How Northern Ireland's Michelin-starred restaurants forced food critics to eat their words
Recent Michelin stars may have proven the might of our restaurants — but we have much to learn about good service, says Joris Minne
Northern Ireland a food destination? Seriously? Two Michelin stars for Belfast gives us two more than Manchester. But is the rest of our restaurant sector up to it?
It all started in 1989 when Paul Rankin and Nick Price opened Cayenne and Nick's Warehouse. They stood their ground like cacti in a desert providing the emerging yuppie generation with London-style duck, venison, salmon and general fanciness. But they were alone. It would take another 10 years before their sous-chefs were off starting their own quality restaurants.
Everywhere you look, there is greatness, from the budget Kurrito to the Michelin-starred Eipic and Ox. Possibly our greatest strength is the informal restaurant category, where you find Hadskis, Deanes Love Fish and Meat Locker and the likes of Brunel's in Newcastle. Mourne Seafood Bar has been instrumental in reshaping a part of Belfast city centre thanks to the consistency of its dishes - cooked masterfully and served by enthusiasts.
Beyond the cities of Londonderry and Belfast, things have changed dramatically too. The Boat House in Bangor, as well as Harry's Shack and the Loft in Portstewart, are proof that quality can spread without losing its force.
Northern Ireland has about 1,000 restaurants and takeaways (almost half of them in greater Belfast). But something else has happened. There has been a sort of awakening of our local produce.
Previously ignorant and a bit ashamed of our produce, we are now taking pride in our Comber potatoes, Armagh bramleys and Dexter beef. In fact, we've become so enamoured of our own produce, we now market ourselves, whisper it, as "a food destination".
Producers such as Hannan Meats and Mash Direct, Finnebrogue Venison and Leggygowan Cheese are making a big impact in international food competitions and are on the order books of top restaurants and food outlets. Clearly, the raw produce made in Northern Ireland is able to compete at the highest level.
So if the produce is right and the cooking skills are there, is there anything holding us back? Well, yes. Service. Frankly, we have some way to go with skills training in the sector. Once described as "charmingly incompetent" in the Daily Express, our restaurant service standards are patchy at best. Friendly, perhaps, but not polished.
This can be tackled, though. Restaurateurs such as Michael Deane and Niall McKenna know the value of good staff and are willing to invest in training. They have proven this works in terms of sustaining their businesses. More hotels and restaurants need to do the same.
We in Northern Ireland are naturally and instinctively hospitable, so we are well disposed to welcoming people. But when it comes to the business of hospitality, we need to learn from the competition in the US and Europe, where many of our catering college graduates go, never to return.
Until service standards improve, particularly in the mid-range of restaurants, which are the backbone of Northern Ireland's eating out offer, we will be stuck in second gear in the race to becoming a food destination and generating volume food tourism.
See Joris Minne's restaurant reviews every Saturday in the Belfast Telegraph's Weekend magazine