“It’s about the experience. Friendliness, warmth, the space, atmosphere and service are all important. Of course, it’s all about food – but good food means naught, when the other factors don’t fall into line” believes Niall McKenna, chef-proprietor of James Street South in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Opening in 2003, James Street South instantly became the fine dining destination in the city – now it’s a miniature empire with a city cookery school, an American style bar and grill and a private dining room that are all flourishing even in this recessionary economic climate.
It is refreshing nowadays to find a chef whose sole goal is cooking delicious food. McKenna has already had a taste of the dizzy heights of celebrity chef fame when he won the BBC show The Great British Menu with his pudding “Poached Rhubarb and Strawberry Jelly with Yellow man (honeycomb) and Lavender Ice-cream”. He has no desire, however, to be a television chef, wishing to perfect his craft at the stove and in the dining room, not in front of a TV camera.
McKenna began working in professional kitchens at just 16 years of age. He found his way to London were he worked for twelve years for the likes of Nico Ladenis, Marco Pierre White and Gary Rhodes. He credits Rhodes as one of his main inspirations.
“Gary Rhodes is the most organised individual I know. He has astounding business sense. Of everyone I have worked for I learned the most from him. The keys to success in the restaurant game are meticulous organisation and knowing how all aspects of the business work. I have worked in every part of a restaurant, from front of house to all the stations in the kitchen. I train my staff in the same way, to be team players.”
Niall tells me that 75% of the menus created at James Street South are sourced from Northern Ireland. He has growers that plant and harvest produce specifically for his chefs to cook. With increasing worries about global warming and the unpredictably changing seasons, Niall believes that personal and direct relationships with suppliers are essential for success.
“It makes a massive difference to know exactly what is available and when – to know that produce has a slightly different cycle – and to work with this cycle rather than just doing something because that is what you did before. The seasons are changing in length.”
Chefs can rapidly become stale within a repetitive repertoire and un-changing menus. Niall’s quest in the constant refreshment of skills and ideas is to work “stages” in some of the best restaurants in London and across the world, a couple of times a year at least.
“I basically get my butt kicked for a week as an apprentice to some of the best chefs in the business. I go in and I work, learning new techniques, seeing how things are done differently, what the trends are and how the kitchen or front of house environment is changing in that particular establishment. I leave fired up and with a new vision as to what I can do in my own restaurant.”
In fact all of Niall’s chefs work stages at some point throughout the year.
“There’s no two ways about it, it’s good staff that make great food. To have good staff they need to be fresh. Chefs need to learn and widen their horizons, they need to be taken out of their comfort zone, their restaurant, and get a completely new experience, in order to stay alive and keep their passion.”
Niall’s business is located in an old Belfast Linen Mill, right in the heart of the city. The cookery school is on the top floor, with stripped original wooden floors, white walls, and natural light giving the work space a clean and fresh atmosphere. There are eight people to a class, with two chefs giving very personal and attentive tuition, from knife skills to pastry making, dinner party cookery, making your own pasta as well as sushi and cocktails. There are wine tasting evenings and food lecture days as well.
The course that was running when I visited was called ‘Effortless Entertaining’, where the focus was on showing students that it is possible to have a delicious home-cooked dinner party where the cook does not spend the whole night trapped in the kitchen.
Stephen Toman, Niall’s second in command, was our teacher, and his key piece of advice for us was to be very well organised and prepared in the kitchen. Planning and preparation are vital to any successful dinner party: we were urged to write lists, read through the recipes properly, make sure we have all the ingredients before starting to cook and set everything out on the work table. Working backwards on a time-schedule when cooking for a dinner party is a very good idea, so that the dishes that take the longest can be made first and set aside for chilling or marinading.
“Start with the pudding, and end with the starter,” was Stephen’s mantra, “that way not only do you have everything you need ready when the guests arrive, the food that is being eaten first, often a light course that needs little time to cook, will still be fresh when it is served. Meanwhile the pudding will have had time for the flavours to develop as it was made first.”
During the course we created a Pear Tart Tatin, with vanilla ice cream; the main course was venison with parsnip puree, caramelised carrots and a Valhrona chocolate jus, and the starter featured sautéed Brill with butter braised leek and red wine onion and clams. If recipes sound like something one might read on a restaurant menu, that’s because they are: these are home-cooked versions of recipes that have been served in James St South’s fine dining restaurant. The preparations were broken down into basic, bite-sized building block steps and methodologies, so that even the most fearful students were left in no doubt as to how to create the dishes simply and effectively at home.
We learned how not to be afraid of making mistakes, to keep tasting and trusting our palates with regards to seasonings. Despite being taught by a professional chef, laughter and chatter filled the air and we did not feel intimidated or pressurised. The cookery school uses the same equipment that you would use at home, to make the experience reassuringly user friendly.
Stephen explained the versatility of the recipes they choose to form part of the courses.
"Each recipe we hand out to students can be adapted in several different ways. That’s what cooking is all about, taking things one step at a time, becoming confident in the kitchen. So, for example, the Valhrona chocolate jus, could also make a good base for a mole sauce, that would be the perfect accompaniment to a roast chicken.”
In order to fully experience all that James Street South has to offer, after my time in the cookery school, I decided to have a range of starters in the fine dining room, then go into the bar and grill to find out more about the Josper grill.
The fine dining room has a subdued atmosphere, the plain white walls are a blank canvas for the food, which looks so aesthetically beautiful and decorated on the plate. The colours and textures of the dishes will remind you of miniature impressionist paintings. We started with an amuse bouche of earthy, rich celeriac soup, without even a hint of cream. My dining companion had the smoked salmon tartare with beetroot, wasabi crème friache and mesclun. She hardly spoke for several moments after the first bite, declaring it wonderful. I chose the salad – pear, blue cheese & walnut – a tried and trusted combination that was perfectly made, the ripe pear bringing a sweet fruitiness to the sharp cheese, with a crunch from the nuts, and baby gem leaves. The menu was filled with dishes that I wanted to try: beetroot Tarte Tatin, Lough Neagh smoked eel, Iberico ham, and rosemary custard – but a 600g steak was calling us into the bar and grill.
The secret of success in achieving perfectly cooked steaks that are soft as butter and rich in flavor is the provenance of the beef, from cows reared on one of the best Northern Irish beef farms. The meat is hung for a minimum of 21-28 days and the heat of the grill is ferociously high.
The Josper grill used in the cooking of the steak is a closed charcoal barbeque with adjustable air inlets and outlets. When the oven door opens you can see the charcoal burning inside. It is this intense heat which means that the meat, vegetables or fish will cook quickly, the proteins of the meat promptly caramelizing. The shut door of the grill seals in the flavour before the flesh dries out. The end result is juicy food packed with flavour, cooked in a way which is not achievable in a normal, domestic oven.
My 600g sirloin came with skin-on chips, and a pot of Béarnaise sauce. I ordered a lettuce and herb salad, which had ribbons of salted cucumber tossed through it. The dressing was a glimmer on the leaves, as opposed to a puddle in the bowl. It was light, fresh and had just a hint of citrus.
The bar and grill also offers a menu full of unapologetica comfort food - macaroni cheese, risotto, pork belly, fish pie, half a chicken, a smoked bacon chop. Charcuterie plates, oysters, crab on toast, prawn cocktail and chowder are some of the starter options. The puddings are the classics and there's also a well thought cheese platter selection too. The menu is stunningly simple, some would say old fashioned and traditional, but judging by the popularity of all of Niall McKenna and his team’s work, this may well be a good thing.
James Street South: www.jamesstreetsouth.co.uk
Nicky Cahill’s Blog: www.saltandsparkle.com
Follow Nicky on Twitter: @saltandsparkle