2016 is going to be a very exciting year for the food industry in Northern Ireland. A collaborative venture organised by Tourism NI, the Year of Food and Drink is bringing the industry together to promote Northern Ireland as a culinary destination and celebrate its artisan producers.
One of Northern Ireland’s best ambassadors is Noel McMeel, Executive Head Chef at the five star Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh. Noel is fully supporting the Year of Food & Drink and Lough Erne will be taking part in themed events throughout the year.
Since the beginning of his career, Noel has been passionate about celebrating produce and maintaining a farm-to-table philosophy. “Ever since I worked in Chez Penisse under Alice Waters… that was when I found what simplicity really meant. Before that I was always wanting to do good food but never really understood it.”
Noel maintains that the best way to treat great produce is by cooking it as little as possible and the key to finding that produce is to look at what is available nearby. Sourcing locally ensures an unbeatable freshness that really inspires Noel and this is what he wants to celebrate in 2016.
Carlingford oysters are, I feel, the best in the world. I believe we talk very much hypothetically about our produce and how we can stand against anywhere else in the world but unless you work and travel around the world then you can only say that by experience. I got beautiful oysters last year in Per Se in New York, I was in Venice there in a beautiful two Michelin star restaurant and I got beautiful fish. I come back here and I actually get seafood through the back door and I can produce stuff that can compete against anything and anywhere that I have eaten.
Another benefit to buying local produce for Noel is a level of trust in the product. Born and raised on the banks of Lough Neagh, Noel has invested in his relationships with local producers that he has known all his life. His intimate knowledge of these business means he can trust in the quality of their produce. “With the likes of my beef, it’s not coming from a different country, it’s coming from Fermanagh itself and the surrounding counties and I know the farmers who supply that meat. I know the abattoir. So right through from the calf to the fields to the food to the farmer, the traceability for me is so so important and the whole thing is powered by the heart.”
This personal aspect of Noel’s food is very important to him as he believes strongly in supporting the community. “I’ve a saying in the kitchen here, a big sign, and the sign says ‘Let’s look after Francie, not Francois’.” So instead of buying in olive oil from Europe, Noel sources rapeseed oil from local producers O’Kanes. His relationship with the family fuels his commitment to their business and Noel says this is necessary to ensure that standards are maintained and producers keep creating the best products possible.
To play his part in celebrating the best producers in Northern Ireland, Noel ensures each supplier is credited on all of his menus. Some people would not expect a three rosette restaurant to be buying in ice cream but Noel is incredibly proud to be serving Will Taylor’s Glastry ice cream and he isn’t shy about letting you know. “I make great desserts and I complement them with the best artisanal ice cream.”
Noel works with producers who share his passion for quality and locality and this passion is something that he strives to instill in the rest of his team.
It’s not just about me, it’s about how I share that to the rest of the people. That’s why we’ve got three rosettes, that’s why we’ve got custom, that’s why we’re successful. It’s because we believe in what we do and we share it to our guests. That’s why I feel we are very much individual. The fact is that I’ve got some of the best chefs in Ireland here working at the Lough Erne and when they leave they’ll go into another establishment and they’ll do exactly what we are doing here. And that is celebrating local people with passion and a love of what we do every day. In here, it doesn’t matter if it’s a baked potato, make sure it’s a bloody brilliant baked potato. Make sure it comes from somewhere really good. Make sure it’s cleaned well and you cook it well and I’m saying there’s nothing like it.
Noel measures his success not by the amount of awards or rosettes he has been given but by the custom coming in to his restaurant. “I feel if you are going to do something it needs to be consistent all the time so for me, it’s not about success, it’s to succeed in what you are doing and do it as best as possible consistently every single day.”
One way to achieve consistency is through training and education, something Noel is a big supporter of. He encourages his staff to achieve qualifications early on so they have something to fall back on should they feel the need to leave the kitchen and the ‘hard game’ behind.
The fact is it’s all about going back and doing more education because I am a firm believer that knowledge is power and I’m always keeping shouting to them, ‘what is power?’ Knowledge. So it’s as simple as that. I think that education is so important for what we do, we have such an amazing hospitality industry in Ireland. I think that for anyone to go into it, they need to be well educated. With an education I think you can go as far as anyone wants to go.
While promoting the benefits of formal education for the industry, Noel admits that lessons can be learned from many situations. “You take the best of what there is around the world wherever you may work and I think that I’m only a product of the places where people have invested in me. But I think most of all that I’ve had such a great background growing up as a child.” Noel refers back to his life on the family farm as a valuable education, preparing him for his career by teaching him about the seasons and the importance of completing chores.
Noel is adamant that his team maintain a positive environment when they are in his kitchen. He doesn’t stand for abusive language or shouting and he insists on everyone being respectful. He also promotes a work life balance so his chefs don’t burn out. “We’re very focused on enjoying what we do, but also focused on great food for the customer because that’s why we’re here. We get the job done because we’re very focused people in here. It’s about coming in, working hard and then leaving and having the time outside so it’s not 60 or 70 hours of work.”
Outside of the kitchen Noel has focused on promoting Irish food and produce overseas. The international success of his award winning cookbook ‘Irish Pantry‘ placed Irish cuisine on the world stage. He famously created the wedding banquet for Paul McCartney and Heather Mills in Castle Leslie and he credits the people he met at it in helping him with the promotion of his book in America. Noel’s highly publicised visit to Downing Street after he cooked for the G8 leaders in 2013 helped to establish Ireland’s reputation as a culinary destination but he believes there is still a long way to go.
I think we still haven’t done enough for Irish food. I’m a local lad from Northern Ireland but the fact is that what I do is modern Irish food and publicise it around the world and I’m very very proud of that. I don’t feel that Ireland is doing enough publicising and trying to get rid of this image that the Irish stew or the corned beef and cabbage is all there is.
Noel insists that one of the ways to change international perceptions of Irish food is to promote our great people, chefs and producers like Neven Maguire and the Allens. “Take the likes of Myrtle Allen who I think is one of the most amazing people on this earth, she has never veered away from her beliefs. Darina as well, its people like them that are pushing the boundaries and they need more support to make sure everything is happening.” This belief and investment in people will, according to Noel, result in a stronger industry for Ireland. The Year of Food and Drink is an opportunity for Northern Ireland to gain momentum in that respect and develop its culinary tourism.
Noel does give credit to organisations such as Good Food Ireland, the Slow Food Movement and the Restaurants Association of Ireland for the work they are currently doing to promote food all over Ireland, he thinks we just need more of them. “I think what they are doing, what Adrian Cummins is doing is very proactive and I think that we need more places to believe in what we’re doing and invest in it. The likes of TheTaste.ie, we need people like them that are pushing all of that, writing about it, telling more people the story. It’s all about the story, it’s all about what we do, how do we do it and how we can, as a collective team, make something better for our guests.”
The next year is sure to be very exciting for Lough Erne with the Year of Food and Drink coinciding with investment in the resort. The improvements and redesign of the resort won’t stop Noel’s commitment to events throughout the Year of Food and Drink from Breakfast Month in January to Bread and Baking in September.
I think it’s really exciting because I want everybody to sing the song and it’s an excuse for me to say that it’s the year of food. It’s just a great celebration of where everything comes from and it’s a bit like a map, there’s a pin everywhere for where all our stuff comes from. I think now Northern Ireland has really pulled together and is doing great artisan produce and The Year of Food and Drink is really celebrating the people that make it.
For more information about the Year of Food and Drink visit www.tourismni.com
Noel is the Executive Head Chef at the five star Lough Erne Resort in Co. Fermanagh. He has worked in some of the top restaurants in the world alongside renowned chefs Paul Rankin, Jean-Louis Palladin and Alice Waters. After working all over Northern Ireland and opening his own restaurant, Trompets, Noel spent seven years as Executive Head Chef at Castle Leslie, Co. Monaghan before moving to Lough Erne.
The resort offers a variety of innovative dining experiences, all of which have quality and authenticity at their heart. From the award winning Catalina Restaurant to the Loughside Bar & Grill, Noel and his team cater to all dining needs. The innovative Halfway House offers light bites to golfers enjoying the Nick Faldo course and a range of Afternoon Teas are available in the Blarney Bar.
Noel’s philosophy at Lough Erne is about finding the very best local ingredients and letting the natural flavour of the food shine through simple cooking. His commitment to supporting local farms and producers has established Noel as a hero of the Northern Irish food industry.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo