Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Kitchen serves up a burning ambition

Belfast's James Street South has just been named Good Food Guide Northern Ireland Restaurant of the Year. Head chef and proprietor Niall McKenna risked his reputation to let reporter Lesley-Anne Henry loose in his kitchen

Chef Niall McKenna watches as Lesley-Anne puts the finishing touches to a delicious-looking meal

Frozen pizza, microwave lasagne and beans on toast... you name it I've burnt it.

So when Hell's Kitchen started showing chef Marco Pierre White transform a bunch of clueless amateurs into top rated chefs I was hooked. If the likes of boxing champ Barry McGuigan and actress Adele Silva could learn to cook then surely I could too.

And the man to give me some top tips was Ulster master chef Niall McKenna.

Niall, owner of the award winning James Street South restaurant in Belfast city centre, knows at first hand what it's like to face that famous Marco temper, having worked with him at The Canteen.

In fact Niall spent a total of 11 years in London working with chefs like Gary Rhodes and Nico Ladines. So having worked with the best he was about to take on the worst - me.

"Cooking is simple," Niall told me as he handed over my chefs whites, apron, cloth and... plasters. "You'll definitely need those," he joked.

I must admit I was more than a little nervous when I sneaked a peak into the kitchen. It may have been the calm before the lunchtime storm but it was already a hive of activity.

Niall's army of cooks were busy chopping, mixing, stirring and tasting. I felt like legging it.

The kitchen was surprisingly small and it was a bit like ballet dodging pots of boiling syrup, hot water and trays of sizzling meats.

But a small kitchen means less running about, said Niall.

Thankfully he was not a stereotypical grumpy chef. Niall didn't bark orders at his staff and instead addressed everyone endearingly as handsome, good-looking or gorgeous.

"You have to be very good friends with everyone because on a Saturday night there are hands everywhere," he joked.

I was to prepare roasted duck breast with macerated Armagh plum, saffron potato and fig jus.

Simple?

We started off cutting plums into wedges but I could see by Niall's expression that my knife skills were less than impressive.

Next up I tossed the plum wedges in hot olive oil while Niall added a few magic sauces transforming them into something delicious.

As for duck I learned that the one time I did cook it I did it completely wrong. The trick is to fry the meat slowly from a low heat, skin side down, seal it, stick it in the oven and then rest it to prevent the meat going tough.

I was given the honour of carving the duck breast and putting it on the plate but I burnt my fingers which are more used to tapping cold keys on a computer.

I was assured it would be "the easiest but tastiest" dessert in the world.

Armagh plum tarte tatin involved melting sugar, butter and a little water for the base. This was decoratively lined with plums, had a puff pastry lid and was served with ice cream.

And Niall was right - quick, easy and very tasty. I think even I could replicate this dish at home.

All in all my afternoon in the kitchen made me appreciate the effort that goes into preparing a top class meal.

I thought journalists had it tough with our deadlines but now I know there is nothing more daunting than a room full of hungry customers. So, I think I'll stick to my day job, cheers.

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