Chapter V: Meet the Tyrone chef behind Northern Ireland's latest Michelin Guide restaurant
Having pumped his life savings into his restaurant in Moy, Co Tyrone, chef Conor McCabrey's investment paid off when the eatery was listed in the latest Michelin Guide, writes Stephanie Bell
It is a little over a week since chef Conor McCabrey learned that his Co Tyrone restaurant had been listed in the 2020 Michelin Guide and there is still no hiding his excitement.
It’s a feeling of exhilaration which has spread like a ripple right through the community of Moy, where Conor and wife Ellie opened their fine food restaurant, Chapter V, four years ago.
The normally quiet village is now on the culinary map and, as locals bask in the glory, no one could be happier that the man who put it there.
“I am over the moon — it’s just fantastic... unbelievable,” Conor tells me.
“I guess it is what every chef dreams of, so to reach it before I am 50 is quite an achievement.
“I feel so humbled and so pleased and so lucky. It’s just amazing.”
The 48-year-old, who grew up in Lurgan but now lives in Annaghmore, his wife’s home village, has been a chef for 34 years and has one son, Kealan (27).
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He worked to establish several of Northern Ireland’s best restaurants, including Halls Mill near Gilford, the former Rokeby in Armagh and Clenaghans outside Moira, before finally taking the plunge and going out on his own in 2015.
He and Ellie (46), a former administration worker who now runs the front of house operation at Chapter V, have poured their hearts and souls — not to mention their life savings — into the restaurant.
The Michelin listing comes after a tough period for the couple, who struggled through a difficult few weeks after Conor scalded his foot with hot vegetable oil in May.
His injury was so serious that doctors feared he would lose his foot, but surgery saved it, although Conor had to spend 10 weeks recovering.
Although distressing at the time, it seems like a distant memory as he savours his place in the Michelin Guide.
“I got a bad burn on my foot in May with oil that was over 200 degrees Celsius and then I was off work for 10 weeks,” Conor explains.
“I was in the Royal Victoria Hospital for two weeks and they thought that I was going to lose my foot.
“I had surgery and had to get a skin graft on my foot and on the back of my leg. I’m still attending hospital for scar therapy.
“We had to cancel our summer holidays and we had a lovely cruise booked in Venice.
“It has been a year of highs and lows — and that was a very low place — but it just shows I’m human.”
Conor and Ellie were already facing an anxious time. The Michelin inspector who called at their restaurant last December took the unusual step of introducing himself to the couple after he had eaten.
Restaurants in the running for inclusion in the guide usually have no idea they are being considered.
“They don’t normally make themselves known to you, so usually you don’t know that you’re in the running,” Conor says.
“But we’ve known since last December and it has been the most anxious 10 months, wondering if we had made it.
“I think the Michelin inspector fell for Ellie’s charms. She’s in charge of front of house and is a great host.
“It was a Thursday evening when he came in and we had just put our Christmas decorations up.
“When he was paying his bill, he told us he was from the Michelin Guide 2020.
“He seemed to know all about me and wanted to inspect my kitchen, which he did with a fine-tooth comb.
“He went all over the building and then sat us down and talked to us.
“Afterwards, it was a bit surreal. He told us a second inspector would be coming.
“Two weeks later, we had a man in on his own. As he paid his bill he said he had travelled all over the UK and Ireland and that he’d just had one of the best meals he’d ever had.
“We assumed that was the second inspector, although we have no way of knowing for sure.
“It was hard to keep it under our hats. I knew that something exciting could come to the Moy and after that it was a waiting game.
“Part of me was dreading October 7, when they were to make the announcement.
“It was done by a live feed and Ellie and I couldn’t settle all day. We tried to tune in a couple of times, but our name didn’t come up and my nerves were away with it.”
For Ellie, who gave up her job in the office of Southern Regional College to work in the restaurant full time, it was just as nerve-racking.
Knowing how much a Michelin endorsement would mean to her husband, she was flabbergasted when, after paying his bill, the inspector introduced himself to her.
“We didn’t know how it even worked, getting into the guide. Even though it is something Conor has always wanted, we didn’t think we were ready for it, to be honest,” Ellie says.
“When he said who he was, it was a complete shock.
“I had cut my finger and spent the night running in and out of the restaurant trying to get it wrapped up to stop it bleeding, so I just thought, ‘Why tonight of all nights?’
“It has been a long 10 months wondering and waiting for the announcement.
“Last Monday was such a stressful day watching the live feed.
“We hadn’t seen our name and when we set down to dinner I was consoling Conor and told him that there was always next year.
“Then Conor’s son rang to tell us we were in the guide and that was the best way he could have heard it. There was plenty of celebrating after that.”
Conor admits he cried “tears of joy” when his Kealan called at around 10pm to break the good news.
“I couldn’t believe it — I cried like a baby,” he says. “It is such a huge accolade for me and my staff to get the highest recommendation there is. It’s such an honour.
“It is mind-boggling that my name is in there. Hopefully, it will put Moy on the map because it is a wonderful village.
“We are serious about our food and good at what we do. It’s been hard work and we are just thrilled.”
Conor and Ellie poured everything they have into setting up the restaurant.
For Conor, it has always been about using local produce and fresh food to create new and exciting dishes.
It is an approach that has seen him win a clutch of awards, including the Chef of the Year 2019 and Casual Dining Restaurant of the Year 2019 at the prestigious all-Ireland Yes Chef awards.
Conor built a reputation for coming up with meticulously constructed dishes when working at The Grange in Waringstown, the Rokeby — which later became the Manor Park — in Armagh and at Clenaghans in Moira.
Four years ago he knew it was time for him to start a new chapter in his career by stepping out on his own. “I spent 18 years in Clenaghans and cooked for some great people,” he explains.
“I had US senator John McCain and the actor Fred Dalton Thompson come for dinner while visiting the Republic of Ireland. They just flew up for one night to Northern Ireland and booked into Clenaghans.
“Cooking for those guys was quite unreal. There were bodyguards everywhere.
“I absolutely loved working there and the only thing that got to me was the travel from Annaghmore. I also had spent a lot of time working to build businesses for other people who were reaping the rewards. I realised I wanted it for me.
“I gave Clenaghans nine months’ notice and started a new chapter of my life in Moy.
“I always loved that little village. We got the premises at 5 Killyman Street but only took over the first floor because it was such a big building.
“Now we have all these wee lounges and the bottom bar. We put everything we had into it — all of our savings.
“We never advertised, but word got out. When we opened our doors on October 29, 2015, I remember Ellie and I thinking, ‘How are we going to pay our wages?’. But that night we had to close the door because we were booked out.
“It was such a relief that our first night was a great success and everybody loved it. Our fourth anniversary is coming up at Halloween and we have a big night planned which has already sold out.”
While thousands of people will have heard the news that Chapter V is now officially one of the finest restaurants in Northern Ireland, Conor is not resting on his laurels.
“We have lovely customers who have an appetite for good food,” he says. “I just want to keep getting better and hopefully stay in the guide. God willing, we will be there next year too.”
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