He’s fed world leaders and famous rock stars, but deep down chef Noel McMeel remains firmly grounded by his Toomebridge roots.
The Executive Head Chef at the Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh was born and raised on the family dairy farm near Moneyglass, the youngest of six children.
After training firstly at Ballymena Tech, he served his apprenticeship at the Villager, Crossgar, before working with Paul and Jeannie Rankin at Roscoffs in Belfast.
He then travelled to America to study before gaining a scholarship to École le Nôtre, Paris, after which he spent time at the famous Watergate Hotel, before returning to Northern Ireland to become Head Chef at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel, Londonderry.
He opened Trompets Restaurant in Magherafelt, which gained many plaudits including NITB Best Restaurant of the Year, before becoming Executive Head Chef at Castle Leslie, County Monaghan, where he built up a superb kitchen team and developed an eclectic menu featuring the best of locally grown organic foods.
Sir Paul McCartney’s choice of Castle Leslie for his wedding reception is but one indication of the esteem in which the castle and Noel’s cooking are held.
Noel’s particular brand of modern Irish cooking then led him to Lough Erne Resort bringing with him a simple philosophy: sourcing, preparing and serving fresh food in season.
Noel said: “Making the most of the bounty of the land, working hard with your own two hands to preserve it – these were the core principles where I grew up.
“Find the very best local ingredients. Support farms and grocers that respect the earth. Prepare meals that delight and excite the senses, but don’t get seduced into overcomplicating. Above all else, let the natural flavour of good food shine through.”
This month sees Noel bring out his first book - Irish Pantry - Traditional Breads, Preserves and Goodies to Feed the Ones You Love - a cookbook that celebrates traditional hospitality with a modern twist.
From jams and jellies to cakes, breads, condiments, drinks and cured meats, this traditional look at feel-good foods bursting with nostalgia will satisfy your longing for something special.
Noel took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his career.
Q. Why did you decide to become a chef?
A. I was born to be a chef. On my family’s farm, The Rock, in Toomebridge, we were more or less self-sufficient, growing our own food and raising livestock. The influence of this lifestyle infused us with the drive toward sustainability and gratitude for what we had. My hardworking parents instilled an innate respect for the seasonality of food in my four brothers, my sister and myself. In my parents’ place and time, it was up to you to look after yourselves and your children — no ifs, ands or buts. You rose early, you worked physically and you reaped the benefits of what you sowed.
Q. What is the biggest event you have ever cooked at; how did you come up with the menu?
A. I have been so luck to have had the chance to cook and serve some very fine people in some very fine houses The G8 would have topped it. Eight world leaders all together. Getting to meet them all was a pleasure. And then getting the chance to be invited to Downing Street for drinks and dinner by the Prime Minister was another get treat. Doing the menus for world leaders or rock stars can be nerve-wracking but there is no room for mistakes. I select only the best local ingredients. They speak for themselves.
Q. What changes have you seen in what the customer likes in terms of food?
A. Today, whilst there are undoubtedly a varied array of influences that have been introduced, we appear to have come full circle – returning to the comfort of the familiar foods of our childhoods. In times of economic instability, people often crave comfort foods that remind them of safer, more certain times, which has led to a resurgence in demand for native fare, hence the growing popularity of traditional favourites such as colcannon, which has become an integral part of many Northern Irish menus. Our diet today is much more varied than the Ulster Fry. This is due primarily to the variety of foods readily available from the diverse range of restaurants and pubs that have emerged in the Province over the last decade or from the multiple retailers which are gradually taking over from the local independent shops. I think there’s a lot more consciousness from the public and from the restaurateurs who can support farms, and so I see that as something very, very positive. The food we eat has changed immensely since the days when our dinner would have consisted of meat and two veg and is certainly much more diverse than the Ulster Fry.
Q. What is your favourite meal and do you have a food guilty pleasure?
A. I have dedicated my entire career to one very simple goal: finding, preparing and serving fresh food in season. For me what we eat has to delight the taste buds, ensnare the senses and nourish body and soul. I try to get the most out of the very best ingredients and I am not interested in cooking overworked, over seasoned, complicated food.
Q. What would be your favourite wine and food combination and why?
A. Chocolate, Kearney Blue Cheese and Black Muscat Elysium served chilled. I have a sweet tooth. I believe that all go so well together - sweet, creamy, salty and fruity.
Q. If you hadn’t gone into hospitality what would you like to have been?
A. If I wasn’t doing this I’d be an artist or a conductor of an orchestra. I have always felt that, like in the kitchen, you need everyone playing the same tune.
Q. You have just published you first book, how have you found the experience?
Every chef in Northern Ireland should have a book. We need to change the thoughts of our visitors. We have a great culture. It’s time to show it to the world. It’s taken two years to write the book and get it published. I have a New York Publisher, which means that it can be sold in the USA, Canada, Great Britain and Ireland. It’s a very exciting time.
* Noel McMeel’s new book, Irish Pantry - Traditional Breads, Preserves and Goodies to Feed the Ones You Love, is out now, published in hardback by Running Press.