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James Neilly: 'I was 16 when I went from cleaning pots to being a chef'

The 31-year-old has just been appointed head chef at The Potted Hen restaurant in Belfast, yet has no formal catering qualifications, joining Roscoff at 16. Married to Emma, he has two daughters – Isla (3) and new baby Jess

By Jack Brennan+

In a typical day I oversee 350 plates of food at The Potted Hen and manage more than 20 members of staff. Of course, it wouldn't happen nowadays, but I was just 13 when I started working in the kitchens of a restaurant. I was washing pots and I remember watching the chefs and thinking, 'I could do that'.

My first job was in an Indian restaurant and the kitchen smelled fantastic; the spices were new to me and I liked the buzz about it too. I'd ants in my pants when I was younger; I think I still do now, so I really enjoyed the fact that there was an adrenaline rush. I think it was just how the kitchen operated that drew me in. Later, I learned to love the ingredients as well.

I got my first real job by accident. I worked in a restaurant on the Lisburn Road in Belfast. I was 16, just about to leave school and they were short-staffed at Christmas – they gave me an opportunity to go from cleaning pots to being a commis chef. Once Christmas was over, I came in to work on a Saturday and they told me I was then back on the pots, which meant finishing at 12.30am and I had plans that night. I was a bit cheeky back then and I sort of let my feelings be known. The guy who owned the restaurant said, 'If you don't like it, there's the door'. I chose the door.

However I'd no pocket money, and I think I owed my mum £20 as well, so I went for a dander and knocked the door of every restaurant on the way down the road, thinking, I'll be proactive.

Unknown to me, I knocked the door of what was the original Roscoff, the famous restaurant owned by Paul and Jeanne Rankin. I'd no idea who they were but they brought me in to the kitchen. The chef at the time was Aiden Byrne. He asked me if I was willing to work hard and whether I was able to start in the morning. I was – and I stayed with Paul and his company for eight years. I was incredibly privileged to be in there, having no real experience. I really enjoyed working with Paul, who took me under his wing and even gave me the opportunity to do a bit of work on the Celebrity Rankin Challenge show he used to doon BBC TV. I realised at a young age that there were rewards if you were willing to work hard.

Andy Rea, who runs the Mourne Seafood Bar, was also a big inspiration. Indeed, I'd have to say that Andy would be a huge influence on me, even to this day, and I'd contact him for advice regularly.

I started a pastry business but it didn't work out. I owed a couple of quid and realised I had to start at the bottom again. I sat in my flat, cried my eyes out and drank a few bottles of brandy. How did I get through it? I met my wife – it was New Year's Eve, 2007 and I was making and delivering my last batch of desserts for a few days. There was a party in my friend's house and I was keen to finish up and get there. Emma was there, we got chatting and I cooked dinner for us a few days later. We had sirloin steak, mushrooms, green beans and red wine, followed by chocolate brownie and poached pears. Now we're married and Emma keeps me in the kitchen as much as possible!

When I started working as a cookery teacher at the Mourne Seafood Bar in 2008, I'd never really interacted with customers before, but up until my current job that was the most satisfying time I'd had at work. It opened my eyes to what the customers want and brought the romance back in to work a bit.

I absolutely love cooking at home and sometimes a very basic idea for a dish starts at home and then ends up on the menu in the restaurant.

Of course, I'd love to have my own restaurant one day but that will take time. In the meantime I'm happy to concentrate on getting good food on the pass every single day at The Potted Hen, making sure my chefs develop.

Five years from now? I want to make sure my wife and my two beautiful daughters are happy – that's enough for me."

Sharing James' passion for food

Favourite TV show – I really enjoy The Great British Menu; it shows you who is at the stove and who is cooking hard and working hard.

Favourite food – braised veal shin, polenta mash, bread and butter pudding. I've got a very sweet tooth so there would have to be some chocolate in there and some salted caramel.

Advice for cooks at home – don't worry about recipes, they are just guidelines for how somebody likes to cook a particular dish. Cook what you like to eat and pick the best ingredients for it.

The Potted Hen, Edward St, Belfast, tel: 028 9023 4554

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