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Restaurant review: The Balmoral Hotel

Blacks Road, Belfast. Tel 028 9030 1234

By Joris Minne

Ask any wedding planner how easy it is to do their job and they'll look at you sideways. Seriously though, what does it take to order a couple of limos, lunch for 120 and a DJ? Three phone calls, a clip board and an available date, that's what. Or so I thought.

I had this actual conversation a few years ago with a friend who is an events manager, and I nearly got slapped.

I'm reminded of this because Sarah Bell, food service manager in the Balmoral Hotel, and her team took on one of the year's most audacious (and terrifying) events and won.

Events management is one of those invisible functions whose common denominator is a permanent state of red alert, Defcon 3, 10-seconds-left-to-save-the-world disaster avoidance.

Events are humankind's last remaining unpredictable situations, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

If you are not trained to the highest levels of leadership, crisis management and survival in the face of colossal and catastrophic failure, you won't last beyond the limo-booking phase. Which explains why people can now do degrees in event management.

It's a dark art, close to alchemy, and only those with nerves of tungsten should apply.

Thankfully, Sarah - a quantity surveyor by profession - and her team are made of this stuff, and because of their amazing sangfroid, an event which could have easily been derailed at any point in the evening turned out to be a dazzling display of delivery over ambition.

Hotelier John Trainor hosted Feile an Phobail's Balmoral Hotel Pro Master*Chef finals at a dinner attended by more than 200 people. The four finalist chefs included top talents Karl Johansen of the Devenish, Frazer Cunningham from the Fitzwilliam Hotel, Daniel McFarlane from Holohan's Pantry, and Callum Irwin of the Muddler's Club, and each one of them was to deliver a dish to the three finals judges on stage in front of the audience.

Simultaneously, 200 of us were served the same dish (prepared by Balmoral's head chef Damian McGrath and his crew) while MC Sarah Travers reported live from the kitchen via a link relayed to screens in the dining room.

Having a fair idea of the work that goes into the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards, Sports Awards, Property Awards and other events besides (wonderfully managed by my colleagues at Jcomms, ahem), this struck me as incredibly audacious.

Maybe it's me and my lack of ambition, but if anybody came to me with the idea of running a live chef's competition before a paying audience of 200, while Sarah Travers reported live from the kitchen and then magically introduced each chef on stage and engaged in some casual banter with livewire judges including Danny Millar, Danni Barry and Robin Livingstone, while the bar staff kept glasses topped up with expensive wine, I would have told them to wise up.

But this was an impressively class act. It was a display of professionalism by the Balmoral Hotel kitchen and front of house staff which few of us who were there will ever forget and which most of us will use as the standard by which to judge all others.

John Trainor was keen to host the competition in order to highlight the real problem restaurants now face recruiting staff. According to John, there are 2,000 available positions across Ireland for chefs of all grades. I would hazard a guess and say at least the same is the case for front of house staff.

The great news is that while the event is now over (the award having been clinched by Callum Irwin), the rest of us can go back at leisure to the hotel's two restaurants, Lady Anne's and Stix & Stones.

A lunch last week in Lady Anne's confirmed the consistency of quality. The food is good and value for money (scampi from Keenan's, meats from Hannan's), but it's that service which is stand-out. No wonder it was busy on a Tuesday.

The bill

Scampi and fries with salad.....£10.25

Total ............................................£10.25

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