Belfast Telegraph

How chef Dean is putting eels on the menu Co Armagh cathedral city

By Lisa Smyth

Kangaroo and eel may not top everyone's list of favourite foods but they are helping to revive the social scene in Co Armagh, according to a top chef.

They both appear frequently on the menu at Uluru Bar & Grill - Northern Ireland's only Australian restaurant - which moved to new premises in the centre of Armagh city last year.

Dean Coppard, executive chef at the restaurant - named after the Aborigine word for Ayers Rock - said its move was now working well.

"We've been open for just over a year now," he said.

"We started out in smaller premises and we were turning away 40 or 50 people on a Saturday night so we wanted to expand.

"We've gone from serving 450 people a week to nearly 1,600 customers a week for food, with a busy week hitting 2,000 but we're still turning away 40 to 50 people, so we're in the same predicament.

"We had about 12 staff and now we have 15 chefs and 35 front of house staff as well, so our staff numbers have pretty much quadrupled.

"We just moved down the road, mainly because of the great location, and we're close to a couple of other restaurants and cafes, and they didn't speak to me in the beginning.

"But we have created a bit of a Cathedral Quarter here, there are five of us and if I am busy people will go to one of the other places and vice versa.

"We've created a great destination, it's great for the local economy."

Dean, who is originally from Queensland on the north coast of Australia, is passionate about food - and Northern Ireland's food in particular.

He places great emphasis on buying as many ingredients as possible from local sources - including the eels served up at the restaurant, which come from Lough Neagh.

In fact, he spent a day at the Castle Gardens in Antrim taking part in a cookery demonstration as part of Eel-Eat Week, which aims to show elevate eels in Northern Ireland cuisine.

"Basically, about 80% of Lough Neagh eels were exported and we are trying to change that so that more people here support the local industry," he said.

Lough Neagh eels are one of only three food products from Northern Ireland to be granted protected legal status against imitators by the EU, alongside the Armagh Bramley apple and Comber potatoes. They are part of an exclusive club that includes Champagne, Parma ham and Cornish pasties.

But Dean is concerned that Brexit could have a negative effect on Northern Ireland's PGI goods.

"I don't know, I'm a bit of a worrier and I'm worried our PGI foods might get a little bit lost in everything that is going on," he said.

"Hopefully not, we don't want people selling what they claim are Bramley apples, when they aren't.

"In the short term, we have had a lot of people coming across the border because the pound has been affected and that's great, but in the long term it could damage our PGI foods."

Dean, who spent a year and half as head chef at catering firm and cafe Yellow Door before going out on his own, describes the menu at Uluru as local produce served with an Australian twist.

"There is a lot of Greek in Australia but we're also on the edge of the Pan Pacific region, so we have a lot of influences from Japan, China, Thailand," he said

"For example, I was doing chilli salted squid in Belfast long before it became popular.

"All these cooking shows have really given people an appetite and they are willing to try things they would never have done in the past.

"We put on ingredients, like our kangaroo or the eels, as a starter so people aren't committing themselves to an entire meal.

"They can try them in a starter and then they come back and have them as a main course.

"We put kangaroo on as a starter because it is quite gamey and now we sell probably 80 to 120 steaks a week.

"I import it from Australia, but through a company from the south."

Originally a graphic designer, he retrained as a chef due to his love for food.

"My dad taught me to cook when I was little, he took me out and taught me how to barbecue," he said.

His passion for serving up delicious and creative dishes is what drives him to this day.

"You don't do this job for the money," he added.

"If you ask any chef, they will tell you it is a tough, bloody job, you work 60 to 70 hours a week and you don't get paid well.

"When we were looking to expand into the new premises, we brought in architects that have developed the interiors of Belfast restaurants Ox and Howard Street.

"Nothing is left to chance, we even select our music to play depending on the time of day.

"It's what you have to do if you want to be a success."

Belfast Telegraph