Award-winning Comber chef Will Brown reveals his ambitions, how he learnt his trade and why he likes to go foraging for local ingredients.
Young Will Brown used to chop parsley for his mother and she’d tell him she knew of no-one who could do it as finely. A self-confessed non-academic, football-mad schoolboy at the time, the lanky Campbell College lad liked to help his mum in the kitchen of the Old Schoolhouse Inn B&B outside Comber, which the family bought for £25,000 well more than three decades ago. The bank manager thought they were mad and by the time Will was ready to take over the restaurant side, after learning the ropes in London from the likes of Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, the business was just about ticking over.
But with his mother Avril’s life-long encouragement and the benefit of his father Terry’s experience as a former manager of the Stormont Hotel, Belfast — not to mention having the legendary Europa manager Harper Brown as a godfather — Will has put the place on the map. Since he heard the magic three words “Go ahead son”, the Old Schoolhouse Inn has won the Grub Club Restaurant of the Year award and Will has been named as one of the Top 10 chefs in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve been on TV three times, too,” he says, almost in wonderment — he’s too young to have the jaded tone of many successful chefs and businessmen. “We’re in the Bridgestone Food Guide’s 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland and they put me in Top Ten Chefs.”
Great going after only two years in the business — there are only six Northern Ireland restaurants in the foodie bible Bridgestone’s list. The four-star, 12-bedroom Old Schoolhouse Inn is also listed in the 2012 Good Food Guide.
I meet the eager 27-year-old proprietor at his tasteful countryside premises after a very fine and hearty al-fresco lunch — there are no mini nouvelle-cuisine portions here — when he brings out a strawberry and meringue confection with nuts and other little goodies. (He likes to meet his customers to show them that he’s actually cooking in the kitchen.)
At well over six feet, he’s boyish looking and rangy, and candid to the point he could easily get into trouble in print. He tells me delightedly all about a TV documentary a well-known production company is currently making on him; then remembers he’s not really allowed to announce that yet.
Suffice to say the cameras have been following him around for the past year as he gathers accolades. The finished programme could do for him what a similar format did for Belfast-born Dylan McGrath of Irish MasterChef fame. But whereas McGrath was on a wild-eyed quest to win a Michelin-star, Will is focused first and foremost on making his premises the best in Ulster — and that means a 7am-midnight, seven-day working week, starting every morning with overseeing breakfast for his parents’ B&B guests and making sure the coffee’s fresh.
“I prefer to take things slowly and look at the bigger picture,” he emphasises. “I want to be here in 30 years’ time. To do that, the best advice I was ever given, I think, is ‘Less chat, more chop chop’.”
Down to earth and plainly spoken (he has a non-posh generic Belfast accent), he makes engaging company at the bar at the end of the evening, where he’ll often have a beer with guests before heading home to his girlfriend in Comber town.
Will is lucky to have two good women behind him — his “very hard-working” mother, and Holywood girl Corinna Eccles, who gave up a career in law to help him run the business. The couple met through friends two years ago on a night out in Belfast.
“She’s my best friend and better half,” he says openly. “I wouldn’t be here now without her. Corinna was training to be a solicitor but she enjoyed it here so much she gave it up. She’s brilliant at co-ordinating weddings.”
Corinna will be instrumental in helping Will set up his new 30-seater fine-dining restaurant, leading out from his trendy bistro, at the rear of the premises. It’s due to open next March, to the astonishment of the nay-sayers who predicted the whole venture would never work.
“I couldn’t get a loan from the bank two years ago — they thought I had no
chance,” recalls Will. “I’d no proof of income. I did all the painting myself — I’d no money for paint even — and cooked on my own for ages. We started with two of us and the first weekend we had four people in.
“Six weeks later, we were fully booked for the whole weekend and I had a team of three chefs and three people on the floor, and it's been like that ever since. I was able to go back to the bank with a huge portfolio of what we had achieved and all the awards, and thankfully it was a case of them saying, ‘How much do you need?' So I was able to rip out the ceiling and walls and open the bistro, as it is now, for service on June 7 last year.”
Now staffed by 20, the bistro is a high-ceilinged airy space, slightly on the minimalist and masculine side, with a huge blackboard at one end, chalked in multiple lines with ‘I, Will Brown, will not overcook the beef’. It was one of the first lessons he learned at 17, after knocking on the door of Marco Pierre’s Michelin-starred Mirabelle restaurant in London.
“I just talked my way in and they gave me the job of cooking the hot starters. It was the toughest experience of my life — I had no idea what I was doing! I was thrown in at the
deep end and it was drummed into me that unless you master that section, you don't carry on. It really was sink or swim.”
So did he ever feel the heat of White’s famous wrath?
“No — that’s all for the camera. He’s an absolute gentleman in real life.”
After that first stint in London, the rookie returned home to work as a junior sous chef in Belfast’s famous Roscoff restaurant under Paul Rankin. Although he admires Paul greatly, he says he would have preferred to have worked with Michael Deane, who has remained an advisor and a regular customer. He ended up back in London for three years, working at The Square, a two Michelin star restaurant in Mayfair, The Glasshouse under esteemed chef Bruce Poole, and Gordon Ramsay's Maze.
But by 25, sitting in his bedroom in London, he felt he had learned enough to open his own eatery at home. Now widely regarded as the new Paul Rankin, Will uses impeccable seasonal ingredients and unusual herbs and marine plants for his “British with a touch of French and North African” set and A La Carte menus.
His attention to detail is impressive — my lunch companion, a keen gardener, was delighted to find a vivid pansy on her plate of foie gras, while I was intrigued by the mysterious but delicious garnishes accompanying my main course of hake.
Will and his five-man kitchen team go foraging for these rarities every Tuesday and Thursday morning on nearby Mahee Island, on Strangford Lough.
“It’s good for team building as well,” says the youthful boss. “We pick up stuff like sand wort, sea beets, goose tongue, marine plants, wood sorrel, chickweed, jack-in-the-hedge — stuff that would cost me £300 to buy off suppliers, they’re that rare. We get wild garlic but it’s at the end of its season, and great wild mushrooms, too.”
I wondered were the hallucinatory breeds of wild mushrooms responsible for the apparent stupor of horses standing stock-still and staring into nothing in fields up and down the country. (We’d spotted a motionless goat stuck in a hedge on the Ballydrain Road on the way and wondered if he’d been nibbling at something exotic.)
“They know where the good stuff is,” quips Will. “Seriously, though, you have to know what you’re doing when you’re picking mushrooms. Ask an expert.”
For the record, my companion’s beef bourginon, braised over 14 hours, was probably the most tender meat I’ve ever tasted. And we both loved the boiled Comber potatoes, fresh from the fields of the lush rolling countryside surrounding the Inn. The Browns grew their own potatoes, peas and broad beans.
Says Will: “Growing up I always ate like a king, with mum being a chef. I had lobster from a very early age. I grew up around food and food production. My parents had very long hours with the B&B so I spent a lot of time with a babysitter, on a neighbour’s dairy farm. We still get our butter locally and churn it in the kitchen, the ice-cream too.”
The delicious, slightly salted butter in question is melting in the heat of the afternoon sun on a black stone slab, oozing into the remains of freshly baked olive rolls, sourdough and Guinness bread.
An ardent Smiths fan, Will likes the story I tell him about Morrissey stopping at my friend’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Dublin, en-route to the airport, for a portion of their Guinness bread every time he’s in Ireland. He's interested to hear that the legendary singer is a frequent diner there and very “charming and chatty”, according to the staff. Will has cooked for a fair share of VIPs himself, most recently including droll actor Bill Murray (Groundhog Day; Ghostbusters; Lost In Translation) and Lord William Hastings.
In London, the various venues he worked for served some of the world's biggest stars, including Madonna, Guy Ritchie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Claudia Schiffer.
Relatively unimpressed by celebrity, he has difficulty recalling the list, but does remember a slight wobble he experienced when the actress Michelle Pfeiffer sent back her starter.
“We had a dish of asparagus, with poached egg and Hollandaise sauce and Michelle Pfeiffer asked for her Hollandaise to be served separately. I didn’t see the note on the order and put it on the plate, and it was returned.
“I was absolutely mortified. The good thing, though, was that after a ticking off, the chef would put his arm around you and tell you not to worry about it and it was soon forgotten.”
His own first fleeting brush with celebrity status came in April when he was chosen to represent Northern Ireland in the BBC's The Great British Menu, alongside the more experienced chefs, Raymond McArdle and Chris McGowan.
The three were challenged to create a menu fit for war heroes, to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Will agrees it was “a massive honour” to do the programme but is distracted by two men, he doesn’t recognise, who are being shown around the grounds by the handsome Maitre D'. Likewise, he breaks the conversation to greet a B&B guest walking by, telling her he hopes she’ll be dining in tonight.
Unfortunately she’s off to a private party in Newtownards but the bistro is booked out anyway, and should have plenty of Sunday callers sent by Castle Espie close by. Over an Americano I begin to feel guilty about keeping the boss from his work and wonder does he ever find time to relax. A pint after work at his favourite pub, the nearby Poacher’s Pocket, and the odd round of “bad golf” on Mahee Island, is about the height of it. The Browns have a holiday home in Spain and an apartment in Groomsport, which they rent out at various parts of the year, but Will spends most of his precious free time with Corinna in Comber. (He also has two half-sisters, a niece and a newphew.)
“I was born here, it’s where I live and I want to be the best in Co Down. You go the extra yard for a family business. Mum’s 69 now; she retired from cooking about five years ago. I want to make my mum and dad proud of me and I want to do this for myself — and I don’t want to be average at it.
“It goes deeper than just a restaurant — it’s where my family lived in one part of the restaurant when they bought it and served people in the other. They’ve shown a lot of trust in me and I want to repay that trust. It’s about time I gave them something back.”
His five-year-plan includes a cookery school and a restaurant in Belfast.
“I was in London for five years and I think it will be Belfast next. But I’m a country boy at heart.”
With that we're sent off with a fresh batch of breads and a kiss on the cheek. Can't wait to go back.
Wild garlic soup
“This is one of my favourite soups. I love sitting down to this with some sourdough bread. It’s an amazing wild produce.”
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
100g wild garlic leaves, shredded
2 onions, sliced
1.5 litres of vegetable stock
40g double cream
1 bulb garlic
2 tbsps of rapeseed oil
Heat oil in a large saucepan, add onions and cook for 45 minutes on a low heat until translucent.
Add the bulb of garlic and cook for a further 20 minutes.
Add the vegetable stock, bring to simmer, then add cream and simmer for three minutes.
Blend in a food processor until smooth and creamy and serve, garnishing with wild garlic flowers if desired.
Will’s wild hake
“I get my fish from St George’s Market in Belfast from my fisherman friend Eddie of Something Fishy. Here you will find the best hake in the province.”
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Fillet of hake
4 leaves of foraged goosetongue
4 leaves of foraged sandwort
3 leaves of foraged fat hen
3 leave of foraged sea purslane
100g foraged samphire
Taste of the Sea emulsion (see below)
Baby Comber potatoes
for the Taste of the Sea Emulsion
63g carrots, peeled and finely sliced
63g onions, finely sliced
38g fennel, finely sliced
25g shallots, finely sliced
2.5g garlic, finely sliced
a splash of Vermouth
small glass of white wine
To make the emulsion, put the vegetables, Vermouth and white wine in a saucepan and simmer until translucent. Add water if necessary.
Next, add the shellfish and cover with water. Bring the liquid up to 85°C, then cover and infuse for 25 minutes at this temperature. Remove pan from heat, re-cover and allow to cool to room temperature.
Pass through a chinois — a conical sieve with an extremely fine mesh — and cool over an ice bath.
Pan fry the hake and colour on one side until golden brown. Put in oven at 170°C for three minutes to finish off. Put the foraged sea vegetables in a pot and cook with butter for one minute.
Meanwhile, boil the baby Comber potatoes in salted water until cooked, then drain and keep warm.
Heat up the emulsion stock to a warm temperature, adding 2g of lecithin per 200g of stock and then blend with a hand blender to create a frothy, light emulsion. Arrange the potatoes, hake and vegetables on a plate and dress with the emulsion and serve.
Chef’s tip Just buy lecithin from a health food shop and add to stock you have just made and aerate with a handblender to get a froth to add taste and an extra dimension to your dish.
White chocolate and wood sorrel mousse and lemon parfait with poppy seed meringue
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
FOR THE MOUSSE
550ml whipping cream
60g egg yolks
30g caster sugar
600g Valrhona chocolate
FOR THE WOOD SORREL SYRUP
360g caster sugar
4 bunches large leaf sorrel
1g Xanthan gum
FOR THE LEMON PARFAIT
4 egg yolks
75g of caster sugar
75ml of UHT whipping cream
20ml of lemon juice, boiled
1g of gelatine
FOR THE Meringue
125g caster sugar
125g of egg whites
10g poppy seeds
First make the wood sorrel syrup by bringing water and caster sugar to the boil to dissolve the sugar. Then chill until ice cold.
Add the sorrel and blitz syrup and sorrel until all flavour and colour is out of the sorrel. Pass through a sieve and thicken with xanthan gum and set aside. Then pour 100ml whipping cream in a small-based pan and bring to the boil.
Whisk eggs and sugar together. Pour hot cream on top. Return to the heat and cook until it coats the back of your spoon.
Pour mixture into a large bowl and add chocolate, then place the bowl over a pan with water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the bowl, and melt the chocolate.
Let this mixture cool to room temperature. Whip the remaining cream and add 200ml of wood sorrel syrup and whip until soft peaks. Gently fold in chocolate mixture and cool. Put in fridge to set in your chosen serving dish.
To make the parfait, soak the gelatine in cold water. Place the yolks in the bowl of a food mixer and whisk. Add the sugar to a pan with just enough water to coat the sugar. Pour in the lemon juice and cook to 118°C using a cook’s thermometer.
Pour the hot lemon syrup over the yolks and continue to whisk until cold.
Warm 10ml of the cream and add the drained gelatine, stirring until fully incorporated. Whisk the rest of the cream to soft peaks and fold into the egg yolk mixture. Freeze until required, then cut out with a 2cm diameter metal ring.
To make the meringue — add egg white to a Kenwood mixer with whisk attachment and whisk until the egg white is fluffy.
Add sugar slowly while blending on medium speed until glossy and smooth.
When the meringue is ready, you should be able to lift the bowl above your head without it moving. Fold in the poppy seeds. Pipe meringue onto baking sheets and cook at 60°C for seven hours.