Chef Noel McMeel on having the most exciting career in the world
A chef's life is not dull. It's the most exciting career in the world. Whether it's royalty, rock stars, presidents, Prime Ministers or Dorothy down the road, it's a humbling privilege to be able to cook for someone else Noel McMeel
HE'S cooked for President Obama and other world leaders and provided the wedding banquet for Paul McCartney, but Antrim-born chef Noel McMeel's real passion is in using and promoting Northern Ireland produce in a "simple but delicious" way.
McMeel (51) was brought up on a dairy farm, where his love of growing produce and cooking was first fostered. "I remember being fascinated with watching mum cook," he enthuses.
"My first attempt at cooking was an orange cake and I remember watching the magic of the cake rising and being bloody surprised."
As a young boy, McMeel also enjoyed success an all-Irish dancing champion and between the ages of 14 and 21 he was a member of two international Irish dancing troupes.
"I remember cooking at the White House in Washington and telling Michael Flatley how we had met many years ago in Chicago, long before Riverdance, when we were part of a concert troupe. I remember getting off one plane from an American tour and boarding another for Europe. It was a privilege."
So, at what point did his desire to cook overtake his dancing career?
"I had the chance to go onto do dance teaching, but the fact is you follow your heart – and I loved to cook."
The chef's passion for cooking would also take him all over the world. After studying at the Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College and training in a number of restaurants, including with Paul Rankin at Roscoff, he earned a scholarship to attend Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Jobs in prestigious restaurants including the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC and Chez Panisse in San Francisco followed.
McMeel could easily have based himself in the US, but a genuine love for his home country and its produce brought him home.
"I worked with some of the best chefs in the world and realised that, basically, the tools I needed were the tools I was given by my parents.
"Growing up we were very much self-sufficient," he enthuses.
"We hung onions in the hay shed to preserve them, we produced our own milk and grew our own vegetables and fruit. Even now I have my own chickens and my own garden with three or four different varieties of apple trees."
His home life had a huge influence on his current job as executive head chef at Lough Erne Resort, where McMeel places a huge emphasis on the seasonality of food and his thirst for knowledge about how his food supplies are produced – something he is also keen to educate his diners about.
"I would say to all chefs out there, you need to do more than put the suppliers name on your menu. You need to get to know these people – where their produce comes from, how do they make it and what the taste is all about.
"That's why I pay homage to the likes of Broighter Gold rapeseed oil, Abernethy butter, Lisdergan Meats in Fintona and Long Meadow apple juice, as they are the ones who are self sufficient and are sharing their produce and knowledge with me.
"One of our starter dishes tells about our three indigenous products in Northern Ireland; Comber potato, smoked Toomebridge eel and Armagh Bramley apple."
Next year, Noel has planned The Year of Food at Lough Erne Resort, telling the story of the people behind the food produce used in the hotel. Each month will feature different produce, with January being about the Irish breakfast.
"Food is the new currency of Ireland and we should be proud to share that," says McMeel, who believes many of our products are worthy of being on a world stage.
"Yes, Brexit brings uncertainty – but great produce travels far."
McMeel's debut book Irish Pantry, which showcases "modern Irish food" as well as tell his story of growing up in Northern Ireland, was named the third best cookbook in the world in 2014. He is currently planning another, due to be published in 2021, which will also feature stories on famous people he has cooked for.
These include actor Colin Farrell, who forwent the luxury of the hotel's Catalina restaurant to dine in the sanity of McMeel's office.
"There were people running to see him as he walked from the toilet and I said to him, come on into the kitchen. Sometimes these stars just want to be human and enjoy their food in peace," he laughs.
"A chef's life is not dull. It's the most exciting career in the world and I'm probably one of the luckiest chefs in Ireland having being able to travel and cook for some amazing people. Whether it's royalty, rock stars, presidents, Prime Ministers or Dorothy down the road, it's a humbling privilege to be able to cook for someone else."
Last month Irish News readers voted The Catalina Restaurant as the Best Hotel Restaurant and overall Greatest Place to Eat in the inaugural 2019 Irish News Great Places to Eat Awards in association with Food NI and Henderson Foodservice.
But why does McMeel feel that the three AA Rosette-rated restaurant is so popular?
"The food", he laughs.
"Fine dining is very much an experience. It's a bit like going to the opera and it's how we perform – the service, the food, the wine, the knowledge is all part and parcel of all of that and the restaurant also boasts three big windows with stunning views.
"I'm only as good as the chefs I have around me. I've got a good living kitchen – they are not slaves. I treat them with great respect and they treat me with respect and it's a win win situation."
"Every kitchen should be the same," adds McMeel, who tries to meet his diners whenever possible.
Christmas is a very busy time within the hospitality industry, but it's McMeel's favourite time of the year.
"As we get older, we complicate so much of our lives rushing to do things – we've lost touch of our senses: the colours and smells of the season, particularly Christmas puddings, evoke amazing memories of childhood.
"Christmas is a very special time for me. I love it."
TRY THESE MICHAEL MCNEEL RECIPES
:: Traditional Treacle Bread
170g/6oz soda bread flour
3tblsp warm treacle
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
290ml/½ pint buttermilk
You can add some nuts or dried mixed fruit (65g) to gain different flavours (optional)
1.Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6.
2. Tip the flour, salt and sugar into a large mixing bowl and stir.
3. Make a well in the centre, mix the buttermilk and treacle together and mix, pour in the buttermilk mixture, mixing quickly with a large fork to form a soft dough. (Depending upon the absorbency of the flour, you may need to add a little milk if the dough seems too stiff but it should not be too wet or sticky.)
4.Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly, remembering not to mix to much.
5. Form into a round and flatten the dough slightly before placing on a lightly floured baking sheet.
6. Cut a cross on the top and bake for about 30 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.
:: Dauphinoise Potatoes
(Perfect for serving with fillet of beef)
500ml double cream
3 garlic cloves
8 large King Edward or Maris Piper Potatoes
100g grated Gruyere cheese (optional)
Heat oven to 190C/170C fan/gas 5.
Tip 500ml double cream, 500ml milk and 3 garlic cloves into a large saucepan and bring to a simmer.
Slice 8 large potatoes very finely, about 3-4mm, add them to the cream and simmer for 3 mins until just cooked.
Gently stir to separate the potato and stop it sinking and catching on the bottom of the pan.
Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon and place in a wide shallow ovenproof dish so that they are about 5cm in depth.
Pour over the garlic infused cream (discarding the garlic) – just enough to seep through the layers and leave a little moisture on the surface.
Scatter over 100g grated Gruyère cheese, if using, then bake for 30 mins until the potatoes are soft and browned – increase the heat for 5 mins if not brown enough.