I'm good pals with Sir Paul McCartney; that is not too bad for a farm boy from Toome
The Big Interview
Lough Erne Resort executive head chef Noel McMeel tells Claire McNeilly about growing up with disabled brothers, his sister’s death, and catering for G8.
Q. Tell us about yourself and your family.
A. I have a partner - he's a very shy individual - and I live in Fintona, Co Tyrone. But I don't like talking about my personal life.
Q. You couldn't be more aptly named for a chef. Is McMeel your name real?
A. It's very real in every way. And believe me, I'm not going to be selling my name to McDonald's or anyone else. So no 'Big McMeel' in the near future.
Q. Tell us about growing up on a farm in Toomebridge, Co Antrim, as one of six children.
A. Cooking and eating was always a big thing with us. I'm the youngest; I have four brothers and a sister. I learned quickly how not to be selfish. I have two disabled brothers, Owen and John, and they were - and still are - a huge focus in our lives. It was a dairy farm. We had 11 or 12 cows and about four of them were milkers, so we had our own milk. I remember coming home from primary school and having to milk a cow. My pet cow was called Suzie. I remember having to wait until the cream settled on the milk so we could scoop it off and whip it up for Sunday, when we always had trifle or Pavlova.
Q. Where did your love of cooking come from?
A. My sister Ita (who sadly died from cancer over 20 years ago on her 30th birthday), myself and my mother were the key people in the kitchen. As a family we always sat around the table. Everybody had to eat together. I remember on Saturday mornings coming down and the smell of coffee as my mother was doing two big sponges and then the small jellies were set around it. It looked like a bakery and everything was stacked - potato farls, potato cakes, soda bread, treacle bread. And we grew all our own vegetables.
Q. What about your mum (Maureen) and dad (Owen)?
A. My mum is 83. Daddy died at 93, four years ago, of old age. He was very frail at the end. I was privileged to have such great parents who gave me the tools for life. I had to look after the garden during my summer holidays - putting in drills of potatoes, making sure the grass was cut around the apple trees and the gooseberries... it was a driving force.
Q. Does your job involve cooking every day, or do you get the other chefs to do the work?
A. In the kitchen we have up to 28 in the team, including kitchen porters. I cook along with everyone else, and that's one of the greatest gifts of all because they've got such great talents; they show me as much as I show them.
Q. You famously cooked for world leaders at the 2013 G8 summit and David Cameron publicly praised you for the "fantastic food" served during the event. How much pressure did that put you under?
A. It's always going to be pressure. I am very much about having a vision, putting action to it and making it happen rather than running around screaming. The pressures of a kitchen can be great when it comes to serving food at that certain time and place. With the G8 there was no screaming because they were just next door. I went to London to find out what PM Cameron wanted to eat. And I was invited to Downing Street about three weeks after the G8 as a thank you, which was amazing.
Q. Of all the world leaders, who stood out?
A. Definitely the US President; he was focused, generous with his time and an amazing man.
Q. You met President Obama again recently when you were invited to the White House. What was that for?
A. I was in Washington with a delegation from Northern Ireland, including the First and Deputy First Ministers. We were helping to showcase Northern Irish food during the St Patrick's celebrations.
Q. What other famous folk have you met?
A. Colin Farrell stayed with us at Lough Erne for three months. I've met some other Hollywood stars in New York, and a few weeks ago I had lunch there with 94-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel. She's the star of the new Citroen DS3 car adverts.
Q. Is there a particular dish that exemplifies Northern Ireland?
A. Enniskillen butcher Pat O'Doherty, who has an island where he rears black pigs, has a thing called the black back bacon. On the dish itself we have a ham hock which we cube and cover with soda bread crumbs.
Then we have pork cheek which we've cooked slowly for at least six to eight hours to fall off the bone, which we keep in a beautiful thick gravy. Then there's a pork fillet which we wrap in some of Pat's cured black back bacon - and, lastly, the belly of pork itself which we cook slowly overnight and we serve that with apple butter... without actual butter in it. If people buy my Irish Pantry cookbook they'll understand why it's called butter, it's to do with the texture and consistency and it really is beautiful. That's all one actual dish itself.
We then serve our potatoes and vegetables separate. This dish is authentic because I season it with local salt (an Irish sea salt called Oriel sea salt from Clogher Head) and fry it in rapeseed oil from Limavady. I've a sign in the kitchen: 'Let's look after Francie, not Francois'. I say that because it's important to put our money where are mouth is. This is where my relationship with SuperValu works.
Q. Do you think Northern Ireland can really bill itself as a foodie destination?
A. Yes, and in the last couple of years we've had more artisan producers than ever. Living and working in America and Europe has given me a greater appreciation of how well off we are here when it comes to quality produce and good food. We definitely can be a food destination.
Q. Let us into the big secret... what's your favourite meal?
A. A beautiful leg of lamb, nicely roasted, garlic, sea salt, rosemary, into an oven, beautifully basted. Creamy mashed potatoes with spring onions. Fresh garden peas, fried cabbage and a beautiful lamb gravy. So disgustingly good. Afterwards, there has to be Bakewell tart, custard and vanilla ice cream.
Q. What's the weirdest food request you've ever had?
A. I had to make a range of chocolate desserts for a glitzy wedding for 200 guests - but everything had to have edible gold leaf in it. It was to go with Champagne at £300 a bottle.
Q. How much is too much to spend on dinner out? How much would you spend?
A. It depends on what you want to go out and do. You can spend between £15 and £50 per person without wine in a range of places in Belfast and between £15 and £45 per person without wine at Lough Erne. In New York you could spend $450 on a tasting menu before wine, or €75-90 in Dublin. Personally, I'm just happy to go somewhere that's serving good, tasty food, with a nice bottle of wine and having time with the people you love around the table. Somewhere with a good reputation, but I wouldn't over-indulge for the sake of having been to a certain place.
Q. You worked for a short time with Paul and Jeannie Rankin at Roscoffs in Belfast. Was that a good experience?
A. (Leading Northern Ireland restaurateur) Michael Deane got me that job in 1989. I was only there for nine months, but they were a massive influence and inspiration.
Q. You had seven years as executive head chef at Castle Leslie in Monaghan. That's where you cooked the vegetarian wedding feast in June 2002 for Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. What were they like?
A. They'd been to Castle Leslie a few times, but always under a different name. I happened to joke one day: "It's not you two again; the next thing, you'll be getting married here". And they replied: "Well, you never know, Noel." Each time they came Paul was very generous with his time and he used to come into the kitchen to talk to the chefs.
Q. What was the link-up between Tourism Ireland and NBC Television?
A. A film crew visited Lough Erne, where they filmed me in action. I also brought the producers on a tour to meet some renowned local food producers - including butcher Mr Doherty and beef and lamb farmer Maurice Kettyle, as well as Erin Groves, who sources local ingredients for her jams and chutneys. They were filming for a series of reports to air during live coverage of the New York St Patrick's Day parade.
Q. Would you encourage people to stop shopping in supermarkets? Is that realistic?
A. It's time to go back to the local village now. For a long time we left the villages and we went to bigger towns for the bigger stores, but now we have to believe in what we have in our local villages. It's time now to go backwards. It's realistic because we have the facilities now that we didn't have before. The quality is there. We all love a deal but quality is always going to be the number one priority. I'll shop in SuperValu because I believe in the quality. It's all about real food for real people.
Q. What does your relationship with SuperValu entail?
A. I'm the company's ambassador and it's my job to say how amazing SuperValu is because they walk the talk. They're investing all the time into their own people and their own stores. The money isn't going out of Northern Ireland. This is one of biggest secrets of all. All the ingredients I use at Lough Erne is the ingredients I can buy at SuperValu. I live in a rural village and I can go and buy those ingredients at SuperValu.
Q. Where do you hope to end up? Perhaps with your own show like the recent James Martin one? There may be a slot there...
A. The Big McMeel Saturday Morning Show... May McFettridge could be one of the hosts... Peter Corry will be singing; all Northern Ireland characters you would expect.
Q. Tell us about your cook book Irish Pantry: Traditional Breads, Preserves And Goodies To Feed The Ones You Love, which came third in the 20th World Gourmand Cookbook Awards.
A. It's all about going back to basics. It's a celebration of food as I knew it as a child.