He lost nine stone and founded the hugely successful Slim's Healthy Kitchen restaurant chain... now Gary's penned a recipe book to help you eat well at home
In just two years Gary McIldowney's eateries have built up an annual £4m turnover. He tells Una Brankin what's next on the menu
If healthier eating is high on the New Year's resolutions list, there's no better place to find non-boring recipes than Gary McIldowney's first cookbook.
The owner of Slim's Healthy Kitchen restaurants in Belfast slimmed down from 24 stone to 15 stone, and knows how to make non-fattening food interesting.
"I used to eat on the go when I was working as an electrician," said the 33-year-old entrepreneur.
"I'd stop at a petrol station and get a sandwich, a snack bar and a juice, and think that was healthy enough. I should have been grabbing a tin of tuna and a salad.
"The weight crept up, but I didn't realise how heavy I was until I realised I couldn't run the length of myself. I was cheering on my older sister, Laura, as she crossed the finishing line in the New York marathon in 2006, and made the decision to lose the weight, get fit and come back to do one myself.
"There were people from all walks of life and bands out on the street and anybody and everybody was cheering on the runners. That sense of community spirit just hit me so much and I thought 'I want to do this'.
"I came home and got myself some stylish new training gear, fresh kicks and an attitude that I was gonna do the full 26.2 miles, no problem. I was faced with two problems. The first being, I had never actually performed any form of physical activity other than stretching for the remote.
"I tried to run but I couldn't. It was impossible. I couldn't actually run. I was carrying a lot of weight through years of abuse to my body through eating junk. A friend told me to stick at it and I started kickboxing instead and that alone helped me get the weight off."
With his weight starting to drop, Gary went online to research diets and was completely overwhelmed by the number of popular weight loss programmes being promoted - all with different approaches and all, naturally, claiming miraculous success. He says: "I think I tried them all and it took me a long time to realise that at the end of the day there is no secret diet or pill to help you lose weight, it's about a healthy, balanced food and moderate exercise."
Affable and down-to-earth, the former spark achieved his goal and ran the 2011 New York marathon. The experience was everything he had hoped it would be. "The buzz going round the streets was unbelievable," he says.
"I wanted to stop many times, but the crowds kept me going. The amount of different cultures you experience going through the streets is unbelievable. There is always somebody there to keep you going. At the 13-mile point I had never felt as bad in my life and didn't think I could go on.
"A runner in front of me stopped and said he would walk with me until I could run again. I got to another stage when I couldn't walk and a guy in front dropped all his money and I just ran and lifted it and kept running until I caught up with him. It was an experience of a lifetime."
In the years before fulfilling his ambition in New York, the six-footer from south Belfast tried every fad diet and ended up on the yo-yo bandwagon.
"I would have described myself as a serial dieter," he confesses. "I tried all these different plans, but there just isn't one that suits all. It's all about calories in and calories burned at the end of the day.
"So I started exercising - Olympic weight-lifting - and gradually gained the knowledge, that I hadn't had before, about healthier eating. That's when I got the idea for the restaurant. I couldn't find anything like it anywhere in the world - there's just-juice bars, salad bars, high protein places and so on. No one was pulling together the mix of food I envisaged - good and 'bad'; not all super healthy. I realised the answer is balance."
The flagship Slim's Healthy Kitchen opened in July 2013 on Belfast's Lisburn Road and instantly became a roaring success.
An express version followed in Victoria Square in July 2014 and a third, on the Belmont Road, was launched this year. Along with kale, steamed fish and sweet potatoes, the menu includes lean beef burgers which can be served with a salad or aubergine wrap, instead of a stodgy bun.
Gary says: "I don't believe in diets, as such, and I don't think you should totally deprive yourself if you're trying to eat healthy. I have to watch my weight, but I still have treats.
"I'm a big fan of the Ramore in Portrush and I love having a pizza with the kids. And I much prefer baby potatoes to pasta."
The former DJ returned to New York recently to pop the question to his partner Kate Magill.
From Ballymena originally, Kate looks after marketing and social media for Slim’s. Gary is step-dad to Kate’s daughter Ayda, and the couple have a two-year old son Caleb — who may or may not have been named after the frontman of American rockers The Kings Of Leon.
“I couldn’t confirm that or there’d be trouble!” he laughs. “I am a big music fan and I deejayed for 17 years until last Saturday (at El Divino nightclub). That was my last gig; I decided I needed to spend more quality time with the family, more than anything, and to concentrate on expanding Slim’s.”
Among the 70 people that Gary employs are his brothers Joe (42) and Mark (30), who help run the restaurants.
His father Joe, a retired electrical security contractor, also plays the crucial role — in any catering enterprise — of running errands. And if there’s any legal advice to be had, Gary can turn to his sisters Laura (38) and Sinead (34), who are both solicitors.
“This business drive I have is just me, as a person, but my dad had a very successful company and property portfolio,” he says.
“I’m the middle of five children and my mum, Anne Marie, stayed at home to look after us. Is she a good cook? Well, I have to say she is!”
Touchingly, Slim’s Healthy Kitchen cookbook is dedicated to a former employee, Chris Rice, who died in a collision between a car and a tractor in Saintfield, Co Down, in early October.
The 29-year-old trainee teacher from Killyleagh made juices in-house and the company named a drink in his honour, Carrot Top Smoothie, which was served in cup bearing a picture of the redhead’s face.
For a week, sales of the Carrot Top Smoothie were donated to Macmillan, the cancer charity. The company also held a charity rowing event, as Mr Rice was a keen member of the rowing team at Queen’s University, Belfast.
“Kate was the driving force behind the book, but after Chris died, we wanted to dedicate it to him. He was a ‘juiceologist’, if that’s the right word.
“I suppose you could say that we’re a sort of community at Slim’s — customers and staff — and Chris was part of the family.
“I don’t think I’ll ever meet a more inspiring, genuine and loveable person than Chris; he was a model of positive attitude and perseverance, and an immediate friend to everyone who had the pleasure of meeting him. An all-round top bloke.”
With a recent turnover of around £4m, and an average of 5,000 customers a week, Gary and his team plan to bring Slim’s Kitchen to the well-heeled Baggot Street area of Dublin next year.
He also hopes to bring the franchise to Londonderry and across the UK.
And if that wasn’t enough, he also has plans to expand his Yogland self-service frozen yoghurt bar franchise and to write another cookbook.
So, how big is big enough for Mr Slim? “I have to admit, the bigger the business gets, the more stress there is,” he concludes. “I have big goals and things to do, but I have managed to move the office out of Slim’s on the Lisburn Road, and I have seven people helping me keep on top of things.
“It has been really busy though. I go to the cinema a lot to unwind — Kate detests it — and when I’m under stress I tend to put on weight. So I have to watch out for that!”
Slim’s Healthy Kitchen Choose Balance cook book, £19.99. Available at www.slimskitchen.com
His tips for a healthier lifestyle
■ Don’t be afraid to start — it’s the greatest journey you will ever embark on
■ Don’t be afraid to ask for help — you will be surprised by just how many people want to see you, even as a stranger, better yourself
■ Choices — becoming a better you is about a series of choices, educating and empowering yourself to make the right ones
■ Excuses — as cliched as it sounds, it really is a lot easier to find an excuse. You and excuses are the only thing that stand between you and your goals
■ Enjoy it — don’t do three hours on a treadmill every day just because someone says you have to. Find something you enjoy doing and do it
And what he likes most (and least)
Least liked: Nasty
Liked: James Corden
Least liked: Katie Hopkins
Liked: Nelson Mandela
Least liked: Donald Trump
Type of animal:
Least liked: Cats
Least liked: Anchovies
Liked: Strong black coffee
Least liked: Bovril
I’m like my father, I’m teetotal
Liked: “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”
Least liked: “Gary will sort it ...”