'I'll never forget my careers teacher in school telling me that there was no future in hospitality'
Ciaran O’Neill, boss of Londonderry’s Bishop’s Gate Hotel, talks to Ryan McAleer about how he exchanged his chef’s hat for a tie
He may have just returned from watching his beloved Spurs lose to Barcelona in the Champions League, but life is good for Ciaran O'Neill.
The chef turned award-winning hotelier behind the Bishop's Gate Hotel in Londonderry appreciates an artist at the height of his powers, and the night before he was treated to a masterclass from Lionel Messi in Wembley.
It's a trip he and his son Michael try to make at least once a year. But it's not the only bond the pair share. As the youngest of three siblings, Michael (18) has followed in his father's footsteps, studying culinary arts at Ulster University.
"It means we have somebody to keep the family business alive," said Ciaran.
His other two children Laura (23) and Ciara (21) are on their way to respective paths in teaching and pharmacy. All three have worked in family trade at some stage.
"The other two are lost," he laughed. "But Michael has been working part-time in the hotel now for two years in the kitchen. I think it's very important, that's the way I started, working in the kitchen at 15 or 16."
Growing up in Strathfoyle area of Derry, his parents were both involved in the hospitality trade indirectly. As a well-known musician, father Gerry and his fiddle were well versed in the north west music scene. Mother Susie too spent time in the kitchen: "She had a lot of different catering jobs growing up and she was a wonderful cook."
But like many during the era, they took the difficult decision to uproot their young family and leave the city in 1971.
Packing up their lives, they took their four children Desmond, Paula, Gerry and three-year-old Ciaran to Canada.
"My father was an entertainer and there was lots of opportunity for him," he explained.
"But when you ask him, he genuinely thought the Troubles was not a place to raise children.
"I think if I was a parent faced with that decision, and my children were all aged under six, it would be a simple decision for me to move elsewhere.
"My first memory of Canada is of a McDonald's. The very first day we arrived, we were taken in for a Happy Meal.
"Canada is very much about family life, barbecues at the weekend and sport. You play ice hockey in the winter, baseball and soccer in the summer. In Canadian culture you don't have to be good at sport to participate. I think we could probably take a lesson out of that."
The move was a good one for Gerry's musical career. In 1976 he played during the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Montreal.
Ciaran would spend 13 years in Canada, but home was always calling and in 1984 he moved back to his native city with his mother. Desmond had already returned a few years earlier, while Paula moved back some years later.
Ciaran's father and brother Gerry still live in Canada, offering a good excuse to regularly cross the Atlantic.
"People always think the grass is greener somewhere, but there was a point in my life where I realised the quality of life we have here is in some ways much better," he said.
"Six months of the year you're immersed in snow in Canada!"
The move home at 15 landed Ciaran into a relatively alien education system.
"I spent nine months seeing out my O-levels and then I thought: what could I do?
"I'll never forget telling my careers teacher that I wanted to do hospitality and he said there's no future in hospitality. I do enjoy bumping into him."
Earning his first experience at Bells restaurant in Derry, he went on to the old hotel and catering college in Portrush. From there, he embarked across kitchens in Europe for his apprenticeship.
"I did Switzerland, I did London, I worked in big hotels such as The Sheraton, I worked in a Michelin star restaurant (Castle Combe)," he said.
But after mulling over offers from the Savoy and the QE2, at 21 he once again set course for home.
He initially took a job as second chef in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Co Cavan and was soon appointed head chef. At 23 the promotion made Ciaran the youngest head chef of a five-star hotel in Ireland.
Amid it all Ciaran decided to get married to Anne-Marie, who he had met while studying in Portrush. They decided to settle in Derry, and Cavan just seemed too far away.
Ironically, the move back to the city brought him back to his very first restaurant - Bells on the Victoria Road.
But after 18 months Edmond and Paddy Simpson, the owners of a wide hospitality portfolio, including Benedict's in Belfast, came knocking with an offer.
They wanted Ciaran to take the helm as manager of the Fir Trees Hotel in Strabane.
"I said how am I going to manage a hotel? They said if you can manage a kitchen, you can manage a hotel. That's how I went from kitchen to shirt and tie."
He stayed on and off at the Fir Trees for around three years, but soon the time was right to start his own business.
He opened the Oysters restaurant in Derry in the late Nineties, followed by a second eatery of the same name in Strabane a year later.
"That was my first attempt at being a chef patron. There was loads of business and rave reviews, but at that stage I didn't have the business sense to focus and sustain. When you're a creative chef you're always looking for the next thing," he added.
The next thing came around the millennium, when Garvan O'Doherty recruited Ciaran as a general food consultant to help set up his new hotel Da Vinci's.
"That turned into a job as general manager for seven years. They were good years. In 2004 we won Northern Ireland hotel of the year," he added.
Da Vinci's at that stage, during the boom, it was the place to be in Derry."
Another opportunity came in 2007 in the guise of Scottish company Chardon Management, which was managing a portfolio of three dozen properties.
"It transpired that one of them was the City Hotel in Derry, so I became general manager for six years," he said.
In 2013 Chardon appointed him as regional vice-president of operations for Scotland and Northern Ireland, looking after 16 properties and opening six hotels in Britain over the ensuing three years.
"I commuted to Scotland every Monday and came back on the Friday. I did that for over two-and-a-half-years. It was a big job, big salary and big responsibility, but a lot less glamorous than people would think," he explained.
But like many times in his past, the lure of his home city brought him back once again. After meeting with the Inner City Trust, a not-for-profit regeneration group in Derry, Ciaran set his sights on a new challenge to transform what was then the Northern Counties Hotel.
"We had several meetings and one thing led to another and the next thing I agreed a 99-year deal with them to become the operator of the hotel," he said.
Rebranded as Bishop's Gate Hotel, it has gone from strength to strength with Ciaran as managing director since opening in March 2016.
Now ranked as one of the best local hotels on TripAdvisor, Bishop's Gate was last month named AA hotel of the year for Northern Ireland.
"I was involved in most of the hotels in Derry in some way, but this was completely unique. I really wanted to establish a high-end boutique hotel, with a real emphasis on the food," he added.
Over the summer he branched out, opening the Soda and Starch pantry and grill with chef Raymond Moran.
But while he's invested in his home city, he feels it has yet to fully realise its potential.
"I thought after the City of Culture year in 2013 we had really nailed it. But when I came back in 2015 I was disappointed that we hadn't built on the legacy more. Things sort of stalled," he said.
"In the absence of Stormont and the greyness of Brexit, everything seems to be simmering rather than boiling."
In between running Bishop's Gate, Ciaran recently completed a two-year stint as president of the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation.
"I had a year with government and a year without government. The year with government, we got a lot more done," he said.
However, things are on the up in Derry.
From 200 in 2000, hotel room numbers will have risen to 1,000 by the end of 2019.
"Is Derry growing as quickly as Belfast? No. But we're going in the right direction," he added.
"I think it's amazing what has been achieved, but I think we have so much potential to unlock.