelict building to casual style dining restaurant with three private dining rooms.
"Sometimes, when you take on something like this, it's better to be blissfully unaware of the full extent of what's involved – or you wouldn't go near it," he tells me.
"But once you are in it, you say, 'This has to happen' as we put every single penny we had into it.
"I'm a firm believer in that you only get out what you put in. There was no plan B, only plan A and that was to get it open, to be humble and to hope that the locals take to it.
"We're been unbelievably blessed by this area as there's a very discerning customer base here and a real agri-foodie culture with Peter Hannan, (the famous meat supplier) just down the road and McCartney's butchers and the Meat Centre here who I’m very friendly with."
No doubt it's this humble straight-talking that has helped the restaurant embed itself into Moira and endeared the couple to the local customer base.
"We are a good local restaurant and don't perceive ourselves to be anything else. Our local customers became very loyal, very quickly and we feel really blessed," he adds.
"While it's been great to win the awards and to have been nationally recognised, that was never the driving force for Davina and I. I won't be chasing a Michelin star or planning to open more and more restaurants, although it would be nice to get a Bib Gourmand (the Michelin inspectors' favourite high-quality, well-priced restaurants).
"This is it and we aim to be here for the long-term."
No matter what high-flying job Chris had during his 20 years in London – working as top chef in Richard Corrigan's Michelin-starred restaurant, alongside James Street's South chef/owner Niall McKenna for chef Gary Rhodes or as a sous chef for the great Pierre Koffmann – it's his and Davina's local knowledge and commitment to the north's food culture which rings true with customers and suppliers.
For instance, Wine & Brine’s Jaffa Cake and Arctic Roll deserts are best sellers and have to be rotated on the menu, which changes every week, due to customer demand.
He has his mother Imelda to thank for getting him into cooking, the sweet smell of her home-baking wafting over the fields as he took a short-cut home from St Joseph's College Coleraine, along with her insistence that he should help out in the kitchens of the former Salmon Leap restaurant, where she worked as a manager.
He still idolises her Dundee cake, which he says she makes the "proper way" by soaking the mixed fruit in tea for days beforehand.
The only son in the family – he has four sisters – Chris met Ballymena woman Davina at Kelly's Nightclub in Portrush one night when he was a chef at the Ramore Restaurant and she was a languages student at the University of Ulster.
They have been together for 24 years, 15 of them married, and have twin daughters Madeleine and Emily, who turn 12 next week.
Chris followed Davina to London when she got a job and later became a buyer for Marks and Spencer, a job she gave up in order to look after the twins once they arrived.
While Chris is strictly 'kitchen', Davina runs all the other aspects of the restaurant business, using experience gained in customer care to ensure that everything goes smoothly at front of house.
The main reasons for coming home were to lay down permanent roots for their daughters and for a better work/life balance, as well as a serious motorcycle accident where the chef was lucky not to have lost his leg.
"I really began to change how I looked at life after that accident several years ago, as it was really serious and came at a really busy time when I was working for Richard Corrigan," explains Chris.
"Davina and I planned to come home for the long-term because we both have our families here and also for the girls and their education as we didn't want to leave it too late to get them settled in good schools.
"We didn't have our families around us where we lived when I was working in London and really how the girls were raised, their manners, everything, was down to Davina: I only saw them one day a week on a Sunday as they were still in bed when I left in the morning and in bed when I came home.
"We were lucky that a primary school agreed to admit them in the middle of the year and that was really the linchpin behind our decision to come to Moira.
"Now Davina and I work together every day and I see the girls every day after school. And all the hard work we are doing now is to build this restaurant to last, for them to take on and do what they want with it later."
:: Wine & Brine, 59 Main Street, Moira. To book ring 028 9261 0500 or email firstname.lastname@example.org