Within minutes of sitting down with Belfast chef Michael Deane, he confronts unprompted what I thought would be a delicate topic, the loss of his Michelin star after holding it for a Northern Irish record of 14 years. “I knew we would lose the star. It was either lose that or lose my house,” he says bluntly, describing the decision to restructure his one Michelin star Restaurant Michael Deane after a flood devastated the restaurant in 2010. “We weren’t really cutting the money, so we revamped it into the old style brasserie and I knew we would lose the star.”
Sitting down with Michael in the restaurant where he has since re-earned a Michelin star, Deanes EIPIC, it is clear from both his achievements and his words that this is a chef who takes the business of food seriously, and one that doesn’t hold back. For the next hour I sit back and let Michael Deane do the talking.
Credited with revolutionising the eating out scene in Belfast, over the past 20 years Michael Deane’s restaurant collective has shifted shape and size, with a group of seven eateries now spread over four addresses. The single fine dining restaurant that he opened on Howard Street in 1997 has evolved into a trio of eateries that now take up half the block; Deanes Meat Locker, Deanes Love Fish, and Deanes EIPIC. There’s also Deanes at Queens, Deanes Deli Bistro and Vin Cafe on Bedford Street and Deane and Decano on Lisburn Road in South Belfast.
Hailed as the visionary of Belfast cuisine, Michael is quick to deflect praise to his protegé, chef Danni Barry, who earned a Michelin star at EIPIC just 18 months after opening. “Danni has done a fantastic job,” Michael says.
“I just love the way she puts food on the plate; it looks like you have just thrown it there but you haven’t, it just naturally seems to come together. Her search for flavour is brilliant, and the way she manages her team.”
Danni brought back to Deanes what Michael considers to be ‘international currency’, a Michelin star. Having held one for so many years Michael knows a thing or two about how to get one, retain it and how not to let it run your business into the ground. “It’s not about rocket science it’s about consistency, and there’s no one more consistent than Danni,” he says. “Too many chefs have gone bankrupt trying to get one. They’ve lost their house, lost their way and ended up with nothing. Michael O’Hare from the Man Behind a Curtain made a very fair point, that most people who work in the kitchens will probably never have the money to live the way the people who they serve do and they’ll never understand the way they live.”
“You have to get some sort of balance, I mean you still want to have a nice house, you still want to go on holiday, I want to be able to give my son a good schooling – you know my son came from Thailand when he was a baby, we adopted him, so I had to give him a good life, instead of spending 15 or 20 years chopping shallots to get a two star Michelin.”
Michael believes that being a chef is important to survival in the restaurant industry. “If I hadn’t had been a chef I couldn’t run this business, if you’re Bob the Builder, or an accountant, or something else, people would just take the piss out of you and you’d fall flat on your face. I know if it goes wrong, where it goes wrong and I can fix it, or try to fix it.” Though Michael says where he differs from many other chefs who ‘don’t have a game plan’ is that ultimately he is a ‘businessman who loves cooking’.
Since leaving London in 1989, Michael has followed the advice of chef Anton Mossiman, who he worked under at the two Michelin star Dorchester Hotel: “it’s not about getting the Michelin star it’s about what you do with it”. Following these words, and with the talent to back it up, Michael Deane has built a successful business spanning 20 years in a notoriously fickle industry. “That’s what I’ve tried to do, push it out and expand it and follow the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton.”
The power of a Michelin star is not lost on Michael however. “Michelin is everything though. Michelin is the holy grail for a chef” he says and adds that he respects the highly influential San. Pellegrino World 50 Best Restaurant list also. “AA is quite good too, we have 3 rosettes, we’re the highest rated restaurant in Northern Ireland. La Liste, a French publication, is good as well, it lists the top 1000 in the world. We came in at number 720. We were touched about that, being only 2 years old.”
Michael considers these awards to be fair representations of the global restaurant scene, but others to be of little value.
“There seems to be a new award every week, there was one this week, there was one last week and I said something on social media about how many more award ceremonies do we need. I just don’t know how transparent some of them are. I mean fair play to anyone who wins one, but it just seems to be the same pack of cards reshuffled, it’s the same people all the time.”
“And I don’t stick those stupid plaques on the door,” he adds.
Restaurant awards have been getting a backlash for other reasons too, and Michael weighs in on the debate on all-male judging panels and award winners that hit headlines recently. “I saw the dispute between Trish Deseine and JP McMahon, I don’t know how it all started, but I think they both have fair points; there is a bit of macho-ism in the kitchen. But I mean Danni has her bit of macho-ism, she has to teach her boys that’s how you do it and that’s how you deliver it. That’s not a female thing or a male thing. If you are going to be a chef you have to be hardcore.”
“I don’t see female chefs and male chefs, I see them as chefs. I can understand what the banter is about and I can understand why females are upset about it but for me, Danni Barry is a chef, I don’t distinguish her as a female chef.”
While he would like to see more women in the kitchens at Deanes, he notes that they are well represented elsewhere in the business. “I don’t think there are enough women in hospitality in the back of house but our operations manager is female, our in-house accountant is female, our sales and marketing manager is female, our GM is female and my wife, who does everything else, is female. So the six people on top of the business are all female.”
Michael says that Danni has as much ambition as any chef he knows, male or female. “She always wants more, she is hungry for more, she wants to keep the star here.” As to whether she could be tempted elsewhere Michael is less sure. “I think she’ll be here for a spell, maybe as I get further into the business this becomes hers and it will have nothing to do with me, still associated with Deanes, but maybe with her name is over the door. People work hard, they deserve to be recognised.”
For the forseeable future, Danni is very much a part of his drive to build the Deanes brand around the world. With an agent in Dubai, Michael is considering what model of business would work best there. “It would be hard to do something high-end because we can’t be there all the time.” Though to test the waters, in the near future Danni will be doing a pop-up restaurant in Palazzo Versace Dubai, a hotel that regularly hosts pop-ups by esteemed chefs such as Quique Dacosta.
“I believe the time is now right for us to take Northern Ireland’s culinary skills, knowledge and local ingredients to an international marketplace such as Dubai. I am convinced that Northern Ireland must raise its game in terms of the international awareness and the overall profile of our gourmet food and drink.”
“I’m bloody pissed off the way Irish food is perceived abroad. We’re seen as a pint of Guinness and a slice of smoked salmon. We should have a team of ambassadors on the road.”
Despite his policy of putting every thing on the table, Michael manages to maintain a level of secrecy. “We’ve got a major thing going on here that I don’t want to say too much about because it involves someone from over the border, but we might be doing something else in Belfast. I can’t really let the cat out of the bag, but it’s a major thing for Belfast. If it happens, if we can get some sort of deal, it would be happening next year. A new type of facility.”
Closer to home Michael is constantly pushing for evolution and growth in the Belfast dining scene. “I challenge everything, I stick my neck out for a punt, I am always challenging and that’s why I’m still here after twenty years.” He admonishes Belfast city council’s licensing laws and laments the lack of innovation and diversity in restaurants. “A lot of it is still very much in the middle to lower end, not enough ethnic, not enough good Indian, Chinese. We’re an international city, we should have international restaurants. I mean there are hundreds of thousands of Polish here, we should have some Polish restaurants.”
Barriers like these are restricting Belfast’s growth as a gastro destination says Michael. “I wish it could be like Copenhagen but I don’t think it will be. I think when you get people like Danni Barry pushing as hard as she is and Stevie Toman in OX, if they can keep the steam up, with people like myself to keep pushing underneath it. I think we need more people to come out of the middle market, it doesn’t have to be Michelin star standard but something trendy.”
Michael himself still has a hand in the kitchen, but this is not how he necessarily wants it. “I said I would have liked to be out of the kitchen by the time I was 50. I’m 55 now and I’m still in there. A lot of people would disagree with me but I don’t think a kitchen is for the over fifties, you’re slower. If you own a business your mind is focused on different things, your creativity in business is different to your creativity in food. I love food, but I’m not as creative as I used to be.”
Though there was a time when he fully embraced the lifestyle of a chef, probably too much. “Its a great social industry to be in as long as you’re careful. Thing is I could go into a bar every night and drink nine bottles of wine and no one would say anything to me, and you have to watch that too.” He admits that there was a time in his life that he did sway towards this lifestyle, but after a health scare Michael now makes eating well and exercise a part of his daily routine.
While he used to mull over life problems at midnight with a glass of wine, now it’s the treadmill or a bench press where Michael does his clearest thinking. Trying to keep health, happiness and the bank on his side, Michael says his new lifestyle is just how he likes it, “nice and boring.” Though he might describe his life as boring, this ambitious, innovative and outspoken chef is anything but.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.