Belfast Telegraph

Working Lunch: So, what happened when we checked in with Hastings Hotel boss?

By Joris Minne

Howard Hastings is fizzing with energy. There is a contagious restlessness about him and no matter how conventional the suit shirt and tie, how discreet the spectacles and traditional the hair cut, you cannot help but get swept up in his arm-waving enthusiasm. Charisma is a common virtue in his trade.

But this is something else. Running hotels, employing hundreds of people and coming up with big ideas that are palatable to a risk-averse Northern Ireland government requires utilities-grade charm, ability and leadership.

Having recently stepped down from the chair of NITB, now Tourism NI, he oversaw the international successes of the MTV Awards in 2011, the Irish Open in 2012, UK City of Culture in 2013 and the three-day Giro d'Italia start last year. So what could come next, he wondered?

Over his starters of crab cakes with chilli jam made with herbs grown just outside in the hotel's herb garden, and my Tyrone mushroom with peppers and goat's cheese, he reveals that when the last pair of Italian lycra shorts cycled out of town, he put pen to paper and came up with Northern Ireland Year of Food 2016. "This would provide a home-grown series of events generated entirely by ourselves and providing input from just about everyone," he explains.

"The agri-food sector would not be the only player - health, education, tourism, artisan-ale sectors and even skills sectors would all benefit."

He provides a forensic account of how such a series of food related events would include everyone and provide Northern Ireland with a multi-purpose showcase.

Schools could have herb gardens, apprenticeships in food production and restaurants could multiply, tourism would have a new attraction and even healthier eating could be promoted realistically.

He only has to reach for his own business's track record to make the point. Food is locally sourced at his hotels.

It is cooked by people like Brian Donaldson who is the group's recently anointed executive sous-chef and most importantly for Howard as a marketing man, it provides just the story to sell Northern Ireland.

The Glenarm short horn steak I'm having, for instance, or his salmon, are not from an unknown freezer. They are from somewhere close by, reared by people we know and prepared by quality cooks and chefs.

"People don't travel necessarily with food in mind, although if you go to France or Italy, it's probably not far from your list of things to do," he said.

"We want to be in that zone, where people come here because food quality is near the top of their must-have lists when they come to Northern Ireland."

He's going the right way and the Year of Food promises to deliver the quantum leap NI needs to secure this reputation once and for all. "I'm amazed at the levels of support which already exist for the concept," he says.

"It's as if everyone knows we're good at food but nobody dared say so until now because that's not very Ulster."

But he does dare, thank goodness.

Belfast Telegraph

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