Paul Rankin: My tastes get simpler as I get older says 'head of north's chef dynasty'

Paul Rankin is back on our screens as he and Scottish chef Nick Nairn visit New Zealand on their Paul and Nick's Big Food Trip series. The former Michelin-starred chef tells Joanne Sweeney that simplicity in life and food is what appeals to him today

Chef Paul Rankin can be seen in the new series of Paul and Nick's Big Food Trip New Zealand
Joanne Sweeney

TO SOME of us, cooking a meal is a routine necessity, but for chef Paul Rankin, it's a sheer joy and an act which should honour the produce.

He's as evangelical today about cooking as he was nearly 30 years ago when his now defunct Roscoff restaurant first opened in 1989 in a palate-defining cataclysm in his adopted home town’s food evolution. Rankin went on to put Belfast on the culinary map when he achieved the city's first Michelin starred restaurant.

He was the golden boy of our restaurant world, north and south, having conquered a doubting local clientele who were initially underwhelmed with his ‘nouvelle cuisine’ style honed from Canada and London, as there simply wasn't enough on our plates.

These days he says that his own preference in eating and cooking is an awful lot simpler. It's something he shares with Nick Nairn, the Michelin-starred Scottish chef with whom he co-hosts the popular UTV series running at the moment, Paul and Nick's Big Food Trip New Zealand.

"I’m getting simpler and simpler in my tastes as I get older and wiser, as is Nick," he tells me. "We both ask the question all the time – do I really want to eat that? I think modern food is not as good, as there’s too much going on, but maybe I’m just getting too old and grumpy.

"I totally love food. But for me, it always starts with the produce and the respect for it. It’s not about my ego, but the beauty of the product, like the simple poetry of life. It’s all connected and quite Zen really. And almost everything in life deserves the same respect and attention really."

Glasgow born and Comber-raised, Rankin, a self-confessed ‘hippy’ type, conjures up an image from James Cameron's Avatar where the Na'vi bow and thank a hunted beast for the honour of providing food for the tribe.

His Ulster-Scot ancestors probably would not have dreamt of faffing around with food, seeing it as a way of fuelling for a hard day’s work ahead. But the thing is, Rankin fully believes this.

"Every meal that you cook brings you joy as a chef, really. Everything deserves the same attention. It doesn't matter if it's as basic as butter, bread or soup. It should be the best no matter the restaurant, or the home serving it."

It's fair to say that the 58-year-old has learnt more about the ups and downs of life than many of us, having started out as an extremely talented chef before he evolved into the figurehead of a major food, restaurant and media brand.

Along with his equally talented and gorgeous former wife of 25 years, the pastry chef Jeanne Rankin, the hard-working couple had it all career wise and in their personal lives as the parents of three children.

An over-expansion into other venues and a bakery, however, along with the impact of the economic downturn, saw most of the Rankin Group portfolio sold to clear debts in 2008. That left Cayenne, the renamed Roscoff restaurant, remaining open. Sadly it closed its doors two years later, although the Rankin name is still around, thanks to a successful tie-in with Irwin's Bakery, on a range of Irish breads.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Rankin realises that he got too far away from what he really loved doing – and that was being the chef at Roscoff.

"If you are not learning all the time, then you are not very awake," says the sanguine chef. "To a certain extent I wish I had chosen a simpler path rather than doing the whole expansion thing because that suits my temperament more as I never was really a businessman. When I was in the kitchen and the restaurant myself, I was always really happy with that, inside in my heart.

"But when I became a businessman-chef, I ended up being dragged all over the place at meetings and stuff like that. I was never really happy with it. That’s just not me."

He acknowledges that he was both overstretched with the burgeoning restaurant group, the couple’s TV careers and publishing recipe books.

"I was doing a lot, far too much. I was doing TV, books, personal appearances, bakery and a café. But the adventure has been amazing and I really wouldn’t change a lot as you learn so much. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re fairly stupid."

But for those who remember certain dishes like his duck confit starter, his smoked salmon pancake or lemon curd cheesecake, he was the chef who started it all off.

If there was any such thing as a chef dynasty in Northern Ireland, then Paul Rankin would be on the top of the family tree.

Chefs like the late and great Robbie Millar (Shanks), Raymond McArdle (Restaurant 23) Niall McKenna (James Street South), and Michael Deane (Eipic), to name a few, all gravitated to work at Roscoff with Rankin, as, for a time, it was the only show in town.

However, those days are over and when Rankin does open a new eatery one day again, it will be in a warm climate.

“Ever since I lived in Napa Valley in California, I’ve always wanted to live in a warm region again. My other fantasy is to have a wine bar that serves really simple food that goes well with the wine and to learn how to make wine and work directly with the wine makers. That would bring me great joy.”

Rankin now lives in England and is a long-time mate of Nairn’s. This latest series sees them embarking on a culinary road trip following the trail of the Ulster Scots who travelled and settled in New Zealand.

With their ‘boys on tour’ style of presenting, both chefs get to meet local people with historical connections to Irish and Scottish immigrants who settled in New Zealand, bringing with them a traditional Ulster-Scots knowledge of food.

Rankin says that working on the show is an "absolute privilege" and one he could ever say no to as he loves the prospect of combining travel with his love of food.

"I always knew there was plenty of northern Irish folk out in New Zealand and we [the Ulster Scots] had been going out there for years and years. I don’t think anyone ever told me how absolutely beautiful, incredible and amazing New Zealand really is.

"The nature is off the scale – amazing. It’s kind of like the north coast [of Ireland] and bits of Scotland on steroids and with amazing weather. You can imagine the beaches along the north coast with warm water and sunshine."

After 48 separate programmes covering Northern Ireland, Scotland, the US and Canada, Rankin says that the next potential series depends on thinking about "where else did the Prods go”.

"To me, it’s just astounding what [the Ulster-Scots] did in life. Maybe because they were sober all time, I think they got a lot of work done but to me it’s astounding what they did."

:: Paul & Nick's Big Food Trip New Zealand, produced by Waddell Media with funding from Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund, is on Mondays at 8pm on UTV up until May 7, then starting again on Wednesdays at 8pm from May 16.

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