Belfast Telegraph

Friday 21 November 2014

Noel McMeel: I just love cooking ... whether it's for family or the leaders of the world

As Noel McMeel fondly describes his idyllic childhood growing up on the family farm in Toomebridge you can't help but be transported to that special time in his life.

You can picture the welcoming farmhouse kitchen, almost smell the beautiful aromas of home cooking and feel the warmth of love and laughter which filled this happy home.

The senses which were stirred for him as a young boy as he helped to harvest and cook the family meals continue to drive him in his awardwinning cuisine today.

For Noel (47) it is all about going back to basics and in his new book, Irish Pantry – Traditional Breads, Preserves and Goodies to Feed the Ones You Love, he celebrates the beauty of food as he knew it as a child.

Noel, executive head chef at the Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh, who famously cooked for the world leaders at this year's G8 summit, has travelled the world, rubbed shoulders with celebrities and presidents and trained in the best kitchens with some of the most renowned chefs.

But, as impressive as his extensive training and experience is, for Noel it is his mother's pantry with its cooling marble slab and sighing shelves laden with traditional and delicious treats, which is still the greatest influence on how he works.

"My hardworking parents instilled an innate respect for the seasonality of food in my four brothers, my sister and myself," he recalls. "In my parents' place and time, it was up to you to look after yourselves and your children – no ifs, ands or buts. You rose early, you worked physically and you reaped the benefits of what you sowed.

"Making the most of the bounty of the land, working hard with your own two hands to preserve it – these were the core principles where I grew up.

"One of the lovely things that we perceive about the working class family is the old saying 'The family who eats together stays together', and that is certainly true for us. We had our chores to do. I have twin brothers who are mentally and physically disabled and our priority always was that they had to be looked after.

"We were so lucky then and still are to have Owen and John and they are a huge pride in my life.

"My parents were told they would never walk and my mother had great faith that they would and nothing was going to stop her until they did – and they walked.

"Cooking was always a great celebration and everything was made fresh. You had the great smells in the kitchen and you lived by your senses.

"We were always very happy. The memories of my childhood make me smile and there are thousands and thousands of them.

"I remember my mother would be making an orange butter icing for her sponge cake and I would sneak into the kitchen to lick the bowl and she would slap my hands and tell me that I would get worms.

"In the school holidays my father would give us chores such as weeding in the fields or picking vegetables.

"Little did I think my parents were giving me the tools of life, teaching me what is in season and what the earth can give to us to nourish us and what berries come into season at what time and what we can do with them.

"For me now cooking is about finding the very best local ingredients and supporting farms and grocers that respect the earth.

"It's about preparing meals that delight and excite the senses, and not getting seduced into overcomplicating. Above all else, let the natural flavour of good food shine through."

While his clean, crisp cuisine derives from his traditional roots, his extensive experience working in both Europe and the United States is there too with a healthy measure of ecleticism thrown in.

Noel trained at Ballymena Technical College, the Northern Ireland hotel and Catering College and Belfast Institute. He served his apprenticeship at the Villager in Crossgar and also worked with Paul and Jeannie Rankin at Roscoffs in Belfast.

He then travelled to America, where he studied at Johnston and Wales University and Boston University.

He won a scholarship – Winning Chef of the year of Europe – from the International Association of Culinary Professionals, which allowed him to work alongside the world famous chef Jean-Louis Palladin, at the Watergate Hotel, Washington.

He also worked in New York's distinguished Le Cirque Restaurant and the World Restaurant of the Year, Chez Panisse in San Francisco, where he met his idol (and Chez Panisse founder), Alice Waters.

He came back home to Northern Ireland and worked as head chef at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel, Londonderry, ran his own restaurant, Trompets in Magherafelt, for four years and then spent seven years as executive head chef at Castle Leslie in Monaghan. Here he worked closely with its owner, Sammy Leslie, to build and develop the castle's reputation for the finest modern cuisine and it was here that he famously cooked the wedding feast for Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills.

It doesn't surprise that Noel – with his quiet, easygoing manner – soon developed a comfortable rapport with the now-divorced celebrity couple who, he revealed, were frequent visitors to the castle.

And it was while enjoying a bit of banter with the special guests that he played a part in securing the local venue for their secret nuptials.

"I made a huge amount of great friends out of that wedding. Paul is a real gentleman," he says. "They had been to Castle Leslie so many times.

"I remember one visit when I said to them 'Are you two back again' and they laughed and then jokingly I said 'You might as well stay on and have your wedding here' and they just replied 'Why not'.

"I told them I loved vegetarian food and they booked everything and it was a great event."

Noel then moved to Lough Erne Resort in 2007 where he introduced his own particular brand of modern Irish cooking with the simple philosophy: sourcing, preparing and serving fresh food in season.

For Noel, it is all about going back to basics and growing and cooking fresh food. He is single and has his own "mini farm" at his home in Omagh where he grows his own produce and rears chickens and hens.

He lost his dad Owen last year and his mum Maureen, who is 80, still lives on the family farm in Toomebridge, where Noel likes to spend any free time. Family still remains his number one priority in life along with his great passion for cooking. And he says living and working in America and Europe has given him an even greater appreciation of how well off we are in Northern Ireland when it comes to quality produce and good food.

Accordingly, his menus at Lough Erne promote the artisan producers who he has carefully selected as his suppliers.

"I think I have come to a time in my life when I understand what simplicity is and what it is to go back to basics," he says.

"If you grow a cauliflower and bring it in from your garden and make soup with it, the flavour you will get is something that cannot be created by a cauliflower bought in a supermarket.

"Lough Erne is a very big place and I have huge expenditure to buy the food; that money I control goes into Ireland – to Joey or Paddy down the road – and it's important to me to put their names on our menus and showcase them and be very proud of them.

"We are chefs, we are powered by the heart and we have to find producers who are powered by the heart and we work together like an orchestra, everyone playing the same tune."

It's driven him to promote what we have on the world stage which is one of the reasons why he chose a New York publisher for his new book, which will be distributed in America and Canada.

"I loved America, they were so kind to me and it has given me an amazing education," he says. "I met all sorts of people, from presidents to rock stars and Hollywood movie stars. It was just a crazy, crazy experience.

"At the end of the day though it taught me that we are all the same, we are all humans.

"Being there has given me an appreciation of what we have here and one of the reasons why I brought out the book is that I honestly think Northern Ireland has as much to offer as anywhere else in the world, but we need to let people know it.

"Northern Ireland to me is the unknown destination. I want more people to come to Northern Ireland and I want to share a bit of my journey and put it out there for other people to come here and enjoy what I've enjoyed.

"I recorded a video which is on YouTube for A Flavour of Ireland which shows what we have here.

"I think we need to go out and sell it and show the world how bloody good we are."

Of the many highlights of his career, he says the G8 will remain one of the biggest and best. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron publicly praised Noel for the "fantastic food" served during the event.

While he readily admits it was certainly a challenge to prepare food for eight world leaders, it was one which he relished.

"I was surrounded by great people and we knew what we had to do and we did it to the best of our ability," he says.

"Everything had to be perfect; there was no room for mistakes.

"It was just an amazing experience to get to meet the leaders and we also met some amazing people in the teams from the Commonwealth."

No matter what celebrity circles he has moved in, Noel says that while he appreciates the opportunities that have come his way, he never forgets where he came from and will always be proud to have grown up in Toomebridge.

"I hope (the new book) will make people smile and they will enjoy cooking from it and embrace it," he says.

"Many of the recipes are from my family and my childhood and have great stories behind them.

"It's a great story book as well and in it I talk about our culture and myself and what I've done down the years. My heart is in there.

"Every chef in Northern Ireland should have a book. We need to change the thoughts of our visitors. We have a great culture. It's time to show it to the world."

Irish pantry, Traditional Breads, Preserves and Goodies to Feed the Ones You Love is available now from Easons and other bookshops, priced £18.99

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