Chef Paul Rankin says ex-wife Jeanne's back in Canada 'but we'd a great marriage and are still pals'
He put Northern Ireland firmly on the culinary map but leading Co Down chef Paul Rankin has been through some major changes both professionally and personally over the last few years. He tells Karen Ireland how he is moving on and cooking up some fresh challenges
Paul Rankin is one of our top chefs. His restaurant Roscoff, which he opened in 1989 obtained the province its first Michelin star back in 1991, something he remains proud of to this day.
"That was completely unexpected and a true honour at the time and remains one of my greatest achievements," says Paul.
Still, even though he has plenty of industry accolades and awards to choose from, Paul says his best ever achievement is closer to home and will always be his three children, Claire (28), a junior doctor in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Emily (26), who works in Fontana restaurant in Holywood and Jamie (17), who is on a gap year in California.
"Nothing professionally comes close to the pride I feel about my three precious children. They are my life. They are scattered now but I love nothing more than when we have reunions at 'dad's' place."
Dad's place, he explains, is a "work in progress". Having just sold the family home in the Stranmillis, he is living in temporary accommodation until he decides "what to do next".
That could be anything as life has changed dramatically for the 56-year-old chef over the last few years. His 25-year marriage to wife and business partner, Jeanne, ended in 2011 and he closed the doors of his final restaurant, Cayenne, two years ago.
"Jeanne and I have gone our separate ways and she has gone back home to Canada," he says. "We had a wonderful relationship and marriage for 25 years, which is a long time to be together and I will always be grateful for that and proud of it and for the three amazing children we have together who will always link us."
Paul comments that his ex-wife and he have remained good friends, albeit "from a distance". They are, however, both getting on with leading separate lives now.
"I haven't met anyone else - I have been far too busy for that," he says. "The children all go back and forth and see their mum and are all heading over to Canada for a big reunion at Easter which they are looking forward to."
Keeping Paul busy over recent months has been filming for his new series of Paul and Nick's Big American Food Trip which is on UTV on Friday nights. The 'Nick' in the title fellow TV chef Nick Nairn, one of his best and most trusted friends in the industry.
"It's not like going to work as we have such fun doing it together as best friends. It is actually like a holiday and a trip I would pay to go on, though we do work long hours with few days off. We have great banter and craic together, although we do tend to lead each other astray."
Paul reveals that he met Nick over 20 years ago at a dinner in London when he came back from the Gents and found Nick chatting up his former wife Jeanne.
"We had a laugh about it at the time and we have been friends ever since," he recalls.
"Life kept throwing us together. We were paired up as the Celts on Ready Steady Cook for 12 years and we got our Michelin stars at the same time and opened restaurants at the same time.
“We always knew what the other one was thinking and going through. I think our friendship has sustained due to the shared experiences.
“We both lived a fast-paced life. We have a common passion for life, food and great banter and we have come through a lot together. Chefs tend to make good friends for other chefs as they understand each other well.”
Paul recalls with pride other good friends whom he has worked with and trained over the years, including Robbie Millar who died in a car crash in 2005, Niall McKenna of James Street South and Darren Simpson, who was the UK’s youngest Chef of the Year at 21.
“I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching their careers and knowing that they trained with us and we set them out on a certain path,” he says.
“Jeanne and I were very brave back in the day and took a lot of risks but they paid off and we had very successful careers.”
The couple met while in Greece. Paul was working as a waiter to make money to travel and Jeanne worked in the restaurant industry.
Paul adds: “It was Jeanne who got me interested in restaurants and food. The more I learned about restaurants, the more interested I became in food. After I returned from travelling I wrote a begging letter to top chef Albert Roux, asking him to give me a chance as I was so passionate about food and I wanted to learn from the best.
“He gave me a job as a dishwasher as I think he wanted to test my mettle and commitment.”
Paul spent three years training under Roux and learning that the industry was more about hard work than glamour. Then, after a period in Canada, Paul and Jeanne returned to Northern Ireland and opened Roscoff in 1989.
The rest, as they say, is culinary history.
Paul says: “After we opened Roscoff and got the first Michelin star, television came calling and things just took off.
“Something about us and television worked and we enjoyed it and it just clicked.
“After filming Gourmet Ireland we got the opportunity to be on Ready Steady Cook.
“Those were difficult years, as we had a busy restaurant, a television and filming career and a young family to juggle. I think we did a pretty good job managing all those commitments, like most couples do. But looking back I do wish I had spent more time with the children when they were younger.
“I think we had the best balance we could at the time. Jeanne took a step back from things after Jamie was born and spent more time at home.”
After the restaurants came cafes and then Rankin’s own food bakery range.
“We opened Cayenne as a more relaxed, less formal dining experience,” he says. “It took off and was a huge success.”
Though the door has shut for now on his restaurant business with the closure of Cayenne, Paul is still involved with the food products and in addition to his TV work, does public appearances and “bits and pieces of culinary work”.
He adds: “I have a nice life now and a good balance. I think I’ve earned it. Do I miss the restaurant business? Of course I do. There is nowhere like Northern Ireland for hospitality and warmth.
“We are up there with major cities now as one of the best places to visit and to eat. I don’t think that has happened now just because we have more tourists and the place is a major attraction thanks to the thriving industries coming here such as film and media.
“I think we’ve always been a top city for food and hospitality. No matter where I travel in the world people always tell me how much they love Belfast. There’s something in the DNA that makes it a good place for food and entertaining.
“Nick Nairn loves coming over here to eat out and agrees that there is nowhere like Belfast. I think after London and Edinburgh we are the best city for restaurants and bars.
Paul admits he would never rule out opening another restaurant, although sadly for local fans he doesn’t think it will be in Belfast.
“I am hankering for warmer climes,” he says. “So if I do something down the line it may well be somewhere sunnier. Right now I don’t really know what the future holds for me, but that’s exciting as it means there are lots of new adventures just waiting to be discovered.”
The summer will find him heading to Canada where he will be filming again with his pal Nick for the fifth series of Paul and Nick’s Big Adventures.
Paul adds: “Right now I want to enjoy my life. I love spending as much time as possible with all the kids. So far Claire is the only one who has followed us into the hospitality industry.
“When I get a chance I like to exercise and go walking and even do a bit of yoga and, of course, I travel as much as possible.”
And he adds: “I’m excited about what the future has in store for me and where it leads me.”
Paul and Nick’s Big American Food Trip is on UTV on Fridays at 8pm