For many people the combination of 'food' and 'Northern Ireland' produces limited excitement. Initial thoughts are often limited to the Ulster Fry, and even those that go beyond it, perhaps listing things such as Irish stews, Steak and Guinness Pie, or even Tayto Crisps, rarely make it as far as any ideas of luxury cuisine.
When Way out West spoke to Neven Maguire earlier this year, however, he made it clear that the culinary industry in Northern Ireland is becoming an exciting scene to be a part of. ‘I think it’s a great career and there’s lots of jobs out there,' he explained. 'It’s a profession that changes so much, and we have such great produce now all over Ireland, as well as some amazing chefs, so there’s lots of opportunities out there.’
The amazing chefs he mentions include many that have become popular names, thanks to successful TV appearances. Various programmes, such as Great British Menu, have introduced us to chefs like Richard Corrigan and Mark Abbott, while even Great British Bake-off included Northern Ireland success in the form of 2016 finalist Andrew Smyth.
Yet Northern Ireland’s culinary talent goes far beyond these names, and amidst this fast growing industry, it's fair to ask, what is it about this part of the world that is currently producing so much talent?
Two chefs who previously studied at South West College, Stephen Holland and Carmel McGirr, shared a few ideas with hospitality Ireland, as they told them what it's like to be pat of ‘The Next Generation’ of chefs.'
If someone had told me I’d get the chance to cook for the Queen, I would have told them they were dreaming!
Stephen Holland explained: ‘I still look back to those days [at SWC Dungann] as it was a very positive time for me. The lecturers helped shape my career immensely. Since then, I have worked in kitchens in Dubai, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, before returning home seven years ago to take up a position at Lough Erne Resort as sous chef, then executive sous chef.
‘If someone had told me I’d be second in charge at the G8 summit [held at Lough Erne Resort in 2013] for food, and not only cook for the world leaders, but meet them as well, or cook in the world-famous James Beard House in New York and get the chance to cook for the Queen, I would have told them they were dreaming!'
If Stephen is living the dream, like many across Northern Ireland's cookery landscape are, it's perhaps partly down to two things: an interest in what is happening outside of Northern Ireland, and a passion for making the most out of what is available in Northern Ireland. Putting an emphasis on travel, and everything that can be learned from it, and then making the most of Northern Ireland produce - be it through producing ciders from the famous Armagh Orchards, exporting Kelp from the waters at Rathlin Island, or fishing eels from Lough Neah - seems, according to many chefs, central to the current progression of food in Northern Ireland.
In any career, you need to be passionate and love what you do. If you’re happy and proud in what you do, that will show in the food you give to your customers.
Certainly Carmel McGirr, another South West College Alumni, shares the idea. She explained to Hospitality Ireland how travel experiences have played a part in her career.
‘Travelling to various parts of the world to sample new cultures and experience different cuisines is very important. I really enjoy travelling to different parts of the world on my holidays to sample and enjoy local delicacies, and I find it very interesting seeking out how different restaurants serve their dishes.’
'To further my skill set, I went to Dublin to work at Bang restaurant for four years, before returning home in 2005 to work in a local restaurant and hotel, to experience a different aspect of the industry. In 2010, I started back at MacNean House. I recently went on a stage to Pied à Terre restaurant in London, working with head chef Andy McFadden.’
‘In any career, you need to be passionate and love what you do. If you’re happy and proud in what you do, that will show in the food you give to your customers. I enjoy working with a top-quality head chef and being able to create dishes that I know customers will appreciate.’
You don’t get to where you are without the support, the encouragement, and at the end of the day, South West College tutors here only want the best for the students. That’s the key. - Neven Maguire
Chefs like Stephen, Caroline, and other mentioned by hospitality Ireland, have helped spread the highest levels of Northern Ireland food around the country, and as such, Ireland.com
talks about Northern Ireland's food revolution
It boasts, ‘walk around Belfast and you’ll find yourself in the centre of a food and drink renaissance', but goes on to acknowledge that the high quality doesn't stop in Belfast, and list places in counties Derry, Down and Tyrone. Likewise, the Good Food List
shows a spread in the quality restaurants across Northern Ireland, with a sixteen strong list that includes restaurants in Antrim, Down and Armagh. Belfast Telegraph Food critic Joris Minne commented, 'We have developed a reputation as a foody destination. This is a major endorsement of that achievement. It's also good to see the usual Northern Ireland suspects have been joined by some new faces.'
No longer then does it seem that the food scene in Northern Ireland is one of limitations. As it continues to grow, training like that provided at South West College will continue to be central to it. As Neven Maguire, who both studied and taught at South West College, says: 'when I look back on my career, I haven’t got to where I am without the support of this college. It’s close to my heart. You don’t get to where you are without the support, the encouragement, and at the end of the day, the tutors here only want the best for the students. That’s the key.’