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The real power behind kings of cuisine

While Northern Ireland's top chefs gain celebrity status for their skill in the kitchen, behind the scenes, their partners offer invaluable support to the business, often at the cost of their own careers. Una Brankin talks to three women who helped their men reach culinary heights

Published 06/08/2016

Family affair: Will and Karena enjoy free time with Harry
Family affair: Will and Karena enjoy free time with Harry
Will hard at work in Browns restaurant
Jennifer Orr
Ian shows off one of his delicious creations

Jennifer Orr (32) is married to the multi-award winning chef and Lidl food ambassador Ian Orr (32), the Great British Menu finalist, who co-owns Browns Restaurants in Londonderry and Ardtara Country House in Upperlands, near Maghera. The couple live in Eglinton with their two children, Oliver (7) and Emily (2).

A former cardiac auxiliary and dental nurse, Jennifer is currently in charge of the interior décor of the new rooms at Ardtara, a hideaway for Hollywood celebrities which was recently voted AA Guest Accommodation of the Year.

Jennifer says:

I have to admit, Ian does all the cooking at home when he's there. I do the washing-up. But the children prefer my cooking - it would be plainer than Ian's. Ian's like a third child and he's the hardest to control!

He's always slagging me for my taste in food. He calls me a scampi-and-tobacco-onions-woman. He's just obsessed with food. We went on a nice holiday recently; I brought a romantic novel to read and he brought a big cook book.

And when we go out to a restaurant, he's sitting there counting the staff and the chefs at the back. I have to sit facing away from everything so he can see what's going on.

I don't come from a foodie world at all - my dad ran Shell Northern Ireland for 25 years before setting up in business as a mechanic and mum's a district nursing auxiliary.

Ian and I were at the same secondary school, Clondermot in Derry. I knew of him but we weren't in the same class.

We met properly in a bar in Derry when I was 19 and got chatting, and it took off from there.

We split up a year after that, when Ian went to Belfast to work for Shanks restaurant outside the city, but we got back together again before he went to London to work in the River Café in 2004.

I don't think he would have gone without me.

I had a good job that I loved as a cardiac nursing auxiliary in Altnagelvin - it's tricky enough to get a job like that, so it was hard to leave it, but I did it to support Ian. Both my parents were shocked. Mum took it bad - I'm the youngest of four sisters and we weren't married at the time.

So, Ian had his job sorted, and I needed to find one to pay the bills, and ended up working as a dental nurse, filling in for someone on maternity leave, in Queensway.

Karena Eccles (29) runs The Old Schoolhouse in Comber - a favourite haunt of golfer Rory McIlroy and various Game Of Thrones cast members - with her partner Will Brown, named by the Bridgestone Guide as one of Ireland's top 10 chefs. Originally from Holywood, Co Down, Karena gave up a career in law to work with Will, who trained at Marco Pierre White's Mirabelle, The Square, Mayfair and Gordon Ramsay's Maze.

The couple live in Comber with their baby son, Harry, who's 17 months old.

Karena says:

I had just finished a Masters in Human Rights Law and was working for our family business around the time I met Will.

We met through a mutual friend but had never actually met socially before. We arranged to go for cocktails at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast. My friend and sister gave me a lift up to Belfast and we drove past a couple of times to get a good look at Will before I got out of the car.

My first impressions of him were that he lives and breathes his job. He oozed creativity and passion, and I thought that was very cool.

I remember thinking then that I couldn't wait to find something I was irrevocably passionate about. I wasn't a foodie at all before I met Will. I had a fairly limited palate and usually always had chicken when out for dinner. In the early days, Will cooked a lot for me - I think to try and impress. He even volunteered to make a birthday cake for my mum's 50th, which was a major success.

Will taught me to always be methodical in your approach, and he has cultivated in me an appreciation for food, so when we are dining out, we both pay quite a lot of attention to the food and the restaurant. Not that we get to go that much anymore, due to demanding work schedules, and on our days off we devote our time to our son, Harry.

One of the best early meals Will cooked for me was a nice piece of turbot, which was delicious. He has taught me the value of each individual ingredient and I am pretty impressed that now I can cook more than 10 very tasty meals for more people than just myself.

I decided to work part-time with Will when he opened The Old Schoolhouse restaurant three years ago. I have been there ever since. I had never worked in a restaurant before and have learned a lot in the past few years.

It isn't easy working with your partner - you must have a strong relationship and a thick skin from the outset, and the secret is not to take work home with you.

Socially, my life has changed entirely. Prior to meeting Will, my working week was Monday to Friday, nine to five, and weekends were sacred.

Now, weekends are taken up with long days running the restaurant.

I must say I have no regrets. I used to love going out at weekends with my friends, but life moves on, and we enjoy our time off on a Monday and Tuesday. That's our family time. Every Monday we take Harry for breakfast to Sugarcane in Comber and then we take him to Castle Espie to see the ducks and go for a nice walk.

We usually cook on our days off, taking it in turns. I must say, last night was the best meal to date - we had surf and turf: a ribeye steak and lobster with salad and chips. We all enjoyed it, especially Harry!

Working together has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. The hours are long, the work is hard, the struggles never dissipate and there is a constant striving for work-life balance. Will has taught me to seek solutions instead of exacerbating the problem.

I am extremely proud of what we have achieved as a couple and a team.

We have created something very special that we work very hard at, and we both provide each other with as much support as possible.

Will is relentless in his desire to create food excellence - he truly lives and breathes his craft and that makes me very proud. He went to London at a young age (17), and got an entry level, bottom of the bucket job in order to learn his trade. He has devoted every ounce of himself to learning and developing as a chef. He is the essence of what it is like to be humbled by one of the glorious essentials of life: food.

And, as a person, I am most proud of Will when he is with our son, Harry. He is a truly wonderful father.

Davina McGowan (44) is at the helm of Northern Ireland’s hottest new restaurant, Wine & Brine in the picturesque Co Down village of Moira, with her husband Chris (44). A languages graduate, originally from Ballymena, Davina runs the national award-winning eatery full-time, in the picturesque Co Armagh village. She lives in Hillsborough with Chris and their 11 year-old twin daughters, Madeleine and Emily.

Davina says:

My mum, Mary McDowell, was a pub chef at the old Knock Eden in Ballymena, and she used to drag me in at weekends and summer holidays to make the cold starters and prawn salads, while dad was working in a factory. So, I had a bit of knowledge about food before I met Chris in Kelly’s nightclub in Portrush, when I was a second year student at the University of Ulster.

He was a chef at the Ramore restaurant at the time — it had proper napkins and table service way before many others. My friend was mad after him, and I was just out of a long relationship and happy to be single, but he was interested in me and when we got talking, he grew on me, you could say!

Out first date was in the Magherabuoy fine dining restaurant in Portrush. Chris was obviously trying to impress me by ordering a fruits de mer platter, full of oysters, lobsters, crab and mussels stacked up. I was familiar with prawns from mum, but I’d never used an oyster pick before, and this was a proper restaurant.

Anyway, after dating students, it was nice to be with someone who could cook more than a Pot Noodle. 

The first meal Chris made me was tagliatelle carbonara — from scratch, with raw eggs. My flatmates were so jealous, they’d hang around for the leftovers. We usually lived on awful things out of a packet and tins of tuna and toast. I was about to go on a gap year to Strasbourg. Chris wanted to come with me for the whole year — I said that would be too much. But he came over every couple of weeks and we had a lovely time going to nice restaurants and stuff — now here we are, 24 years later.

We still like dining out. Chris might lift the plate or cutlery and check the stamp but apart from that, he just appreciates being served good food and being looked after. We don’t complain if we don’t like it; we just don’t go back. So, after I graduated, I went to work at the jewellers H Samuel HQ in London and ended up in the buying office at Marks & Spencer and travelling all over Europe for them. Chris missed me so much when I moved, he came over the first weekend and we went to Gordon Ramsay’s, and were blown away. Then he moved over to work with Gary Rhodes, and ended up working for 12 years with Richard Corrigan in Mayfair.

We came home to get married in 2002 in the Royal Court Hotel, as we’d met in Portrush, and thought it would be romantic. We’d been together for 10 years by then and wanted to give everyone a good day out.

Chris brought another chef over from London, and they did wild rabbit terrine and smoked salmon for the starters, while the hotel did the chicken main course and dessert. Chris had to be in there somewhere!

After the twins were born, we realised we’d never be able to afford the sort of house in London that we could have at home. We wanted to spend more time as a family and we wanted to come home, to give something back. I’d given up my job to look after the girls, and I did miss working in the buzz of London, but on the flip side I felt lucky to be back home.

Chris worked as a consultant chef at the Crawfordsburn Inn for some time while we looked for a site for a restaurant all over Northern Ireland. We were prepared to go anywhere, but we thought my hometown Ballymena maybe wasn’t ready for Chris’s style of cooking, and the north west is saturated with good restaurants.

We also wanted something freehold, so when the premises came up in Moira, we jumped at it. We own the building and the people have welcomed us with open arms. There have been some who have booked in here 20 times in the last seven months and the response since we won the award has been incredible.

It’s great to be home. We love Moira and the people here love us!

Belfast Telegraph

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