Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Why chef Will Brown hopes it will be D-Day for him

Co Down chef Will Brown is fighting to serve up a meal to war heroes on TV's Great British Menu. By Stephanie Bell

Pressure cooker: Will Brown at his restaurant The Old School House
Pressure cooker: Will Brown at his restaurant The Old School House
Heat is on: D-Day veterans Ken Sturdy, George Batts and Jim Radford, with judges Matthew Fort, Prue Leith and Oliver Peyton
Claudia Schiffer, who sent back a dish

Chef Will Brown won't rest until his restaurant The Old School House is recognised as THE best in the country. And at just 26, with an ever-growing clutch of top awards to his name, it is a dream that can't be too far away.

The man doesn't stand still and his ambition knows no bounds.

The focus of his passion and creativity is his multi-award winning restaurant in Comber which, after only two years, is on the culinary map as one of the best in Ireland.

Among his plans for it this year is the opening of a cookery school and a garden to supply his kitchen with home-grown organic vegetables.

Now, viewers across the UK are getting to see the man in action this week, as he represents Northern Ireland in the BBC's popular The Great British Menu.

In a career which has seen him train in some of the best restaurants in the country – cooking for an impressive list of top celebrities – being asked to take part in the top-ranked TV show is the high point for Will so far.

"It was just the most amazing experience. I loved every minute of it. How many 26-year-olds get picked to represent Northern Ireland on a show like that? It's a massive honour," he says.

Northern Ireland chefs kicked off the ninth series last night with the young Will working alongside more experienced colleagues, Raymond McArdle and Chris McGowan during this week's episodes.

The three have been challenged to create a menu fit for war heroes as the show sets out to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

The chefs must create dishes that evoke the wartime spirit of the generation, as well as honour the bravery shown throughout the Second World War.

The winner of the series will have the honour of cooking at a banquet for the D-Day anniversary in St Paul's Cathedral.

Obviously, with the series set to run every weekday for the next nine weeks, Will can't give too much away, but described it as the most pressurised environment he has ever worked in. He says: "I had only reopened the restaurant a month last June when I was asked to film for the show and that was big pressure too, but you don't turn down a show like The Great British Menu.

"Raymond McArdle is a very nice guy and Chris McGowan is another fantastic chef and a great role model.

"I loved every minute but pretty much for me, my career at the moment is all about The Old School House."

Will grew up around food. His mum Avril was a chef and his dad Terry worked alongside her running The Old School House restaurant in Comber for 30 years.

There was no question that Will wouldn't follow in their footsteps and he took a rather unconventional route by leaving school at 16 and chancing his arm by knocking on the doors of the finest restaurants in London, asking for work.

His bold approach paid off when he was hired straight away at Marco Pierre White's famous Mirabelle.

And his natural talent was obvious from the start as, within just two months, he was given the responsibility of cooking the hot starters for the Michelin star restaurant.

He says: "That was the toughest experience of my life, as I had no idea what I was doing. I was thrown in at the deep end and it was drummed into me that unless you master that section, you don't carry on. It really was sink or swim."

After a year, Will returned home and started work as junior sous chef in Paul Rankin's Roscoff's restaurant in Belfast, where he spent two-and-a-half years learning from the local celebrity chef.

"It was absolutely fantastic working with Paul," he says. "If you kept your head down and did your job and were professional, Paul gave back as much to you as he could."

He then went back to London and continued to hone his skills in some of city's finest restaurants, including The Square in Mayfair, in Bruce Poole's The Glass House and Gordon Ramsey's Maze.

In these prestigious eateries frequented by celebrities, Will got to serve some of the world's biggest stars including Madonna, Guy Ritchie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Claudia Schiffer.

He was only 21 when he learned just how important it was to satisfy a celebrity's every whim.

He recalls: "We had a dish of asparagus, with poached egg and Hollandaise sauce and Claudia Schiffer asked for her Hollandaise to be served separately. I put it on the plate and it was returned.

"I was absolutely mortified. The good thing, though, was that after a ticking off, the chef would put his arm around you and tell you not to worry about it and it was soon forgotten."

Two years ago, he took everything he had learnt back home to begin his career in earnest by reopening The Old School House after his parents retired.

His first move was to give the tired building a major facelift but an unimpressed bank manager initially refused him the loan he needed.

He says: "The bank laughed at me when I first went for a loan. It didn't matter who I had trained with or where I had worked, I had never proved myself as a businessman and they basically told me, 'You have no chance son, go and start cooking and prove yourself' and that's what I did. We started with two of us and the first weekend we had four people in.

"Six weeks later, we were fully booked for the whole weekend and I had a team of three chefs and three people on the floor, and it's been like that ever since."

Will's wonderful cuisine was a local secret until he had a visit from internationally acclaimed Irish food critics and publishers of the famous Bridgestone Food Guides, John and Sally McKenna.

Not only did he get a glowing review, but they voted him 2013 Chef to Watch in Ireland, one of the Top Ten Hot Chefs in Ireland and The Old School House became just one of six restaurants in Northern Ireland to make it into the 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland. It is also listed in the 2012 Good Food Guide.

But while Will was packing them in, there was still the issue of bringing the building up-to-date and after a year, he went back to the bank.

He says: "This time I was able to go back with a huge portfolio of what we had achieved and all the awards and thankfully it was a case of them saying, 'How much do you need?'."

The fruits of his hard labour are now evident in the sumptuous new surroundings in The Old School House, inspired by his style of cooking and which he describes as "British with a touch of French and North African".

Now open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, Will, who is aiming eventually for a Michelin star, believes he has the winning ingredients to keep The Old School House on the culinary map.

He says: "This is my chance to really show off what I was trained to do and I believe we are serving some of the best dishes in Northern Ireland at the best prices.

"We are in the Top Restaurants in Ireland 2014 and there are only six others in Northern Ireland who have made it.

"We have a fantastic team at the restaurant and have built up a fantastic local clientele. We are very busy and have a lot of stuff coming up in the next six months."

Will adds: "I really couldn't wish for it to be any better and all I want is to offer people good value for money and my aim is for it to be the best restaurant in the country."

The Great British Menu, BBC2, Mon-Fri, 7.30pm. The final 'banquet' programme will broadcast on June 6, the 70th anniversary of D-Day itself

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