Paula McIntyre: Cookery is my real love
Paula McIntyre knew she was going to be a chef from an early age. She tells Ivan Little about her lifelong passion for cooking, how she's learning to overcome shyness and why she doesn't consider herself a celebrity
Like supermarket shopping, talking to Paula McIntyre is something you simply shouldn't do on an empty stomach. For the charismatic chef's passion for cooking is so totally infectious that within minutes of chatting to her it's impossible not to want to eat her words.
Just listening to her speaking animatedly about something as simple as her recent enjoyment of a Comber potato, dripping in butter, is sure to get the mouth watering. "After that spud I said people can take all their oul' foie gras and pasta and shove it where the sun don't shine."
Paula, who is from Aghadowey – and makes no apologies for it – is one of Northern Ireland's most popular broadcasters. She calls a farl a farl and has been known to use the sort of down-to-earth language that would make Nigella Lawson choke on her casseroles.
A couple of weekends back I heard her getting the words 'dog' and 'poo' into the same sentence as she gave a cookery demonstration in a marquee in Londonderry.
Her plain speaking, however, went down well with her audience who were there to see her plain cooking.
"I don't have any pretensions," she says, quoting a line from the movie Steel Magnolias that an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of dung (though manure was the actual word in the film).
Ironically, however, Paula was probably born to become a teacher rather than a chef. Her mother and father were both teachers and for a time even she thought she'd follow them into the classroom. But at the age of eight fate decided that her future would be in the kitchen.
"I was in the Valvona and Crolla delicatessen in Edinburgh," she says. "And my eyes were out on stalks as I looked up at all the hams and tried the parmesan and realised that it didn't taste like boke. I knew there and then what I wanted to do with my life."
Paula was surrounded by food in the farming community where she lived. "There was a big tradition of baking and jam-making that evokes emotional memories, which is what food should do," she says.
"I feel sorry for children nowadays who are missing out. They're maybe eating kebabs in front of the television instead of having proper food at the family table."
Food, says Paula, should be convivial. "I like nothing more than having people round for a big pot of food or big platters. Nothing fancy, mind – I just want people to get stuck in and enjoy themselves."
After Paula's Eureka moment in Scotland, she cooked more and more at home before landing a job as a teenager in a neighbour's renowned, but now sadly closed, restaurant, MacDuffs.
"I helped out in the kitchen doing anything and everything," says Paula, who by then had a definite taste for a career in the culinary world and no appetite for her home economics classes at school.
"The first thing they taught us was how to make tea and toast. I was bored stiff and I was never going to be a domestic goddess," she recalls.
After leaving school, Paula enrolled in the College of Business Studies in Belfast on a management course and her first placement took her back north to George McAlpine's award-winning Ramore Restaurant in Portrush.
"That was a turning point for me," she says. "George took me under his wing and he was so nurturing and so patient with me, probably because I was such an eejit.
"I know a lot of other chefs get the credit for setting the trends for restaurants in Northern Ireland but George was the man, the first to be recognised by Michelin."
After college, Paula moved to London where she worked in top restaurants including Michael Caine's Langan's brasserie and L'Escargot before being offered a job by a chef she idolised, Prue Leith.
"But around that time I was given a scholarship to go to Johnson and Wales University in America for three months," she says.
The prestigious Rhode Island college then offered Paula another scholarship and she graduated after two years as a Bachelor of Science in culinary arts. She would probably have stayed in the States and possibly opened her own restaurant if visa problems hadn't scuppered her plans. "It broke my heart to leave but I wasn't meant to live there. I would have probably ended up murdered down an alleyway anyway," she laughs.
Paula returned to the UK and eventually opened her own restaurant in Manchester and won several top awards, but on reflection she now believes that at 26 she was maybe too young for the role. "I didn't make millions of pounds, obviously, but I learned an awful lot about myself, about life, about people and about cooking. However, after five years, I came home to become head chef at Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan, though it was hard to adjust after being my own boss."
Spells at Fontana in Holywood and Ghan House cookery school and restaurant in Carlingford were next on the menu before Paula turned to lecturing at the Portrush Catering College and then the Northern Regional College in Ballymoney, where she works two days a week.
"Teaching was strange at first but I enjoy going into a restaurant and having a really nice meal knowing that one of my students is behind it."
Away from college, no two weeks are ever the same for Paula, who caters for private parties as well as giving her cookery demonstrations. Not to mention her broadcasting career, which took off by accident after she met a BBC producer during a night out in Belfast.
"I'd already done a few slots in England for Radio 5 Live and the producer said I should do some more work at home. I said 'You've had too many gins'. I went into cooking because I love cooking. There were no media chefs back then, apart from the late Keith Floyd."
One of the things that held Paula back was shyness. "No-one would believe that but I was too shy to speak at school. One teacher at Dalriada told the class that they weren't leaving until I said something."
The school had a reputation for drama but Paula never ventured onto the stage, something she regrets now.
"I would love to act. Some of my friends are involved with amateur drama groups and have talked about me joining them. Last year I played a celebrity chef with an attitude problem in William Caulfield's show and I really loved it.
"I think maybe the radio shows helped me with my confidence issues," says Paula, adding that her Aghadowey accent isn't a hindrance, but rather a help.
"My first producers told me the way I talked was great. They urged me to be myself. I'm really proud of where I come from and how I speak. And you no longer have to change to be understood. Just listen to Jimmy Nesbitt."
Paula, who's also written a book, has appeared on local and national television programmes like Ready Steady Cook with Fern Britton, but she is obviously at home on the Saturday Magazine show with John Toal on BBC Radio Ulster. And the relaxed rapport and banter between them have been among the main ingredients of the programme's success over the past ten years.
"We hit it off right away because we have the same sense of humour. And I mix socially with John and his wife and their kids," adds Paula. "I love the shows and we try to react to what people want us to talk about."
The audience feedback is amazing. "For example if we mention potatoes, the phone lines are clogged up immediately because people have such a warmth for their spuds."
Listeners also have a fanciful notion that Paula has her own high-tech kitchen in Broadcasting House. But, she says, "I prep most of the food at home and bring it to Belfast in cool bags and I cook on a wee Butane stove."
Such is her high profile that it's surprising that Paula hasn't opened her own restaurant in Northern Ireland. "If you had suggested that to me a couple of years ago I would have said no way and I would have preferred to throw my money down a drain. But I would like to do something now, maybe a touring thing. I don't want to take on a lease and invest money. I'm chicken, really."
Paula has been approached by business people who said they would bankroll her. "But that train has left town," she says, insisting that she doesn't want to be tied to a kitchen six or seven nights a week.
Paula, who once did a two-week placement in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant in Chelsea but never met him, detests the 'celebrity chef' label. "It's a nonsense. Everyone is a celebrity chef now. And I've heard people saying that a number of the top British chefs who give cookery demos say the same things and crack the same jokes night after night.
"I couldn't work to a script and never will. PR people will often ask me to do things that I just don't want to do. Money is not my god and being famous is not what's important to me. However, I genuinely love my demos, especially when people talk to me afterwards.
"I like having a good laugh and a while back a man came up at the end of a show and said there was nothing as sexy as a big woman with flour on her apron!"
But Paula can also switch to serious mode in a heartbeat as she reflects on her desire for people here to give more support to local food producers. "There's been a food revolution here over the past five or six years, with farmers diversifying all the time. Our meat, our breads, our ciders and our butter are all award winners and are in demand from the top restaurants and supermarkets in England."
Asking Paula if she likes eating out is a bit like speculating on whether or not Lionel Messi enjoys scoring goals. "Of course I do," she says. "In the past two years the restaurant scene has exploded. I don't see any evidence of a recession here. Maybe we aren't buying as many shoes or clothes as we used to, but people still want to eat out.
"And it's no longer just about the food. It's about the atmosphere and the service too. The restaurants which work best here are the ones who reinvent themselves, refurbish their spaces and maybe try a different style and move with the times.
"They also can't afford to be insular. They've got to look to cities like New York and London to see what's happening and then bring it back here. No-one can stand still."
Taste of success ... some of Northern Ireland's best-known chefs
Paul Rankin – the Co Down man changed the face of Northern Ireland's foodie scene in 1989 with his restaurant Roscoff, which became the first to win a Michelin star here. At one point, he had 15 restaurants and cafes, but these were forced to close as a result of the economic downturn. "We took on too much too quickly and the hard times started to bite," he said. "We didn't have enough funds to cover the downturn."
His flagship restaurant Cayenne, on Belfast's Shaftesbury Square, also closed down earlier this year.
Jenny Bristow – the former home economics teacher from Coleraine was brought up on a dairy farm. She has become a familiar face on local television screens over the years, and has written numerous recipe books.
Nick Price – regarded as one of Northern Ireland's pioneering chefs, Price opened the hugely successful Nick's Warehouse in 1989 in what was then the still-undeveloped Cathedral Quarter of Belfast. Earlier this year, he announced the restaurant is to close down as he was retiring.
Danny Millar – formerly a finalist on TV's Great British Menu, Millar has been making waves in Northern Ireland's culinary scene in recent years through the acclaimed Balloo House and the Parson's Nose in Co Down. Last year he acquired Lisbarnett House pub and restaurant in Lisbane, outside Comber.