Food & Drink

Camlough chef Melissa McCabe produced a Feast for the eyes and tastebuds on this year’s Great British Menu

Self-taught Camlough chef Melissa McCabe chats to Sophie Clarke about going from her food truck to one of the most iconic kitchens on TV

Great British Menu finalist Melissa McCabe
Self-taught Camlough chef Melissa McCabe was a Great British Menu finalist

MANY believe that the last thing chefs want to do after spending hours in a bustling kitchen is cook an elaborate meal at home.

However, self-taught chef Melissa McCabe completely dispelled that belief when I rang her to catch up about her time on The Great British Menu.

“Don’t mind the noise - I’m just cooking” she says as the occasional clang of a pan or sizzling echoes in the background.

Hailing from Camlough in Co Armagh, Melissa’s passion for cooking started when she was 15 and working in a takeaway kitchen.

Since then, she has worked in restaurants around the world and a year-and-a-half ago she opened her own food truck, Feast, which has already garnered rave reviews from both critics and customers.

“I didn’t really think about opening the food truck – I don’t like to overthink, I kind of just do things,” Melissa confesses.

“I knew I didn’t want to go down the whole junk street food route because I’ve worked in restaurants my whole life, so I wanted to do restaurant quality food on my food truck. It’s cooked within season and is all locally sourced, and the most expensive thing on the menu is a tenner.

“I also thought that with a food truck you don’t need any staff - I’m the only one cooking but it’s a good way to get yourself out there and it’s becoming more and more popular.”

It was the success of Feast along with Melissa’s desire to showcase the high quality of Northern Ireland produce which caught the attention of the big-wigs at GBM.

Chef Melissa McCabe
Camlough chef Melissa McCabe

“You can’t apply for Great British Menu they have to approach you. I was on my food truck deep cleaning for the weekend, and I saw I’d missed a call so listened to the voicemail and I thought it was a wind up,” she says.

“It’s the last call you expect to get as a chef - I was totally mind-blown, especially as I grew up watching it.”

“And then I only have a wee food truck - I didn’t really have a kitchen to practise in. So, it was a massive LOL that I won the Ireland heats,” she adds.

This year the chefs competing in GBM had to theme their dishes around the Olympics and Paralympics, all hoping to cook at a final banquet to wish Team GB athletes good luck for the Paris Olympics.

“I thought the brief was awful,” laughs Melissa.

“Some years it’s been comic books or music. For me, that would’ve been a lot easier whereas I really struggled with the Olympics. Especially because our inspiration had to be from the north, we weren’t allowed to use anyone from down south.”

I stuck to what I do on my food truck because that’s my customer base. If I started shoving hay inside pigeons, I’d come back to no business

—  Melissa McCabe

However, despite the difficult brief, it was the sheer size of the GBM kitchen that Melissa found the most challenging.

“I wasn’t practising in a big kitchen - my food truck is 2.2 metres wide, my stove and ovens are three little Japanese barbecues – I don’t have any kit, I cook on coal, so it was hard to get used to.

"You need some Feast in your life" says Melissa
"You need some Feast in your life" says Melissa

“I went into a local café and used the oven to practise my timings for my beef and making sure my ice cream recipe was right but that was the height of it. The first time I put those dishes up was during the regional week.

“That’s why I was late to the pass every day – I wasn’t used to having all that space.”

Although she was slightly tardy at times, it was Melissa’s talent, authenticity and sense of humour that helped her stand out.

She credits winning over her fellow competitors and audiences watching home to her natural Irish charm.

“We are charming little creatures over here and I was like a little drunk toddler - I couldn’t stop talking and just really liked having the craic with everyone,” she laughs.

“I knew I wasn’t going to the banquet, so I decided to make the most of it and enjoy being in the kitchen with the other chefs.”

Much like her personality, Melissa’s food also left a lasting impression on acclaimed GBM judges Tom Kerridge, Nisha Katona and Ed Gamble, perhaps most notably her cured trout, treacle and stout bread that she served as part of her fish dish.

Chef Melissa McCabe's fish course for Great British Menu
Chef Melissa McCabe's fish course for Great British Menu

“It’s unreal. I’ve been doing that little cured trout sandwich on my truck for the last year-and-a-half, and I always use Highbank Orchards’ apple treacle and cure the trout in poitín.”

Melissa explains that whilst some chefs use GBM as an opportunity to experiment and try new techniques and flavour combinations, her strategy was to stick to what she knows.

“It was Irish-grown from start to finish - I wasn’t doing the fancy food the London chefs were doing,” she says.

“I stuck to what I do on my food truck because that’s my customer base. If I started shoving hay inside pigeons, I’d come back to no business.

I went over unrehearsed, no fancy props, no smoke and mirrors and took the whole country with me in relation to produce

—  Melissa McCabe

“I went in with no props because you have to pay for them yourself, so I just went with what I could take - my fish plates were a fiver.

Chef Melissa McCabe cooking her cured trout on Great British Menu
Chef Melissa McCabe cooking her cured trout on Great British Menu

“I kind of went over and just completely messed with the system.

“I went over unrehearsed, no fancy props, no smoke and mirrors, and took the whole country with me in relation to produce.”

Although Melissa didn’t get a dish to the banquet this time, she believes that this year’s champion of champions, Kirk Haworth, whose menu was completely plant based, was a very worthy winner.

“His food was spectacular – just in case you didn’t see the big chef kisses I was throwing his way. I loved his food, it was so flavoursome and so creative.”

She also claims to have gained valuable insight from fellow finalists, Michelin-starred chefs Cal Byerley and Adam Smith.

“Cal’s food is the kind of thing I’d want to be doing if I had my own restaurant and Adam’s food was an absolute masterclass. He’s just a different breed - a maestro of French cuisine.”

Although she currently loves travelling around in her “little green wagon” Melissa says the end goal is to one day own and run a restaurant of her own. And whatever she does, her commitment to serving seasonal, local and fresh food will remain the same.

Beef Short rib, shiitake, Durrus and truffle lollipop from Feast
Beef short rib, shiitake, durrus and truffle lollipop from Melissa McCabe's Feast

“I would love a little old school pub restaurant with a turf fire and to just be doing banging seasonal food that will slap you round the face with flavour,” she says.

“Somewhere up round the North Coast would be the dream, or maybe down south - then I might see about going back on the Menu...”