Belfast’s The Merchant and Bullitt to Host Inventive ‘Food For Thought’ Experiences

As Belfast is quickly becoming a must-visit destinations for culinary explorers, it is little wonder that a large part of this year’s Northern Ireland Science Festival is dedicated to discussing the future of food.

The NI Science Festival’s Food for Thought programme aims to investigate the direction this exciting industry is moving in, with events taking place in venues across the NI capital. These events include interactive dining experiences, most notably two evenings spread across the five star Merchant Hotel and its sister property Bullitt.

Executive Head Chef of The Beannchor Group, Patrick Leonard, gave us a sneak peak into what diners can expect from the talented team of chefs at Bullitt and The Merchant on both innovative evenings.

Food for Thought: What’s Your Beef
Date: February 16th, 6pm to 9pm at Taylor & Clay at Bullitt Hotel

If you have ever wondered what the hype about the prized Japanese beef Wagyu is all about, look no further than “What’s your Beef” at Bullitt’s Taylor & Clay. A new player on the Belfast restaurant scene, Taylor & Clay is home to a bespoke Asador grill, making it the ideal venue to explore the intrigue of this specific cut – both at present and innovations in it’s future production.

Interestingly, the “What’s Your Beef” event is so much more than firing a couple of high end steaks on the grill. Patrick explains that there are three distinct pillars to the event, starting with ceramic vessels, designed specifically for the event, by students of Ulster University. “They will come over to our kitchen, see some of the ingredients and how we are working and the food we’re making and they’ll go away and design plates and bowls inspired by this”, he says.

The second pillar is the use of flax-fed Wagyu, which is wholly sourced from a single farmer in Co. Armagh. Explaining the benefits of flax-feeding, Patrick explains how the small herd of cattle are fed on a blend comprising of grass, hay and flaxseed and are kept on pastures for two and a half years, a slower growth period than you have with most cows. “If you allow something to develop naturally and feed it more gradually, generally the outcome is a better reared animal with better flavour” Patrick notes.

Possibly the most desirable result of such a rearing process is the Omega 3 acid provided by the flaxseed, which compliments the fat marbling in the cross-bred Wagyu cows. “The result is the brilliant marbling you expect with Wagyu, with this massive presence of flavour coming from the flaxseed.”

Finally, a thought-provoking element of the evening will be the fact that organic vegetables from David Love Cameron’s Walled Garden will take centre stage. “We want it to be a challenge”, Patrick says of the evening ahead of Bullitt chefs Saul O’Reilly and Paul Heading. Up until the day of the dinner, the vegetables on the menu will be left to chance, based on the best available produce at the time – “we want it to involve that element of last minute creativity.”

All the ideas come together and make sense – although we are using Wagyu, we want to touch on the idea that meat shouldn’t be the centre of the plate anymore.”

“The vegetables will play a major part and the beef will compliment the vegetables and be a secondary part on the plate” he says. The chefs aim to show diners that they can come in and have a really great experience, without eating two to three hundred grams of meat. The overall theme of this evening will be to reintroduce “a bit of respect for how food comes around, where it is coming from and who is growing it” taking the element of convenience out of it.

Food for Thought: A Taste of Things to Come:
Date: Thursday 23 February, 7:30 pm – 10:30 pm at The Merchant Hotel

The Merchant has long been a grand theatre for gastronomic excellence, but this month will play host to a Food for Thought evening of futuristic dining with “A Taste of Things To Come”. Food waste, sustainability and environmental factors are becoming more relevant to how we eat, says Patrick, so this evening aims to “look to 20 to 30 years into the future and push the boundaries of where we get our sustenance from.”

We are trying not to use any meat or fish on this menu, so really trying to push the boundaries as to where we get our flavours from and where people will get their enjoyment in the absence of those ingredients.

Patrick explains that this dinner, with the Merchant Head Chef Johnny Leake and Kevin Sharkey, will seek to investigate sources of vital protein which do not have the same environmental implications and waste issues as animal farming and to present them in delicious and innovative ways.  Some lesser-known plant-based proteins will accompany current chef favourite, seaweed, in the kitchen’s unique line-up, alongside some wild card additions to the carte on the evening – to remain a surprise for the diners.

Perhaps most ground-breaking of all the ingredients in The Merchant’s futuristic line up is an alternative to refined sugar, Miracle Berry. “Miracle berry changes the flavour receptors in your tongue, so anything you eat after it tastes sweet”, Patrick says. The diners will be treated to a sugar-free dessert which still tickles their sweet tooth with the use of this natural and sustainable ingredient, ensuring the diners leave with all the satisfaction a luscious dessert delivers.

The beauty of the NI Science Festival, Patrick notes, is that it provides a platform for the creative team of chefs at both Bullitt and The Merchant to get creative and experiment. Both evenings promise insightful and unique takes on pressing issues relating to the future of food production, the way in which our collective food focus is changing and nutritious alternatives we will likely be embracing in the years to come.

For more information on Food for Thought visit www.nisciencefestival.com.

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