Niall McKenna: 'I wouldn't have my restaurant business without fantastic local produce to cook with'
The James Street South owner talks to Audrey Watson about his passion for Belfast’s culinary scene, why customer service is crucial and his plans for a fifth venue in the city
It’s been his mantra since opening his first restaurant in 2003, and with a further three eateries to his name and a fourth in the planning, it remains the same. “The customer is key, and it’s our job to look after them,” says James Street South owner and chef, Niall McKenna.
“Yes, things are really tough in the Northern Ireland hospitality business as a whole at the moment — there is so much competition in Belfast alone.
“But competition is a good thing in the grand scheme of things — especially for the customer.”
Niall McKenna is now a ‘name’ in the UK restaurant world and some might say the next natural step is for him to expand beyond the city.
“We never say never,” he says. “If you can do business in Belfast, you can do it anywhere.
“We have five people in the group’s top management tier and we all come up with ideas to improve and expand the business. It’s not just me.”
A vital part of that top team is Niall’s wife Joanne. They met in Belfast’s well-known Lavery’s Bar when they were both 18.
The couple have now have two children, Conrad (7) and Charlotte (4).
While Niall takes care of the food, Joanne manages the portfolio of culinary enterprises — James Street South and its sister restaurant, James Street South Bar + Grill, Hadskis in the Cathedral Quarter and Cast and Crew in the Titanic Quarter.
“I’ve no business head, so she’s the real boss” he says. “Joanne has been taking care of that side of things for 11 years.”
She certainly knows what she is doing. As if four successful eateries were not enough, a fifth, as yet unnamed venue is planned for the former Tedfords Ship Chandlers, Sail and Tentmakers building on Donegall Quay, next to rival restaurant venue, Tedfords.
In such an uncertain economy, is he not wary of expanding too far, too fast — arguably a mistake made by his old mentor, Paul Rankin, with whom Niall worked in Roscoff in Belfast in the late Eighties?
“Believe it or not, we tend to do things quite slowly,” he says. “Everything we’ve done so far has been on average two years in the planning.
“You have to really know your margins, know your costings, anticipate how the market might change and make sure your business plan is really sound before you go ahead.
“The key thing for us is small steps.
“We’ve been looking at and working on the Donegall Quay venture for the past two-and-a-half years and it might even be another 18 months before it opens.”
He admits that the rivalry between Belfast chefs is intense.
“It’s like that in any business,” he says. “But most of the people in the restaurant industry tend to be good craic and because Belfast is so small, we all know each other personally. It’s not unheard of for us chefs to share a pint now and then.”
Niall (45) has been cooking since the age of 16 when he started working part-time in the Strand Restaurant, an acclaimed restaurant in Stranmillis in south Belfast in the Eighties.
His first full-time position was at the Dunadry Inn from where he moved to work with Paul Rankin at Roscoff.
He then spent 12 years in London training under Michelin-starred chefs Nico Ladenis at Nico@Ninety,
Gary Rhodes at the Greenhouse and City Rhodes and Marco Pierre White at the Canteen.
After returning home, in 2003, Niall opened James Street South in a disused office space, which was once an established linen mill.
In 2011, casual dining restaurant the Bar + Grill opened next door.
Then, in 2013, Hadskis in the Cathedral Quarter followed and in May this year, Cast & Crew on Queen’s Road — the first stand-alone restaurant in the Titanic Quarter.
Considering there’s been a deep recession and competition, by his own admission, has increased tenfold, how has he managed to not only stay ahead, but also expand?
“In-house training is very important, as is recruiting good staff,” he says. “We are also constantly looking at our menus and the decor of the restaurants.
“Customers expect so much more these days and we are always looking at new ways to provide it.
“I say to all my staff — ‘the customer is key and you have to look after them’.
“People are focusing more and more on healthy eating and local produce and for me, if it wasn’t for local produce we’d be out of business.
“It’s not just a quality issue — it makes more economic sense to use produce from local suppliers.
“Also there is no comparison in terms of taste and quality. Chefs and customers know where they are, especially in terms of traceability.
“From the very start we have always used as much local produce as possible.”
The emphasis on all things local doesn’t just apply to his food. For the past two years James Street South has been running an Apprentice Programme for aspiring chefs.
In 2014, eight young people aged between 16 and 24 received training and work experience alongside Niall and chefs from all three of his restaurants.
The scheme is now in its second year and the number of apprentices has increased to 12.
“At the moment we have 120 staff and in this business it’s a challenge keeping them — especially the position of commis chef and chef de partie,” says Niall.
“To me, it’s an important rite of passage for a chef to travel and experience the different foods, cultures and cooking styles of different cities and countries.
“I did it myself, so I understand if they want to do that.
“We started the programme to fill the holes and also to encourage more local young people from all walks of life into the business.
“It’s tough — three months in each of the four restaurants, plus studying — and we know not all of them will stick it out.”
The apprentices are also involved in the James Street South Cookery School, located above the Bar + Grill.
Classes in the purpose-built interactive kitchen run from April to December and Niall, helped by his team of head chefs offer practical classes to members of the public, private and corporate groups and specialist sessions for chefs.
“It’s important for trainees to learn how to interact with potential customers and members of the public,” says Niall.
“Also, one day, they might be head chefs themselves and have to know how to pass on their own skills.”
In 2014, Niall, was named Northern Ireland Tourism Hero at the NI Tourism Awards.
He has appeared on the Great British Menu, the series in which chefs compete to cook one course in a four-course banquet in 2010 — when his dessert of rhubarb and strawberry with lavender ice cream was served at the end of series banquet.
Also, in 2014, the Bar + Grill was awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand for venues serving good but affordable food.
In August this year, James Street South was named Best Restaurant in Northern Ireland in the Waitrose Good Food Guide Awards for the third time.
Expectations will be high for his fifth venture in Donegall Quay.
“How the market might change is really important for this project — the impact of the new Ulster University campus and a hoped for increase in tourism are important factors — tourism, especially.
“For the hospitality sector in particular, it’s vital that we get more people to come to Northern Ireland and get more bums on seats.”