Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Niall McKenna: An artist whose business really is cooking

Niall McKenna, chef patron, James Street South

In the midst of a biting recession, Niall McKenna, chef patron at James Street South, has opened three new operations. He tells Joris Minne why it makes sense

Chefs are like painters, musicians and poets — they’re a bit nuts, slightly isolated from the rest of humankind and utterly entranced by what they do for a living. The only real difference is that a chef could never countenance an existence on love and water alone.

Niall McKenna is one of those restless, creative and visionary souls whose artistry has brought thousands of diners to the restaurant he opened in James Street South on September 10, 2003. The restaurant quickly became synonymous with the fast-growing economy and all the top suits of the day could be seen spreading their largesse so long as they had receipts so they could claim it back on expenses.

But when those expense accounts dropped off the cliff, what did Niall do next, I ask. Started thinking of opening more places to eat, of course. He says now he’s 40 years old he needs to slow down. But, in an act typical of the self-contradicting artist instead of slowing down he’s opening three new operations next door.

A new cookery school, a private dining room and a Bar & Grill opened simultaneously on each floor of a three-storey Victorian warehouse this month, following a £350,000 investment. For McKenna, this completes a portfolio of culinary enterprises which should make his business stronger.

“James Street South has established itself as a centre of excellence, a restaurant which consistently serves some of the best food in Northern Ireland at some of the best prices,” says the former Great British Menu winner.

“But we need to get the youth in through the doors, provide an outlet for a recognisably growing passion for cooking among the general public and offer a private dining room with full conference facilities, if we are to be a complete restaurant service,” he says.

I wonder how someone so creative can be so business like and market-savvy. He shuffles about as we start our cracking lunch with smoked mackerel for him and prawn risotto for me.

“I’ve no business head,” he says, “it’s my wife, Joanne.” Joanne, a former high flyer at BT, has been his business manager for the past 10 years.

But he has instinct and flare. He can see the emerging market for a cookery school, he knows that the suits need somewhere good to go (and hidden so as not to appear profligate in public) and while he loves the intricate flavours and texture of fine dining, he also likes to get down and homey with burgers, mussels, fries and the like.

“The Bar & Grill will serve New York burgers done properly in a brioche bun and if the kids want to come in in jeans and T-shirt, then they’re more than welcome,” he says.

After an outstanding mixed grill of lamb, beef, pork and black pudding (with quails egg) we get a quick hard-hat tour of the new operation. There’s Aidan McGrath from Twenty Two Over Seven architects. McKenna says if he were to open in London he’d use Northern Ireland talent. “We’ve got brilliant designers, artists, growers, cooks in this country and I like to think that what is being created here is an expression of our collective character.”

He’s absolutely right and that’s the wonder of working with food. McKenna and the 28 people he employs, soon to be 55, rely entirely on the quality of their output, which in turn relies on the excellence of the raw materials they work with. That requires skill, consistency, dedication attention to detail and talent. Not much room for nuts here, after all.

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