From 15 restaurants to one: Paul Rankin reveals how he expanded empire too quickly
On a sky-blue picture postcard day a smiling Paul Rankin, wearing a navy blue sailor’s hat to stop the sea breezes tossing his trademark tresses, looks every inch a man without a care in the world as he swaps the heat of the kitchen for a bracing boat trip on the North Channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Yet this is a chef who not so long ago was facing into the eye of a storm as his crumbling business empire and his failing marriage combined to present him with a recipe for disaster.
But now like his signature wheaten bread, Paul Rankin is rising again and last night saw the latest round in his fightback, the start of a new eight-part UTV series on the theme of Ulster Scots food as he sets sail to towns like Glenarm, Donaghadee, Ayr and Ardrossan in search of inspiration to help him provide modern day twists to classic meals of the past.
But it’s not the first time that Rankin has explored potentially choppy seas.
Food critics questioned his sanity as he returned to Northern Ireland with his Canadian wife Jeanne to set up their fine dining Roscoff restaurant in 1989, when the troubles were still bubbling away on their doorstep.
But the people who scoffed at Roscoff had to eat their words as the restaurant became the first in Belfast to win a Michelin star.
Of his top ranking, Rankin said: “We could never have expected the level of success which came our way.
“At the start, Jeanne talked about giving it five years to see how it would go before heading off to live somewhere warm. But we're still here.”
However, by the new millennium, the Rankins were moving in new directions.
Paul, who’d come to the boil quickly to establish himself as the chief chef here, had simmered nicely for years in his hot destination restaurant before getting the taste for expansion.
At one point, the Rankins had 15 restaurants and cafes on the go, not only in Belfast but also in Portadown and Dublin.
Looking back, Paul Rankin admits he may have over-egged the pudding.
“We took on too much too quickly and the hard times started to bite. We didn’t have enough funds to cover the downturn,” he said.
Nowadays, Rankin’s only restaurant is Cayenne on the same Great Victoria Street site as Roscoff, where it all started for him and his wife.
And while he doesn’t do humble pie, he admits he learned a lot from the collapse.
“Yes, you come out better and stronger and more compassionate,” he said.
Last year, there was more soul-searching as Paul and Jeanne, who have three children, decided to split up after 25 years of marriage. Paul said it was amicable.
“We’re still good friends and it’s a relief for both of us to have had the courage to separate and move on,” he said.
“Obviously before you get to that stage there’s a lot of pain but I am incredibly grateful for everything that Jeanne brought to my life and very grateful to have had such a beautiful marriage.”
The new UTV series — Paul and Nick’s Big Food Trip — which has been partly financed by Northern Ireland Screen’s Ulster Scots fund, sees Rankin re-united with his friend of 20 years, Nick Nairn, a chef from Stirlingshire who, like him, has been a regular on the Ready Steady Cook TV programme.
For decades, Rankin’s looks and his ease in front of the camera made him a natural and much sought-after guest on the seemingly never-ending merry-go-round of television cookery series.
But Paul claims: “I’ve always found the media work and the celebrity thing quite difficult.
“But the new series has been great. It’s not like work at all, even though the days were very long.”
The life of a chef isn’t exactly a picnic, of course. Paul said: “While I’m in the kitchen at Cayenne, I’m not cooking as much as I have been over the last three or four years.
“I found I was getting really tired.
“It’s hard once you’re over 50 to be putting in 14-hour days and doing all the donkey work that there is in the kitchen.
“However, I don’t enjoy doing the swanning-about management side of the business.
“I need to be in the kitchen to enjoy it,” he said, adding that while business at Cayenne is good, it could be better.
“We know money is tight and we’re responding with great value menus.
Paul reckons the Belfast food scene is world-class now. It’s fantastic, but that makes it difficult for restaurateurs here because there are so many good places and maybe not enough people to go around.
“Everyone’s finding it tough. All us chefs get together now and then and have a really good moan about it.”
But he said he doesn’t know if there are too many restaurants in Belfast now or if the problems are all a sign of the difficult economic times.
“A lot of restaurants come and go but that is the nature of the business. Some folk who get into it are just not ready to cope. They don’t have the training.”
Away from Cayenne, the Ballywalter, Co Down, man (52) has been focusing of late on one of his few sidelines to survive the meltdown. This is the Paul Rankin Selection, which sees his name on food from sodas to sausages and steak and kidney pies.
He has huge respect for his competitors, many of whom are friends. “My own favourite restaurants include the Mourne Seafood Bar, James St South, Fontana in Holywood, the Sun Kee, All Seasons and Michael Deane’s restaurants. But to be quite honest, I don’t eat out all that much.”